The Short-Lived Brooklyn in Brooklyn

This weekend, 12 horses will take to the legendary Belmont oval to run in an historic stakes race, a race that dates back to the 19th century, a race in which horses will run, for one of the few times in their careers, if not the only time, a mile and a half.

On Friday, June 8, the Brooklyn Handicap returns.

Of course I love the Brooklyn. How could I not?

The Brooklyn used to be a pretty big deal; it originated in 1887 at Gravesend, one of several tracks that existed to the early part of the last century in Brooklyn. But unfortunately, for only a very short part of its history was the Brooklyn actually run in…Brooklyn.

Dry Monopole won the first running of the race, and it stayed at Gravesend until 1910. When it was next run, in 1913, it had moved out of Brooklyn and onto Long Island, fleeing to the suburbs as so many city dwellers would do later in the century.

The Brooklyn, however, did not go willingly. In 1911 and 1912, there was no racing in New York: anti-gambling laws had become so restrictive that the various track operators declined to race, and though the sport returned in 1913, the Gravesend track never re-opened.

That last Brooklyn Brooklyn in 1910 was won by the mighty Fitz Herbert, owned and trained by Sam Hildreth and ridden by Eddie Dugan. Winner of 31 races from 44 starts, with seven seconds and three thirds, Fitz Herbert had, at age 3, won the Suburban, the Jerome, and the Coney Island Jockey Club Gold Cup, among many others; he set a world record for 1 5/8 miles in the Lawrence Realization. That year, he won 14 out of 15 races.

Such a record was not enough, however, to impress the New York Times racing reporter, who attributed Fitz Herbert’s success to the horse’s “excellent fortune in happening in a year of mediocrity for the entire make-up of the American turf.” (A bad crop of 3-year-olds? I guess that’s not such a new racing complaint.)

The 1910 Brooklyn was run on Gravesend’s opening day. Belmont Park had opened in 1905 and apparently stolen a little of the older track’s thunder. Belmont had held its closing day card on Memorial Day, and as a result of that and bad weather, attendance for the Brooklyn was “down to the shadow of former Brooklyn Handicap patronages,” though the Daily Racing Form noted that the Gravesend crowd was the largest since the passage of the Hart-Agnew anti-gambling bill in 1907. (Also apparently not new: bemoaning how few people go to the races.)

When the Brooklyn came back in 1913 with the rest of New York racing, it was won by Harry Payne Whitney’s Whisk Broom, and either the Times’ racing writer had changed, or several years away from the sport had softened him—racing had resumed in New York on May 30, 1913, and the Brooklyn was run less than a month later, on June 21.

What made the Whitney horse’s feat stand out so strongly was the fact that he packed 130 pounds, a weight the equal of which has only been essayed but once before in the running of the stake, this being by that stellar performer Fitz Herbert in the previous running of the race over the Brooklyn track in 1910.

 That the victory was a most popular one was attested by the plaudits of the crowd when [jockey Joe] Notter came back to the scales to weigh in, continuing for fully a minute, and resembling the verbal spectacles of that period from three years backward. (“Whitney Colt”)

A year later, the Brooklyn had moved back into the five boroughs, making its home for 30 years at Aqueduct, and our writer had fully gone over to the bright side, basking in racing’s successes, rhapsodizing over the state of racing in New York, though we might also see the first hints of the disparaging “bridge and tunnel crowd” references that would be so ubiquitous later in the century (although in this case, the “bridge and tunnel crowd come from, ahem, Manhattan). The Brooklyn was the opening day feature at Belmont on June 23, 1914.

Brooklyn Handicap day, as usual, brought out a crowd that never attends a race meeting except on the day when this classic of which Brooklynites are particularly fond is run [see? I’m in good historical company].  There was a distinct atmosphere of the people at the other end of the bridge about the throng. All the “regulars” from New York were on hand, of course, as were a lot of occasionals who like to see the meeting of the top-notchers in a race of this sort. (“Brooklyn Handicap…”)

The Daily Racing Form was equally laudatory; contemporary eyes see in it more than a little that looks and sounds familiar:

The first week at Belmont Park attracted only fair crowds…but as the public began to realize the high quality of the contending horses confidence returned and the daily attendance increased until in the closing week the stands took on the appearance of olden days when racing was at its height in the metropolitan district.

Oh, those good old days of racing — even in 1914, racing was better in the past. Then again,  these days, we don’t often encounter paragraphs like this:

Racing is now being conducted on a higher plane than ever before. The sport since its restoration has assumed a sound and safe tone in which the gambling element has been subservient to the pleasure of seeing richly bred thoroughbreds match their speed and stamina.

