Turf racing at Sheepshead Bay

Today at Belmont, eight fillies and mares will take to the turf for the 57th renewal of the Sheepshead Bay (GII). Sheepshead Bay is a small body of water in the southernmost part of Brooklyn, between the “mainland” and the long, slim jut of land on which Coney Island sits to the west and Brighton Beach to the east; the neighborhood just north shares a name with the bay, and from 1880 – 1910, it was home to a racetrack.

It’s particularly fitting that the Sheepshead Bay is run on the grass, because that track was the site of the first grass course in the United States.  It opened in 1886, with remarkably little notice.

1888 Futurity

The Suburban was the track’s signature race, inaugurated there (as was the Futurity, still run today at Belmont), and it highlighted the opening day card in 1886.  The entries in the Times note the day’s races, including the first running of the Green Grass Stakes, at a mile and a furlong; the race is not specifically marked as being run on the grass.  The reporter writing the advance mentions the expectation of heavy rain during the card, but doesn’t raise the possibility of the Green Grass coming off the turf.

In fact, in the recap, the writer tells us that the rain had a greater deleterious effect on the dirt than on the grass:

…Wednesday’s rain had rendered the main track sticky and lumpy, so that fast time was out of the question.  The new grass track, just inside the dirt track, which was used for the first time in the last race of the day, was, however, benefited by the rain, and looked like a great band of soft green velvet.”  (“Hark ‘Tis the Troubadour”)

Dry Monopole won first Green Grass Stakes; the following year he won the Brooklyn Handicap at Gravesend. Clearly, our good Brooklyn air appealed to him.

Within the month of the opening of the turf course at Sheepshead Bay, the “band of soft green velvet” had fallen from favor with the Times writer.

The grass track at Sheepshead Bay has been a failure, as heretofore noted in these columns.  Training horses on a dirt track and running them on turf could not have been expected to succeed and was not popular as a novelty.  In a couple of years, when the grass track becomes turf in fact, the attempt may be made to convince American horsemen not afflicted with Anglomania that it can be used with safety, but the Jockey Club will be obliged to make “moors and downs” to train upon in the meantime.”  (“Turf Notes”)

The accusation of “Anglomania” was apparently popular in the Times; the same charge was leveled in the paper a couple of weeks earlier, with regard to an element of racing that today we take for granted:

The racing authorities here have been accused of being afflicted with the common disease known as Anglomania, but there is one custom prevalent on the other side of the water that, if copied, would be very popular with racegoers.  It is in parading the horses in front of the grand stand in each race before going to the starting post. This was done by Capt. Connor in the Suburban, and a pretty site it was.  The system in vogue here is unsatisfactory, for as soon as they emerge from the saddling paddock or stable they gallop away to the far side of the track, or from whatever point the start is to take place, and the majority of the spectators have no chance of admiring a well formed thoroughbred in repose. (“Notes of the Turf“)

“Admiring a well formed thoroughbred in repose.”  So he bemoans the lack of a post parade not, apparently, for handicapping reasons, but for aesthetic ones.

So back in 1886, we had the introduction of new surface; complaints about that new surface; and intimations of Anglo-American racing chasms.  It’s nice to see, isn’t it, how far we’ve come?

Today’s Sheepshead Bay will be run at a mile and three eighths, over Belmont’s inner turf course, as grass racing has survived on these shores, despite its early naysayers, for 124 years.  We’re far from Sheepshead Bay, and the Green Grass Stakes is long gone, but Anglomania is, apparently, alive and well in Elmont, N.Y.

View of the Sheepshead Bay Course


Hark ‘Tis the Troubadour.”  New York Times. 11 June 1886.

Notes of the Turf.”  New York Times. 14 June 1886.

The Coney Island Track.” New York Times.  10 June 1886.

Turf Notes.”  New York Times. 28 June 1886.


Coney Island Jockey Club Sheepshead Bay.”  Published 1889.  Source:  The Library of Congress.

The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay:  Sept. 03, 1888.”  Louis Maurer, painted 1889.  Source:  The Library of Congress.

View of the racecourse of the Coney Island Jockey Club situate at Sheepshead Bay Long Island.”  Published 1880.  Source:  The Library of Congress.

I stumbled across this article, “Dry Monopole and Turf Racing,” at the Albany Law School Government Law Center; it provides interesting commentary on both subjects in its title.

7 thoughts on “Turf racing at Sheepshead Bay

  1. Hi Teresa. Technical point. Brighton Beach is the middle part of what once actually was an island before they covered over the tidal creek that separated it from the “mainland” and really doesn’t start for a block or so to the west of the bay. The part that borders the bay from the west/south side is now called Manhattan Beach. Know it’s a bit picky, but I’m writing you from there right now 🙂

    • There is no such thing as too technical, especially when it comes to Brooklyn. Thanks for the clarification, and I hope that you’re looking at the water!

  2. You know how I love these pieces Teresa. Those fabulous old photos, the different way with words the writers of the day had, etc. Aesthetics being mentioned is interesting as well. Harkens back to when people got all dressed up to see & be seen at events such as the races.

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