A Wintry Renewal of the Toboggan

Originally this race was run over the memorable six-furlong straight course at Morris Park, then the newest and most elaborate of Metropolitan racing plants—which was a bit down grade and for that reason nicknamed the “toboggan slide”.  (sic) (Hervey)

It’s fitting that a race called the Toboggan is going to be run on a day where we can only hope that the mercury will reach 20 degrees by post time, though as Hervey notes above, the name of the race has nothing to do with winter sports. For most of its life, the Toboggan was run on a circuit without winter racing, and it got its name from the slope of the course over which it was run at Morris Park in what was then Westchester County, now the Bronx.  From 1890 to 1896, the race was called the Toboggan Slide.

The Morris Park Racecourse opened in 1889, the creation of John Morris and Leonard Jerome, whose own namesake track in the Bronx would shortly be closed.  The topography of the landscape proved challenging in the track’s construction, but would serve to give the course its distinctive slope:

…the expense that would have been incurred in removing a solid table of rock prevented the obliteration of that “hill” in the course which has aroused so much criticism. As it is, this inequality of ground involves an ascent which has been facetiously dubbed “the Matterhorn,” and a descent in the main course…The hill again crops up in the Eclipse course, which is a straight six furlongs, or, if not exactly straight, having so slight an elbow in it that no horse can gain any material advantage through its existence. But in this case the inequality of the ground is entirely in favor of the horses, presenting a considerable decline. This, of course, accounts to a great extent for the many phenomenally fast times which have been made here.  (Trevelyan)

And indeed, in the very first running of the Toboggan Slide, in 1890, August Belmont – whose own namesake track wouldn’t open for another fifteen years (and when it did, the Toboggan would make its new home there) – ran a filly named Fides who set a course record of 1:10 1/4, a “phenomenal time,” according to one race report. She broke the old record by three-quarters of a second.

According to Hervey, the Toboggan Handicap was the “first stake of national importance for sprinters in America”; he called its list of winners “a sort of honor-roll of our ‘speed marvels.’”

When the Toboggan moved to Belmont in 1905, it was run on the “Futurity course,” a six-furlong straightaway from right to left in front of the grandstand and clubhouse, as when Belmont opened, horses ran in the “English way,” or clockwise.  Kevin Martin at the excellent racing history site Colin’s Ghost has an image of this course in a post about the Futurity; scroll down to see it.

A 1959 article in Daily Racing Form notes the history of the Toboggan:

From 1905 through 1921, it was run over the old straight course, an extension of the front stretch, at Belmont Park [noted above as the Futurity course]. From 1922 through 1927, the Toboggan was run on the main course, shifting to the then new Widener course in 1928, where it stayed until this year, except for the 1941 renewal, which was on the main track.

The Widener was the diagonal straightaway that cut across the main track at Belmont; Eight Thirty, owned and bred by George Widener, won the Toboggan when it was run across his owner’s eponymous course in 1940; he won it again the next year when it was run on the main track.

Today’s horses, unlike their historical Toboggan counterparts, won’t run up and down a hilly course, nor will they run on a straightaway. And given the weather here over the last couple of weeks, and today’s forecast, they might, perhaps, find useful a real, and not a metaphorical, Toboggan if they want to set any course records.

The Museum of the City of New York offers several images of Morris Park, though none that I can definitely label as a view of the hilly course.  These photos all come from the Museum’s collection, unless otherwise noted, and are from New York’s Byron Company.  Click on them to enlarge.  And thanks to Jim Barber for pointing out in the comments that yes, I will indeed be appearing on Sunday morning on Capital OTB, on Trackfacts with Tom Amello and Nick Kling, around 10 a.m.  Thanks for the plug, Jim!

entrance to Morris Park grandstand, from the Library of Congress

Morris Park grandstand

Sources and further reading

A Great Race for Fides,”  New York Times, June 1, 1890.

Morris Park Race Track, the entrance to grandstand” (photograph). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, circa 1903.

