Good-bye, Jamaica…

Among the trio of Grade 1 races on Saturday at Belmont is the Jamaica, named for Jamaica, Queens, for 56 years the home of Jamaica Racetrack.

Opened in 1903, Jamaica was the odd track out in 1959, when management of racing here consolidated under the New York Racing Association, first known as the Greater New York Association.  The Association ran four tracks: Belmont, Aqueduct, Jamaica, and Saratoga. Jamaica was deemed the expendable one, and it was razed to become a housing development.

The first races were run at Jamaica on April 27, 1903; the Excelsior was the feature on the one-mile track, which was opened without much fanfare and the usual extravagant praise in the racing press.  Rather quickly, though, questions were raised about the new track’s surface:

The official time announced for races run on the new Jamaica race course yesterday caused horsemen to open their eyes in astonishment. When the smart three-year-old Plater finished six furlongs in a gallop, an easy winner of the Columbus Stakes, in 1:12 4-5, or within a fraction of a second of the world record on a circular track, there was some speculation as to whether the new course might not be a trifle short, or the watches of the timers a little slow, for it seemed next to impossible for even so good a horse as Plater to run so fast over a track that was deep in dust and so soft that it gave way under the hoofs of the horses, letting them go through the top soil without affording good foothold.

One person who might have been able to answer questions about the track’s surface and how it was playing was trainer and clocker Eddie Hodgson, the man who, according to a 1959 article in the New York Times called “Final Racing Card at Jamaica…”, was present at both the opening and closing of the old track:

Eddie Hodgson, a former trainer and now a clocker, is one of the few around who was at Jamaica when it opened.

Dapper as ever, he was there in a reminiscent mood yesterday.

“This place has been like home to me,” he said. “Losing it is like losing a real good pal. We used to walk horses here from Sheepshead Bay and Gravesend tracks, run ‘em in the afternoon and walk them back at night.”

If it’s true that Hodgson was there when Jamaica opened, he worked on New York race tracks for more than 60 years. In 1963, Steve Cady profiled him for the Times; Hodgson was 79 then, and still clocking horses at Aqueduct.  (And he was apparently rather a versatile guy, appearing that year on “What’s My Line” and giving the panel a “sound thrashing.”)

Hodgson wasn’t alone in feeling nostalgic about Jamaica’s closing; James Nichols struck an elegiac note in the Times….

To the great majority of local racegoers, it’s pretty sad, too, because Jamaica has spawned more $2 horse players than the famed Blue Grass region of Kentucky has produced horses.

Not everyone felt quite so attached to the old place, though. M.R. Werner in Sports Illustrated offered a cooler opinion in May of 1959:

Jamaica, a strictly concrete, utilitarian race track, has always been more popular with $2 bettors, who sometimes bet 20s and 50s, than beautiful Belmont or the old Aqueduct, now being replaced by a dream track. At Aqueduct the salt breezes cooled off horseplayers now and then. At Belmont bettors had a grove of trees to sit under between races. But Jamaica, more constricted and looking like a betting factory, was never marred by such frills. Jamaica represented pure, pristine greed. It was always as ugly as sin. There was no place to sit down under trees. In fact, it was hard to find a tree, and the only place to sit was in the 17,500 seats in the grandstand and clubhouse. That never kept people away. The largest number of people ever to go to a New York track was at Jamaica on Memorial Day of 1945—64,670 paid, turnstile-registered patrons.

In his 2010 book about housing in New York City, Peter Eisenstadt offers a more measured assessment of the track and its importance in New York’s sporting landscape:

And yet, there was nothing second-rate about Jamaica Racetrack. In the early 1950s, with almost two million customers a year, the Jamaica Racetrack was the most popular sports venue in NYC, with a higher paid attendance than any of the city’s three baseball teams.

Jamaica was the Aqueduct of its time, and Aqueduct, just a few miles away, was the “dream track” under construction, receiving millions of dollars in upgrades, considered when it re-opened the finest sporting facility in the world.

