Belmont Park, September 1910

“…Belmont Park was built for the future as well as for the present…”

Those words were written in May of 1905, on opening day of Belmont Park.  The new racetrack garnered a staggering number of column inches by today’s standards; while commentary on the new track was somewhat mixed – concerns were raised about the clockwise route the horses took around the track, and about the wind that tore across the immense grounds – Belmont impressed and awed those who turned out on that first day.

Five years and four months later – 100 years ago this month – the future for which Belmont had been built came to an abrupt end: racing in New York State ended when the Saratoga meet closed at the end of August.  The downstate tracks declined their allotted racing dates in the face of ever-strengthening anti-gambling laws in the state, and New York racing was about to enter nearly three years of dark days.

New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes had worked for years to outlaw gambling in the state, and the final nail in racing’s coffin was the act that held the directors and owners of the tracks liable for any violation of anti-gambling laws on the tracks themselves.

Coverage of racing in September of 1910 was understandably apocalyptic in tone: venerable racing stables, such as those of Harry Payne Whitney and Sam Hildreth, relocated abroad; James R. Keene sold most of his racing stock. Their pessimism and pragmatism made sense; as the Times noted, “Seldom indeed has racing returned after the tracks have once been closed,” going on to list numerous tracks and jurisdictions that had once enjoyed popular and racing success, but which could not recover after having been closed.

The Belmont Park of 1905 covered a little more than a square mile; one imagines that then, as now, it was an attractive, valuable, and coveted piece of real estate.  Racing in 1910, even without the cessation, would not have moved to Belmont after Saratoga; in general, racing returned to Belmont in October for a short meet, but even that was not on the cards in 1910, because of another event scheduled to take place there in late October.  In September of 1910, attention at beautiful Belmont Park was not on horses but on…airplanes.

“Belmont Park Now an Aviation Field,” read the Times headline on September 25, 1910.

Belmont Park is now ready for aviators. After six weeks’ work the race course has been transformed into one of the finest aviation fields in the world. The posts, rails, trees, and other obstructions have been removed, and the field resembles a well-kept grass plot…The international [aviation] meet, which will be held Oct. 22 to 30, promises to be the greatest sporting event ever held in America.

The old betting ring underneath the grand stand has also undergone a transformation. It has been changed into an exhibition hall, brilliantly lighted and decorated, and will be occupied by exhibitors who will display every manner of thing connected with outdoor sports.

As Belmont Park underwent its transformation from racetrack to airfield, the racing industry was preparing an assault on the laws that had put it out of business; while noting that “many eminent lawyers” opined that the anti-gambling laws would not stand up, the Times also admitted that “at best it will be a tedious job to rehabilitate the great sport.”

One wonders whether the horsemen – Mr. Belmont among them – ever considered that racing would disappear for nearly three years. One wonders whether he, and the other men of the Westchester Racing Association, which oversaw Belmont Park then, considered permanently re-developing the track that bore his name. And one – at least this one – is profoundly grateful that by some miracle, when racing came back to New York in May of 1913, the track that it came back to was beautiful Belmont Park, somehow, after three dormant years, still standing and ready for racing.

For more information about and photos of the “aviation meet” at Belmont, check our Keith McCalmont’s Triple Dead Heat.

Articles cited and consulted

Belmont Park Now An Aviation Field.” New York Times, September 25, 1910.

Belmont Park Open, Metropolitan A Tie.”  New York Times, May 5, 1905.

Racing Review of Season Just Closed.” New York Times, September 4. 1910.

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