Harwood, Bob. “New York: Comely Stakes Provided Excellent Contest.” May 8, 1959.

Morris Park Races” (poster). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Fred T. Alder, circa 1895.

Museum of the City of New York, images of Morris Park.

Hervey, John. American Race Horses: 1940. New York: The Sagamore Press, 1940.

Sliding Through History,” Brooklyn Backstretch post on the 1893 Toboggan. March 8, 2008.

Toboggan stakes page at New York Racing Association.

Trevelyan, Francis. “The American Turf: The Race-Courses of the East.” Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Sports, Travel and Recreation. Vol XX. April-September, 1891. pp. 129-140.  (via Google Books)

11 thoughts on “A Wintry Renewal of the Toboggan

  1. A canary told me that Miss Teresa will be a phone guest on a TV program this Sunday. I’ll be in church but I have set the DVR. 🙂

  2. Very nice historical reflection!

    To make the race resonate with current fans it’s worth nothing that Jerry & Ann Moss owned the 1985 winner of the Toboggan with “Fighting Fit”. Trained by the late Bobby Frankel and with The Mig up!

    The past winners connections are some of racing’s absolute who’s who. Weidener, Phipps, numerous arms of the Whitney family, Claiborn stables, Hobeu stables, Belair stables, et al. About the only name I don’t see is Mellon’s Rokeby having taken a win.

  3. Jim, I’m going to have to hit 12:15 mass instead of 10 because of it.

    Thanks, Glimmerglass. So true about the regal nature of many Toboggan winners…I’m glad that it’s retained graded stakes status, even though it’s hardly a marquee race for sprinters anymore.

  4. I hadn’t realized that one of my favorite grass horses, Tentam, won the Toboggan back in 1973, and the mud-loving Due Diligence splashing home in ’76 is a happy memory.
    Tentam was a pretty small racehorse, but the smallest I ever saw was Anono. Sadists can watch them both get bullied by Big Red in the Man ‘O War:

  5. WAY too cold for me here in the Arctic Circle, oops I mean NJ, to think about going to the track anytime soon!

    Loved your recent cranky post, I couldn’t agree more about the HOY craziness.

    PS. The unnamed chestnut colt with Pletcher finally has a name! California.

  6. For much of the Toboggan’s life, it was run in the summer. I’m not sure exactly when it changed to the winter, but the dates on all the races that I looked at were warm weather.

    Thanks for the video, DJLoo.

    And thanks for the update, Linda…but California? Really?

  7. The Eclipse course at Morris Park had a full 45 feet of steady descent from start to finish. Readers of a July 22, 1889 NY Tribune piece were introduced to the new grounds and were informed that the course was “sharply undulating”. Perhaps it had sections that gave it the appearance of leveling before the next decline. As seen in your photographs, the grounds between the main stretch and the stands rose again, heightening the effect of the course’s plunge upon the fans. The Tribune reporter, in long-forgotten anticipation of the Eclipse’s nickname: “The lawn is steep enough for a toboggan slide. It is a hundred feet wide, and 25,000 men could stand there and see the races without getting in each other’s way.”

    [The track’s full configuration of courses survives in a 1900 topographical survey of the Bronx. See sheets 17 and 18 of the Planning Grid of the Office of the Topographical Bureau of the Bronx, available in your browser via New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery. The imaginary roads of the planners – many never built – make it a bit difficult to see the courses, but you’ll find the kind of detailed accuracy that most street maps don’t furnish.]

    It must have offered a remarkable sight: a full field flying straight at the clubhouse from start to finish. It was a wide course, too. Twenty started in the 1890 edition of the Toboggan, despite the mighty Tenny scratching in lieu of carrying 140 pounds. Geraldine, a five-year-old mare, ran gamely to come second. An eye-catching loner on the extreme outside all the way down the hill, she was unable to deny the favorite’s charge up the inside. The spectacle of the runners, with the full width of the course between them, reminds us of another delightful aspect of straight-course racing.

