The Dwyers: “Brothers from the other side of the tracks, and from across the river as well”

The race now known as the Dwyer began life in 1887, as the Brooklyn Derby. It was run at the Gravesend track in Brooklyn, a track that the Dwyer brothers, Phil and Mike, had helped to bring into existence in 1886.

Phil and Mike were Brooklyn butchers, their shop at the corner of Atlantic and Court, just a few blocks from where I sit as I write this. According to a 1950 article in the Milwaukee Sentinel, August Belmont was one of their customers, and one day, he offered to sell them a horse.  Her name was Rhadamanthus, and soon their specialty became purchasing horses with a proven record on the track, horses that would remunerate them with purse money, but as importantly, also with gambling winnings, particularly in Mike’s case.

They were spectacularly successful in their three decades in racing. As partners or on their own, they won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness, the Belmont five times (in six years—1883-1888), and the Travers five times in a decade. Their horses included Hindoo, Kingston, Hanover, Miss Woodford, and Luke Blackburn, who raced at Saratoga seven times during the 1880 meeting. Wrote racing historian William H.P. Robertson,

For thirty years and more there was hardly a great race run in which one of their horses did not figure conspicuously. They were a city-bred pair, but they possessed an instinctive knowledge of horses and a talent for management that made them formidable from the beginning of their career.

A lengthy 1881 article in the Times detailed their racing prospects and successes.

Like all brothers, they didn’t always get along, and despite all their success, their different approaches to their business led ultimately to a dissolution of their partnership in 1890, an occurrence that merited its own coverage in the Times, which noted that the brothers were “above all…perfectly honest, and are favorites with the betting public, because every one knew he would get a run for his money with the Dwyer horses. That both are to continue on the turf is a good thing for the best interests of racing.”

They both did continue on the turf, but as their paths diverged, so did their fortunes. Mike brought a string of horses to England, an endeavor characterized by the Daily Racing Form as “disastrous,” one that led to a physical and emotional breakdown and an utter reversal of his earlier fortunes.

Phil, the more conservative of the two, continued to amass wealth and outlived his brother by seven years, dying, according to contemporary accounts, later, richer, and happier than his younger brother.

A 1900 article titled “Famous Turf Plungers” had ranked Mike among the nation’s most well-known gamblers, and his obituary in the Daily Racing Form was subtitled, “Once Famous Plunger Passes His Last Days as a Practically Penniless Paralytic”; the Times called him “perhaps the greatest plunger the race track ever knew” and offered painful details about the end of Dwyer’s life.

His fortune gone, his best horses stripped from him, and the means of indulging his passion beyond his reach, the inevitable reaction came. He suffered a nervous collapse, and, shattered in body and mind, unable to move without assistance, articulating with difficulty, death slowly creeping upon him, he became the pitiable, pathetic figure that racing men watched with veneration and awe at the race tracks.

He was the old plunger gone broke; the racing star relegated to the limbo of the paddock; a counterpart of the decayed speculator who haunts Wall Street and the scenes of his former greatness, and amid the shouting of the men on the Exchange lives over the events that wrecked his life, just as Dwyer, when the cloud of dust up the stretch, the gleam of red, gold, scarlet, and pink, and the swelling roar in the stands foretold the finish of a race, dreamed of the old days when the click of the stop-watch was necessary to decide whether he had won or lost a fortune.

The Form said that Mike “to the last retained the respect and liking of those who had known him in the days when the name Dwyer Brothers was synonymous with the most exalted success on the turf.”  He was 60 years old when he died in his Brooklyn home on Gravesend Avenue.

Phil lived until 1917, and though his involvement in racing diminished after he split from his brother, he never abandoned the game that had brought him fame and fortune. At the time of his death, he was the president of the Queens County Jockey Club, and the Times attributed his death to “his devotion to the sport of kings,” saying that he’d attended opening day at Belmont Park on a damp, chilly day to see the Metropolitan Handicap. He caught a cold that became pneumonia, and he died on June 9, the day of the 31st running of the Suburban Handicap:

At 4:29 1/5 P.M., A.K. Macomber’s Boots went under the wire a winner from Borrow and the Finn, and at exactly 4:30 the nurse reported to relatives in attendance that Mr. Dwyer was dead. It was the first renewal of the Suburban he had missed. 

The news of his death was telephoned to Belmont Park. (Robertson)

Michael Dwyer, said the Times, “paralyzed the betting ring with the magnitude of his wagers.” Philip, it said, was “content to race horses for the sport.”

Quoting an unidentified source, Robertson called them “brothers from the other side of the tracks, and from across the river as well.” Butchers by trade, they are among the most influential men in the history of New York racing; the sport as we know it here would likely not exist without them.

And so, in 1918, the year after Phil died, the Brooklyn boys were immortalized in a race that has been run for most of its life in Queens, when the Brooklyn Derby became the Dwyer.