Jamaica saw its share of New York racing history: Man o’War and Native Dancer won there; Morvich trained there for the 1922 Kentucky Derby; trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was based there and Seabiscuit won there.  No doubt Allen Jerkens could tell us stories of the years that he spent there.

William R. Conklin wrote Jamaica’s eulogy in the Times (noting that when the track opened in 1903, grandstand admission was $2, a dollar less than it is now at Belmont and Saratoga), writing with affection of the track known variously as “The Yard,” “The Factory,” “Foot Sore Downs,” and “The Meat Grinder.”  Ouch.

Jockey Eddie Arcaro, who won the 1957 Wood Memorial at Jamaica on Bold Ruler, couldn’t wait to get to the new, beautiful, modern Aqueduct.

“[Jamaica] doesn’t deserve any monument when it closes. The old jockeys’ room here was pretty tough. When Aqueduct opens on Sept. 14 we’ll get a new one and we’ll be glad to get it.”

April 13, 1946, left to right in the dressing room at the Jamaica Race Track: Johnny Longden, (Count Fleet, 1943), Wayne Wright, (Shut Out, 1942), Con McCreary, (Pensive Eddie Arcaro, Jimmy Stout, and Ira Hanford. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Said Conklin of the closing day crowd:

The hard core of 18,000 expanded to a sweltering 34,521 for the final session that ended fifty-six years of racing history. Of these, the great majority were sorry to see the old track reach the end of the road.

August 1 1959, Last Day of Racing at Jamaica Track. Eddie Arcaro looks out of window in Jockey House with Starter George Cassidy, who started here in 1929. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Also check out Mary Forney’s and Kevin Martin’s posts on old racetracks, where I found some of these images. The racing photo is from Sporting News Illustrated, 1905; the photos of the old Jamaica track are from Corbis and are copyrighted.

Sources cited and consulted

Cady, Steve. “Hodgson Times Horses and Laughs at Time,” New York Times, April 24, 1963.

Conklin, William R. “Final Racing Card at Jamaica Stirs Memories of 56-Year History of Track,” New York Times, August 2, 1959.

Eisenstadt, Peter.  Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families and New York City’s Great Experiment In Integrated Housing. 2010, Cornell University. (Google Books)

Fast Time on New Track,” New York Times, April 29, 1903.

New Track Opens To-Day.” New York Times, April 27, 1903.

Nichols, Joseph C. “Babu First As Jamaica Closes; Jamin Takes Trot;” New York Times, August 2, 1959.

Nichols, Joseph C.  “Sword Dancer Is Odds-on Favorite in Brooklyn Handicap at Jamaica Today,New York Times, August 1, 1959. (Preview of closing day card)

Werner, M.R. “Workmen’s Compensation,” Sports Illustrated, May 4, 1959.

Whitney’s Colt Victor.” New York Times, April 28, 1903.  (Opening day recap)

10 thoughts on “Good-bye, Jamaica…

  1. While obviously many were saddened by the closing of Jamaica, the money invested in Aqueduct warranted the closing of the Jamaica track, though if they had known Belmont was going to be condemned as it was in the early 1963 or that year-round racing would become a reality in the 1970s, they might have held on to Jamaica for a few more years or undergone a major renovation of Jamaica to allow it to perhaps first take some of the dates vacated by Belmont from 1963-’67 and later be the winter track in New York, allowing Aqueduct to keep the two turf courses it had prior to the winterization of “The Dream Track” after the 1975 season.

    How long they could have kept Jamaica, especially in the environment we have now would have been a completely different story.

  2. Walt,

    Good points, indeed. I never worked Jamaica, but I certainly remember the in-house agony of NYRA’s decision to convert its Aqueduct outer, or “Main”, turf course to a Winterized dirt racing surface. That corporate convulsion was triggered by the total/complete/unremitting summersault our regular Aqueduct Main dirt track — Aqueduct’s only dirt surface at the time — performed during a warming spell that followed an average deep-freeze series of racing days; I guess during the month of January of 1975 to quote your year of reference.

