He worked in New York racing for nearly 60 years. He wrote a seminal book on horse racing, American Racing, 1866-1921. He created the Experimental Free Handicap. But finding information on Walter S. Vosburgh is about as easy as tracking down a race chart from 1953.
He’s got his own race, the Vosburgh, run since 1940. He was one of the first members of the Jockey Club, there when it was formed in 1894. He was, according to his New York Times obituary, “internationally known.”
But the guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. And searches of various databases and archives turn up little beyond the weights he assigned to various horses in various races. We can find out much more, much more easily about the horses who have won his race than we can about the man for whom it is named.
So what do we know of Mr. Walter S. Vosburgh?
According to that same obituary:
He “enjoyed a longer connection with New York racing than any other man.”
He died on September 11th, 1938, and the last day of racing he attended was opening day of Saratoga that year.
He hesitated to call horses “great,” but held Sysonby, Henry of Navarre, and Salvator in high esteem. He thought Man o’War a “good horse,” and Gallant Fox, 1930 Triple Crown winner, “the best of a bad lot of three-year-olds.”
He had a specific and deliberate philosophy about weights:
But to Mr. Vosburgh a horse with class must take up weight. A champion must carry the responsibility of his championship by running and winning with what many regarded as a crushing impost. He never was one to treat a champion lightly in order that the champion might be induced to run as a stimulant to the gate receipts.
Despite being, apparently, a well-liked man, his work did not necessarily garner him the affection of horsemen: In November of 1903, a Mr. Louis V. Bell “verbally attacked” Vosburgh, which “resulted in Mr. Vosburgh’s calling on officials of the Jockey Club, who were present, to protect him from personal violence…”
Mr. Bell, owner of a stable of horses, was unhappy because he believed that Vosburgh was assigning them weight under which they could not possibly win. Mr. Bell was, apparently, not alone:
…it brought to light a great amount of dissatisfaction with the adjustments of weights in handicaps, and caused the present method of “one man power” in arranging handicaps to be condemned by a number of prominent horse owners.
The Times article notes that Bell was one of the “heavy bettors” among Eastern horse owners, but declines to make any connection between his gambling proclivity and his unhappiness with Mr. Vosburgh.
Perhaps ahead of his time, he unwittingly ventured into the incendiary fans vs. gamblers conversation, as his proposed handicapping system led the Times to declare,
Every one who goes to a race course for the purpose of being entertained by the racing would rather witness a race among a comparatively small field of first flight horses than an event contested by a top-heavy field of ‘cheap skates’…
In late December of 1926, as he was hard at work preparing the handicaps for the Met Mile the following spring, he “recommended handicapping [the race] as a Winter sport for amateurs who fancy trying to outdo the professional handicappers,” anticipating the contemporary fervor to compare one’s own selections to those published in the papers.
He survived for four more years, and the paper ran an appropriately detailed and laudatory obituary…but here, too, poor Mr. Vosburgh has been denied his due, as the archive is not only cobbled together, obscuring some of the words, but it’s incomplete: whoever scanned this item left out a good part of it, and readers must abort their research only partway through the article.
He worked in New York racing for nearly 60 years. But thanks to the Vosburgh, initiated two years after the handicapper’s death, New York racing has been without a Vosburgh in only two of the last 130 years or so. Given his legacy, even that isn’t quite enough.
Sources cited and consulted
“Select Handicaps May Be Conducted.” New York Times. January 20, 1924.
“Turf Official Assailed.” New York Times. November 3, 1903.
“Vosburgh Improving.” New York Times. February 3, 1934.
“Vosburgh Invites Amateur Ratings.” New York Times. December 26, 1926.
“Vosburgh Seriously Ill.” New York Times. February 2, 1934.
“Walter Vosburgh, Turf Leader, Dead.” New York Times. September 12, 1938.