On this weekend when a team that plays in New Jersey will be nominally representing New York in the Super Bowl, it seems only fitting that a race named for a man whose racing life was based in the Garden State will be run at Aqueduct. Like the New York Giants, David Withers got his start in New York and lived here for most of his life, but his professional legacy was made in New Jersey.
Withers was born in 1822 in New York City; he and his family lived downtown on Greene Street. When his father married his mother, the couple was given a cottage by the bride’s father as a wedding present. According to Withers’ obituary, the cottage was on “the outskirts of town” and “given up as a place of residence and sold because it was considered too far from the business center to be desirable.” No, the cottage wasn’t on Long Island or in Westchester, or even across the river in Brooklyn. It stood in what is now Union Square.
Withers worked in banking and in the ferry business, and he lived for a time in Louisiana, where he owned cotton plantations. His business and land interests in both the north and south apparently made the Civil War something of a delicate time for him, so he left the country and spent the years of “the rebellion” (the Times’ word, not mine) in Paris. His obituary says that when he returned after the war, he sold his Southern interests and concentrated on business and racing in the New York area.
Deeply invested, financially and emotionally, in racing, Withers was a leader in the sport. He was a director of the American Jockey Club and is said to have been “the acknowledged head of the American turf.” He served as Chairman of the Board of Control of Racing (precursor to the Jockey Club) and was a member of the New-York and Coney Island Jockey Clubs.
But Withers is probably most closely associated with racing in New Jersey: in 1878 he was one of a group that purchased Monmouth Park, and his racing and breeding operation, Brookdale Farm, was located near West Long Branch in New Jersey. During an 1891 renovation of Monmouth, Withers was called the “chief moving spirit of the Monmouth Park Association” and was said to have “personally supervised all work at the park… [he] is at the track nearly every pleasant day” (“Improvements at Monmouth”). His New York Times obituary said that much of Monmouth’s “present magnificence” could be attributed to him.
Withers established his Brookdale Farm in 1876, and he was said to visit it every weekend from his home in Manhattan. Following Withers’ ownership, the farm was also in the hands of James R. Keene, William C. Whitney, Harry Payne Whitney, and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (husband of Marylou). A 1933 New York Times article detailed the “immortals of the turf” that had been bred at Brookdale. In 1943, what was left of the farm was sold and converted to a dairy farm.
Withers died suddenly in 1892; his funeral services were held at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue. His obituary was titled “A Great Turfman Gone” and called him “one of the most conspicuous figures in the world of turfmen.” “No man in the country,” it read, “was more widely esteemed by racing men.”
Few men had so wide an acquaintance with turf matters, and few knew so many men who were prominent all over the world in racing affairs. Mr. Withers had a keen intellect, a tenacious memory, and studied whatever he engaged in logically and in detail. He was vigorous, energetic, and decided in his opinions, and fearless in expressing them. As a result, he made many enemies among the men with whom he associated.
He was buried in Marble Cemetery, on 2nd Street between First and Second Avenues.
Withers reportedly never bet on his own horses, wanting only “the natural delight” that came with winning stakes races.
One can only imagine, then, how he felt on May 30, 1890, at Morris Park, when his own horse won the race named for him.
D.D. Withers was seen to smile after the third race was run. It was at a mile, for three-year-olds, and was one of the historic races of the American turf—the Withers, named in honor of the master of Brookdale. (“A Red-Letter Racing Day”)
The victory was, the Times wrote, “extremely satisfactory to Mr. Withers.”
Today, the Withers is run for the 132nd time; it returns to the New York racing calendar after a year’s hiatus, and it has moved from its traditional place in the spring, when horses like Count Fleet and Sir Barton won it in the middle of their Triple Crown runs, between the Preakness and the Belmont.
It was considered an historic race in 1890, when it was only 16 years old. 122 years later, it is still being run, giving us the opportunity to recall Mr. Withers and his contributions to the sport.
Sources quotes and consulted
“200 Acres in Old Withers Racing Farm Bought in New Jersey for Dairy Uses.” New York Times. 7 November 1943.
“A Great Turfman Gone.” New York Times, 19 February, 1892.
“A Red-Letter Racing Day.” New York Times, 31 May 1890.
“David D. Withers buried.” New York Times, 21 February 1892.
Field, Bryan. “Immortals of Turf Bred at Brookdale.” New York Times. 5 March 1933.
“Improvements at Monmouth.” New York Times. 23 April 1891.