    The next morning, dramatically warmer than the night before, our treasured Aqueduct Main Track base was suddenly seen atop the cushion, all akilter and peppered with ponds of ice melt. We were suddenly faced with the immediate CANCELATION of racing until our primary dirt racing surface could be fixed — to keep the Off Track Betting business intact!

    I think we were closed for a week during the transformation, but Aqueduct’s now salt-infused former Main Turf Course/brand new Winter Track performed pretty well for decades thereafter.

    Would we have experienced better ocnditions at a continued Jamaica meet for Winter Racing? I don’t know. But I do think we would have caught Hell for the egg-shaped Jamaica layout as that particular detail with one tight turn might have compromised New York’s winter horses. Don’t know; just thinking out loud.

  3. Obviously, I was not around when the Jamaica track was, but I suspect especially if they knew they were going to be racing in the winter over it, the track would have undergone a major re-shaping to make it conform better for winter racing, which obviously was not a consideration in the days the track was actually open.

    As for Aqueduct, given we as it is race much more over the inner track as opposed to the main oval (twice as much in fact), I wonder if it’s time to seriously consider moving the inner surface to the main track at the Big A (something I’ve actually mentioned before in a number of places), especially given how in recent years the current main track has apparently become much more fragile and the inner track is widely considered the safest of the surfaces in New York anyway. That would allow for seven-furlong races as well as one-turn miles to continue to be contested through the winter, as well as converting the current inner track back into a one-mile turf course.

    The other part of doing this and making it worth the expense of doing so is something that might seem sacrilege to some, but would make good business sense in my opinion: With the current inner track surface moved to the main track and the current inner track itself converted back to a turf course, the third part would be to then (building a tunnel with ramps underneath the tracks to make this possible as well) convert the existing turf course into a seven-eighths of a mile Harness oval that would be the widest in all of Harness Racing, allowing for the carding of races with 12 starters across. It would allow Aqueduct to have racing in the late summer and early fall after The Meadowlands completes their harness season, possibly becoming part of a circuit with The Meadowlands that would keep top harness horses in New York much of the year and give Harness Racing a much-needed boost (Yonkers, while it does currently have the highest purses in Harness Racing is a track a lot of top horses avoid because many trainers don’t like racing on half-mile ovals), especially if a new harness meet at Aqueduct were also able to acquire many of the former Roosevelt Raceway stakes and play host to those over such an oval. This if possible could even include where in late fall, Aqueduct is racing both thoroughbreds (daytime) and trotters (nights) at the same time much like Woodbine does during the fall months.

    Just some thoughts from someone who actually grew up on both thoroughbred and harness racing.

  4. I worked the Spring Meeting in 1959 at Jamaica. I had finished at Santa Anita and Mr Walger said to come East as he was going to be short some clerks that were still in Florida and Hot Springs. I worked until they came back and then left for Golden Gate where a friend got me 5 daily papers that needed a handicapper. Now retired after 41 years
    in the mutuels and handicapping. Still playing the races and entering handicapping contests. Still love the game !

  5. Walt and Marshall, not sure if you ever saw this post I wrote about the inner track…which doesn’t really address whether Jamaica might have survived, but it does give the history.

    Merwin, how great to hear from you! Thanks for sharing your story with us. Where are you these days? Still in California?

  6. Teresa,

    Your excellent piece on Aqueduct’s Inner Winter Track (“this post” mentioned above) corrects my memory by more accurately specifying the track’s introduction date. I remember the details of Joe King’s recitation for the gradual changeover and the jockey incident that forced that change; the loamy-upheaval cataclysm preceded the changeover and must have served Final Notice for repairs to be managed during the off season that year.

