The racing season of New York State, and thus of the Eastern turf, was opened at the Aqueduct race course yesterday in the presence of a crowd that astonished the track managers even more than it did the patrons of racing who come under the head of “regulars” and professionals. A great attendance was expected confidently, and provisions were made in accordance, but the outpouring of the public for the first day of turf so far exceeded expectations that the ticket men at the gates ran short of day badges early in the day. (“Racing In New York…”)
Back in 1904, the racing season at Aqueduct was the reverse of what we know now: Aqueduct opened, with much fanfare, in April, when we now leave Ozone Park for Belmont; the last racing meet of the year was held there in November, when we now head there for the long racing winter.
What hasn’t changed is the relatively low regard in which Aqueduct was held, even back then in its relative infancy. Aqueduct had opened in 1894, but it apparently didn’t take long for it to acquire a reputation as a place where only the bettors went. Opening day attendance 1904 was hurt by bad weather, but one gets the sense that even a beautiful day wouldn’t have brought out the beautiful people:
Aqueduct, in spite of the many improvements that have been made on the course since racing was begun there ten years ago, makes slight appeal for fashionable patronage, and, though stands and clubhouse were crowded to their full capacity yesterday, the gathering was one that suggested more the hold that racing has on the speculatively inclined than any appeal that is made to the fashionable element.
Notable men of the turf and politics made up almost the entire gathering in the club stand and boxes, while, because of the weather for one thing, and because it was Aqueduct racing for another, society, much as it has been interested in the turf of late years, was practically absent. (“Racing in New York…”)
Nonetheless, the opening of the 1904 racing season occasioned the sort of propitious commentary that we heard in these parts when racing opened at Aqueduct this year, just a few days after its next door neighbor opened its doors.
Press reports called 1904 the “Two-Million-Dollar Year,” noting that the opening of the track season would
usher in a season of unprecedented prosperity for owners of horses in the matter of turf prizes. There is every promise that the general prosperity of racing will be in keeping with the greater values of stakes and purses, and racing men of all ranks are ready to welcome the advent of the metropolitan turf’s new year with even more optimism than that of the hopeful betting public who will re-assemble at Aqueduct to-day. (“New York Racing Enters”)
The opening day feature was the Carter, being run for the 10th time; 17 horses went to the post, among them Beldame, who would go on to be named Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old filly. She faced—and beat—older colts, in a race that the Times said would “amply…serve as an outlet for six months’ pent-up enthusiasm over the actual beginning of racing in New York.”
Beldame was owned and bred by August Belmont II, who leased her to Newton Bennington, a friend and business associate. She made seven starts as a 2-year-old, winning three of them, and the Carter was her first start as a 3-year-old. She would race 14 times that year, winning 12 races, with a second and a third.
She made her sophomore début a winning one, leading every step of the seven furlongs, except for a “flash” when favored Peter Paul got a head in front of her. She easily repelled him and won by two lengths, with “speed in reserve,” according to the Daily Racing Form chart.
Beldame raced only twice at Aqueduct in a 31-race career, both wins; she closed out her 2-year-old season with a win in November before her start in the Carter.
Saturday will be the last big day of racing at Aqueduct for this meet, the first in the latest incarnation of the 118-year-old track. For us, April means good-bye to Aqueduct. For racing fans in 1904, November meant good-bye to Aqueduct, and to racing in New York for the year. One New York Times wag wrote that closing day in November 1904 was “viewed by the ‘regulars’ as a calamity partaking of the end of the world seriousness.”
I don’t think that I know anyone who will consider closing day at Aqueduct a “calamity,” not with beautiful Belmont Park the alternative, but it’s my racing home for six months of the year, and that last trip on the A train is always a wistful one for me—though perhaps not so much this year, as it appears that the updated Aqueduct train station, supposed to have been opened last December, will apparently be a scratch for the entire meeting.
Aqueduct has never lacked for detractors; nor, fortunately, are its supporters in short supply. Aqueduct is perhaps the racing equivalent of the jolie laide, the woman who is not conventionally pretty but is attractive nonetheless. Aqueduct isn’t Keeneland or Saratoga, but it has its charms, which, we can hope, will be enhanced during our six months away, bringing to life, perhaps, these words written to herald the opening of the racing season in 1904:
When the custom of opening New York racing at the Queens County track was established it was said in sarcasm that the sport entered by the back door, but the popularity of the course and of its richest racing attractions have increased to such an extent that Aqueduct may now be regarded as ranking with the best-equipped and most modern of New York racing clubs.
Click here for more on Beldame from the archives.
Sources quoted and consulted
Beldame’s Hall of Fame page.
Beldame’s past performances: Champions, third edition, published by Daily Racing Form.
“New York Racing Enters.” NYTimes.com. New York Times, April 15, 1904.
“Racing In New York Opens At Aqueduct.” NYTimes.com. New York Times, April 16, 1904
“Racing Season Ended At Aqueduct Track.” NYTimes.com, New York Times, November 16, 1904.