    Geraldine, denied the victory, remains nonetheless forever connected to the famous course. It was she who won the first race run at the track, on August 20, 1889. She took a quarter second off the standing record in the process, completing her five-furlong flight down the straight in 1:00 flat.

    The straight course was also at the center of a great tempest in a teapot, although when the gigantic egos and terrifically concentrated wealth attaching to them are considered, it seemed possible to get scalded even from a distance. In 1889 the environs of the track were in wilderness beyond New York City’s limits, but that didn’t stop some of the power boys in the American Jockey Club (Belmont, with his Jerome Park crowd) trying to make life miserable for the New York Jockey Club (Jerome and Morris). Most of the details we’ll leave for another time, but the upshot of the dispute involved the American Jockey Club pressing buttons in City Hall and getting its occupants to declare that a puny section of the mighty new track infringed upon Gotham’s ambitions to someday in the future produce what they were already grandly calling the Bronx and Pelham Parkway. Lawyers sprung into action to deny Morris Park its opening day, but when the dust settled, the New York Jockey Club prevailed, and were allowed to keep the precious sliver of property where horses would line up for their run down the Eclipse course.

    Thanks, Teresa, for the latest in your lively examination of the fascinating foundations of our great sport.

  8. Your third Byron photo is a perfect selection. The camera is centered directly up the Eclipse course. What it lacks in clarity can be completely discounted, because this shot reveals so much. Unfortunately, it’s worse on the eyes than peering at the past performances.

    The steeplechase race in progress shows a strung-out field in the stretch of the so-called “Over the Hill” course. The leaders are punching it out just a couple of jumps to the finish line, while the also-rans are being ridden accordingly. The race was probably sent all over the property, as confirmed when using the enlargement device on the museum website. You can see the second last fence if you look through the judges stand, and can see the last fence with a horse ready to spring across.

    The field looks like it was directed across the Eclipse course in at least two places, where sets of rails have been erected to funnel the field along the line of the steeplechase.

    Now let’s look more closely at the course that gave the race its name. Note the generous width of the course and how field would remain in direct line of sight for railbirds at the finish line. In the dusty distance the Eclipse course emerges from deep in the woods well beyond the main course, but we can use the photo to “see” its line. If you look in the distance directly over the bowler hat on the gent standing on a chair with his right hand on hip, you can see a large building of at least two stories. The Eclipse course crosses the main course in the general area of the house, but well in front of the house. The house stands back a bit from the point where the back stretch ends, and at its back lies Williamsbridge Rd. The road, running north-south, marked the property line of Morris Park, and is still there today. After running behind our building, it continues to the northern end of the property behind the line of trees, and “squeezes” the line of the Eclipse course at the point where it meets and crosses what later would be developed as Pelham Parkway. The course must bear a bit “left” from our perspective to accommodate Williamsbridge Rd, offer a commodious space for large fields, and yet maintain as straight a line as possible.

    Horses going the full six furlongs would break with the north end of the property immediately behind, and with Williamsbridge Rd just a few short strides to the left of the inside rail. In the first quarter mile, the course followed a minor, gradual bend to the right, after which it crossed the beginning of the Over the Hill course’s far turn. The bend was probably no more discernible than many of the chutes around the country that do not align perfectly with the stretch to which they form an extension. From the point of intersection with the main course, it was a dead straight line cascading to the bottom of the hill, but not before crossing the far turn of the Withers course. The Withers course departed from the back stretch much earlier than the Over the Hill course, and spared runners the demanding “up hill and down” affair of the far turn on the Over the Hill.

    It’s a suitable time to note that the Over the Hill course featured a chute of its own, allowing for ten-furlong, one-turn, races — a sensational departure for an American race course. It was the Over the Hill course that was used for the eleven-furlong Belmont Stakes.

    I apologize for going on at length in dual posts, but this page was sort of an inspiration. I’d failed to closely examine the shot of the race before posting the first time, otherwise I’d have edited a bit. Hope you don’t mind.

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