    Would that NYRA could have kept Jamaica Racetrack in operation, if only for winter racing, certain maintenance expenses could have been saved. But, then, we would have had to winterize the clubhouse and separated grandstand of that track, obviously far more complicated an undertaking than slapping so much glass over the front side of the new Aqueduct Race Track.

    Nothing about Thoroughbred horseracing in the northeast is ever easy!

  7. Teresa:

    I did read your article on the inner track last year and I do remember why that was done. At the time, they needed to do that because there was no way a lot of owners would have accepted running on a winterized track in warmer weather, especially when Aqueduct would run later (through mid-May as late as 10 years ago) and start earlier (mid-October), causing the turf to be worn out by mid-November at a time when turf racing wasn’t as big a deal.

    That all said, times have changed. With what seems to be a much greater emphasis on safety than even in 1975-’76, we now race on the inner track through the end of March as opposed to going back to the main as early as March 9 like we used to and we also now race much earlier and later at Belmont (nearly an additional month in fact between the two meets even taking out the additional time at Saratoga in Belmont’s case), with Belmont starting in late April and staying there through the end of October, not even returning to Aqueduct until Breeders’ Cup Friday (and that will be even later if Belmont does land the Breeders’ Cup in the future).

    Given we now more often than not see turf racing extend PAST the end of the main track season at Aqueduct and also start much earlier than it used to (given we only are at Aqueduct in the case this year until April 23) AND the fact we use the inner track as it is two-thirds of the time we are at Aqueduct, perhaps it’s time to jettison the traditional main track and replace that with the existing inner track surface (again, widely considered to be the safest in New York), which would allow again for something many patrons in New York want in the winter, that being seven-furlong and one-turn mile races. Even if the harness track I proposed were not part of it, rebuilding the inner track back into a one-mile turf course (since in this scenario, the inner track surface would now be the main track used throughout) would make sense since it potentially would allow for grass racing to continue all the way to the Christmas break and with breaks in the weather even beyond that into early January before it then does freeze too much to continue grass racing. With turf racing clearly much preferred among horsemen these days, having two grass courses at Aqueduct and an inner track surface moved to the main track likely makes more sense now, even if some traditionalists would be upset about the (current) inner track surface used for the Wood Memorial and a few other major races every year. Besides, we have had temps in the 80s in March and the inner track has held up in warm weather, so I don’t see why it would not hold up in warm weather in April when we do get such if it became the main track surface.

  8. My grandparents Luigi and Grace Verratti owned Terry’s Inn at the main gate of Jamaica Race Track! They are both gone he died way before he actually did it was the day they closed the gates of Jamaica Race Track. It was a family owned we all worked there we parked cars filled grated cheese bags for take out orders, i bet my first horse when I was 8. I failed in math but I could sure read the racing form and do the figures Uncle Roger was a mutual clerk he would always chase away but he always gave in meet by the bathroom. We lost more then we won, But one day we hit it so big on a long shot we didn’t know were to hide the money! We went to St. Catherine”s of Sienna we were taught no gambling! If any one can please tell me how to get my hands on any pics I would be so grateful we lost all of ours when we had a flood in the basement. I remember my grandfather had the five of us sit in front of the bulldozers it was on the front of one pf the newspaper never could locate it. I am retired and living in Florida but I will always be a Queens Girl from NY. My name Laura Sutphin my dads dutch family came from the Netherlands the Von Zutphin. So many good memories we had money I found out when I was 15 of age.

  9. I do believe Harvey Pack tells the story of watching the races at Jamaica from the roof of the track’s grandstand. I don’t know if this was accepted viewing, but I heard from someone else that you could go up to the roof to watch the races. I only remember the results in the newspapers from Jamaica. Way too young to bet at the time, and no one in my immediate family was a horseplayer.

    I remember the stories when it closed and remember the construction of the housing project, Rochdale Village, which it me is an unfortunate name to choose for somewhere you expect people to want to live in New York City..

    Did Jamaica have a turf course? Probably did. In the grandstand at Aqueduct in the 60s there was a ‘Jamaica Room.’

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