That high class patrons alone will be catered to is shown by the determination of the management to eliminate the dollar field. The grandstand will be opened at a uniform admission of $3, and will not be divided off for the benefit of a cheaper crowd as at Belmont. (“Buckhorn Wins…”)

That was 1914. Know what grandstand admission is at Belmont today? $3. And while I’m often fond of these old racing accounts for the world that they evoke, I will say that I’m glad that racing is no longer only the province of the rich. I’m glad that this weekend, and on many weekends at Belmont (seen here as the inferior to Aqueduct!), the backyard is filled with people in shorts and with coolers. That “cheaper crowd”? Yeah, that’s me.

Horses bred in four states will run in Friday’s Brooklyn, but none from New York will carry the Brooklyn torch over the racetrack on Long Island, to which the Brooklyn returned in the 1970’s, after years in Queens, at Aqueduct and Jamaica.

Which is worse, I wonder, to a Brooklynite: having our race run on Long Island or having our race run in Queens? No matter to this Brooklynite: I’m just glad the Brooklyn is still around, 125 years later, even if the Brooklyn tracks are not.

Cited & consulted

Brooklyn Handicap Won By Buckhorn.”  New York Times. June 24, 1914.
Buckhorn Wins Brooklyn.”  Daily Racing Form, June 24, 1914.
Fitz Herbert Is The Victor.” Daily Racing Form. June 1, 1910.
Fitz Herbert Wins $6,000 Brooklyn.”  New York Times, June 1, 1910.
Whitney Colt Packs 130 Lbs. And Wins.” New York Times, June 22, 1913.

Also see Ryan Goldberg’s “The Golden Era of Brooklyn Racing” in the Daily Racing Form, November 11, 2010.

4 thoughts on “The Short-Lived Brooklyn in Brooklyn

  1. The Brooklyn has bounced around a good bit on the racing calendar. It was actually part of the racing Triple Crown for Handicap horses, following the Suburban and the Metropolitan. All these races were handicaps, and thus winning a handicap Triple Crown was even more difficult, because as you won, the racing secretary put more weight on you. Weight today is not the factor it was then. It was really applied as a penalty, “handicap,” for winning.

    My own era started with Dr, Fager amd Damascus, neither of whom won the Handicap Triple Crown. Kelso, did I think.

    Whisk Broom did as well, holding the track record for a mile and a quarter for decades. It was still the track record when I started going. It was considered suspect, since the races were hand-timed, and the time was bet on as well. The 2:00 minutes flat was often felt to be phony.

    The Brooklyn distance has shifted over the years as well. Lately it seems to be the rehearsal mile and a half race for the Belmont.

    Certainly I’ll Have Another’s owner and trainer look at it that way, giving Mario Gutierrez a chance to “practce” at the distance before the real main event.

    Saturday’s Belmont.

  2. John,

    A very knowing and thoughtful piece about the Brooklyn Handicap; well done! One minor point if I may: The racing secretary did assign ever higher weights to horses running especially well in the Handicap Triple Crown series not as “penalty,” but as a compensating-cargo addition, if you will.

    Generally speaking, the fields for the Metropolitan, the Brooklyn and the Suburban brought together the same horses over that span of time. The racing secretary, also serving as the track’s handicapper here in New York (which has absolutely nothing to do with doping out a race for pari-mutuel purposes), had one mission to accomplish as “handicapper”: to try to get all the horses in the race to finish in a dead heat for win without one winner.

    I know this sounds rather contradictory, but the escalating weight assignments to relatively successful horses in handicap races are determined to prevent one horse from winning, as diminishing weights are determined to prevent another less successful horse from losing again. Every handicap race is to be treated in this way, and the Handicap Triple Crown race series became a bit easier for the track’s handicapper just because he got to deal with many of the same horses with each succeeding race. Consequently, any horse that did sweep all three, the Metropolitan, the Brooklyn and the Suburban, not only beat his equine competition, but also beat the racing secretary/handicapper!

    I hope you enjoy both mile-and-a-halfers, Friday’s Brooklyn Handicap and Saturday’s Belmont Stakes at weight for age.

  3. Teresa,

    Great read! Your bringing out those antique newspaper and Racing Form accounts adds so much to the story of our Brooklyn Handicap. A very pleasurable melding of your take on today’s racing as blended with turf writers of yesterday. Really super!

  4. Teresa,
    A great post on a great race. The 1917 Brooklyn might have had the best field in te history of American racing. The winner was the old campaigner Borrow, who was supposedly beyond his prime. The horse he beat by a nose, his stablemate Regret, was one of the greatest fillies of all time. In fact, for this Brooklyn, she had to give five pounds to the winner. In third was Old Rosebud, one of the great handicap horses of his generation. Among the also-rans were Roamer and Stromboli, who were rivals of Old Rosebud in the handicap ranks; winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby; Boots, winner of the Suburban; Ormesdale, winner of the Met Mile, and Omar Khyyam, winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby.. In summary, that race had three future Hall of Fame inductees (Regret, Old Rosebud and Roamer), and three Kentucky Derby winners (Old Rosebud, Regret, and Omar Khayyam. Borrow (and Regret) set a new world record that day for 1 1/8 miles.

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