Quoted and consulted

A String of Fast Horses,” New York Times, March 21, 1881
The Dwyers To Separate,” New York Times, August 19, 1890
Famous Turf Plungers,” New York Times, June 24, 1900
M.F. Dwyer, Plunger, Dead At Gravesend,” New York Times, August 20, 1906
Michael Dwyer Dies At Brooklyn Home,” Daily Racing Form, August 21, 1906
Phil Dwyer Is Dead,” Daily Racing Form, June 12, 1917
Phil Dwyer Dies As Suburban is Ended,” New York Times, June 10, 1917
Unlucky Plunger,” Horace Wade and Irving Johnson, Milwaukee Sentinel, February 12, 1950.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America.  Bonanza Books, 1964.
Brooklyn Once Had Big-Time Horse Racing, Too,” New York Times, July 21, 1963
Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

11 thoughts on “The Dwyers: “Brothers from the other side of the tracks, and from across the river as well”

  1. Thanks Teresa. I enjoyed your article very much. I didn’t know the Dwyer boys won the Belmont 5 times in 6 years. That’s almost as good as Woody. And anybody that wins 5 Travers in a decade is alright with me.

  2. Americana is rife with tales of fascinating characters who left their mark on the racing industry. Thank you for introducing me to two more.
    A delicious tidbit, you have whetted my appetite; more please.

  3. I don’t actually have a specific comment on the Dwyer Brothers article. Just wanted to take a moment to let you know how much virtually every article on this website is enjoyed. They are informative and enjoyable. A step or two in the opposite direction from so much of the backbiting that characterizes too many of the racing sites. There are those out here who really appreciate all your hard work. Thanks from an old horse player.

    • Thanks very much, all of you, for those kind words–they are much appreciated, and I’m always glad to know that other people are interested in all of this as much as I am.

      paddockjudge, if you click on the “racing history” link at the end of the post or in the right-hand column, you’ll find years of posts like this. Here are a couple of suggestions:

      Eugene Wood, for whom the Wood Memorial is named

      Hollie Hughes & Louie Hildebrandt of Sanford Farm

      David Dunham Withers, for whom the Withers is named.

      Lots of stuff there on horses, too. Hope you enjoy them —

  4. Since you do write for NYRA in one of your capacities, maybe you could get them to consider restoring the little historical facts surrounding the naming of the feature race. Maybe get them to list the last 10 winners, or so. It’s certainly a space issue in the program, since it’s really a simulcast program these days, but just maybe they’ll bite. I have plenty of old programs to use as examples.

  5. Mr. DeMetropolis,

    If I may be so bold as to make a comment in Teresa’s place, your wish for a brief history of stakes races upon those stakes races’ Official Program pages reverberates boldly with me. I spent nearly six years developing the Post Parade magazine you can now purchase at all three NYRA tracks and convenient off-track locations, so I’ve devoted a lot of concentrated thought to this and many other Official Program subjects; you, apparently, and I, very much enjoyed that several seconds’ reading of stakes race histories that occupied the 2 X 4-inch piece of each NYRA pre-race program page so many years ago.

    Briefly, the Post Parade magazine is based upon Equibase-collected race data that makes up for the lion’s share of each program’s most important pages. Stakes race histories — with horse names and pedigrees; race times; owner, jockey and trainer names; race-distance variations; and other esoteric, historic stakes-race details were compiled and improved by the NYRA printer as a special addition to the program, to kind of “soup it up” a bit.

    This colorful detail made sense to a company that had the freedom to spend that little bit of money for the horseplayers who cared… then. Now, and since 1992, the track’s Official Program is looked upon as a source of needed revenue, that includes the very real consideration of a contracted cost for Equibase’s data-collection services for a data- enhanced race program.

    Times have changed. NYRA has changed. New York racing’s demographic has somewhat changed.

    I have my doubts NYRA is able to cover the costs of such in-house data collection, retention and updating as a brief history of “… Stakes Race” would now require.

    That said, I highly encourage you to make a suggestion to Ellen McClain, who I’m sure would be interested to hear from you. And I wish you, and this cause, good luck.

  6. Marshall, thanks for the explanation on the evolution of the track program — makes total sense. Like John, I remember those little stakes histories and like him, I enjoyed them very much. I appreciate how accessible they are on the NYRA website — I consult them all the time.

  7. Anyone have a link to information about the children of the Dwyer brothers? I may be the great grandson of one of them, from hints from my deceased father. I know my parents came into a considerable sum of money in 1955 when Aqueduct was bought by the state and the stockholders were bought out. The only thing I have been able to confirm is that Mike Dwyer’s oldest son was Charles F. Dwyer, and my father was Charles Frederick Norton, suggesting perhaps that Charles Dwyer was my father’s uncle and he was named after him.

    Tom Norton

    • Hi, Tom — E-mail me at the address listed under the “about” tab above– I recently spoke with someone who had done some research on the Dwyers, and he might be of some help.

  8. As always, great stuff, Teresa.

    Although I understand the environment, as a serious program collector I an somewhat dismayed that the cost of “data collection, retention, and updating” would be prohibitive. I’d think 10 minutes of profit once a month from one of the slot machines at Aqueduct would be sufficient to compensate someone to update an excel spread sheet. On the other hand I don’t know why the NYRA, Churchill Downs Inc., or most other horse racing governing bodies would ever want to give their customers what they want, or try to develop and promote the sport.

  9. Ron,

    The slots money is earmarked by state statute for certain purposes: capital expenditures, breeding fund, purses, among them. And I know that the press office spent a considerable amount of time updating/correcting the on-line stakes histories last winter, before the launch of the new website. While I know that customers/fans can get frustrated when their wishes aren’t met, I do think that NYRA has taken steps to meet customers’ needs/desires, along with those of the people who work at the track. As with any company, I imagine that it’s difficult to meet every request, and to satisfy everyone all of the time.

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