“All I want is clean sport…” The song remains the same?

When racing and government collide, the residents of the state of New York have learned to be patient.

We waited for a VLT operator to be named. We waited for a franchise operator to be chosen. We waited for a board to be selected. We wait, still, for NYRA’s next CEO to be appointed.

One hundred years ago this week, New Yorkers waited, too. They waited to see whether racing would return to the state. They waited to see which tracks would open. They waited for a statement from their governor.

Following the decision in late February 1913 by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court that a man making a private bet at a racetrack was not breaking the law, Governor William Sulzer was, the Times reported, “considering the appointment of a new State Racing Commission,” as he contemplated the possibility of racing returning to his state. A governor elected to clean up New York politics (don’t we have one of those, too?), he waited to offer an opinion on the court’s decision or on the state’s “anti-race track gambling laws,” laws that held the management of the tracks responsible for any professional gambling or bookmaking that took place on their premises.  The court’s decision held that that the track directors could not be held liable for on-track “oral betting” unless it could be proven that they had “guilty knowledge” of the acts.

The prudent track managers waited, too.  They  had effectively shut down racing in September 1910 in order to avoid being held responsible for illegal wagering taking place at their facilities; though encouraged by the court’s ruling, they waited for the advice of their own legal counsel, though as the Times reported, within days of the court’s decision, they were ready to meet to explore the possibility of re-opening the state’s handful of race tracks.

August Belmont, of Belmont Park and the Jockey Club, waited, too. He wouldn’t comment on the court’s ruling until he met with other Jockey Club stewards; the track managers waited to hear from the Jockey Club. But unlike our waiting, which goes on for months or years or decades, often without any end in sight, New Yorkers a century ago had reason to think that their waiting—for racing to come back after two-and-a-half years—was about to come to an end.

The tracks, said the Times, were “in a condition where the gates could be thrown open at any time and it is also know that several of [the track directors] are ready and eager to resume.”

As were, apparently, the people whose sporting interests had been denied since 1910:

Along Broadway, where followers of the sport still abound, there is a general feeling of optimism over the prospects for a good season of racing, and the same idea prevails at the Long Island tracks, here there are a number of horses in Winter quarters.

It was estimated that 300 horses had been in training through the winter, stabled at Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend, and Belmont; trainers and owners who had shipped to Charleston and Juarez for the winter waited to hear whether they should begin shipping their horses north.

They had to be heartened in a Daily Racing Form report in which an unnamed Jockey Club official was quoted as saying, “’It is likely that racing will begin on the eastern tracks this spring…’”

Eugene Wood, the man who gave his name to the Wood Memorial and who was a major presence in New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, said, perhaps unsurprisingly, that he was a “great believer” in state-controlled racing and suggested that state government could be the very thing to cure the ills of racing in New York—odd, perhaps, as it was the state government that had brought about its demise a couple of years earlier:

Every state in this country should pass laws regulating racing…and accept the taxes derived from it and give it the protection it should have against the narrow-minded fanatics. I should not be at all surprised if the constitutional amendments will provide laws advocating the pari-mutuel system of speculating on courses where racing is being held.

The more circumspect of the two Dwyer brothers, Phil, who with his brother Mike had substantial financial holdings in race tracks, “declared that he would never open the gates at Gravesend or Aqueduct again unless remedial measures were taken to eliminate objectionable features.” He went on,

The Jockey Club is the ruling body, and I am a steadfast Jockey Club man. There must be a ruling body in every great sport and industry, and however the Jockey Club thinks it best to do I shall abide by, but of course the [racing] associations will have some propositions to put before the board.

The fanciful among us might have heard Dwyer’s and Wood’s sentiments echoed yesterday in the statements of NYRA board members, who seem committed to having racing in the state meet “the highest standards in thoroughbred racing and equine safety,” according to its newly adopted mission statement.

Cynicism and skepticism (along with patience) are de rigeur in considering the workings of our state government, but even the most cynical among us have, occasionally, to set aside our doubts—or least squelch them, if only temporarily, for our own sanity—and yesterday’s discussions of medication rules, in-house penalties for violations, backstretch improvements, customer service upgrades, and equine safety, might be the contemporary version of what Phil Dwyer expressed a century ago:

I want to see the sport revived for sport’s sake and for the preservation of the American thoroughbred. I want to get the outdoor exercise and meet my friends in the clubhouse and grandstands…All I want is clean sport for the excitement, recreation and satisfaction of knowing that the people of the country have respect for the horse.  (DRF)


Throughout 2013, Brooklyn Backstretch will re-visit the racing events of 1913, the year that racing returned to New York after a nearly three-year absence; click here for previous stories.

Quoted, consulted

Eastern Racing Managers To Meet This Week To Decide On A Course of Action,” Daily Racing Form, February 25, 1913.
No Turf Plans Yet,” New York Times, February 25, 1913.
To Name New Racing Board,” New York Times, February 23, 1913.
Track Managers To Hold Meeting,” New York Times, February 24, 1913.

Reports on yesterday’s NYRA board meeting:

Uniform medication rules (DRF)
Possible NYC OTB plan (DRF)
Equine safety committee report (DRF)
CEO search (Blood-Horse)
NYRA release

7 thoughts on ““All I want is clean sport…” The song remains the same?

  1. Keep the history coming! Always interesting to learn about what was happening in the ‘good old days’ of the sport 🙂

  2. I am always relieved that there’s at least one other person out there who enjoys these. I love researching them and writing them, but sometimes I’m not sure everyone else feels that way!

  3. I love the racing history articles also. Teresa, have you considered hosting a summer lecture series on racing history in Saratoga? There is so much to learn and you make the stories interesting as well as educational.

    • Had never thought about that, Andrea, but it totally appeals to the teacher, writer, and historian in me. I know that the library sometimes hosts such talks, so maybe I’ll check in with them and see if they’d be interested. What a wonderful idea…have you ever considered a career as an agent? 🙂

  4. Teresa very informative, I have read other articles on race tracks in the Bronx. They history of the race tracks in the NYC area are interesting in a sense that there were a bunch throughout the years.
    How about a series of articles from time to time on where and when these tracks were and how they were influential in NY racing.
    If you decide to do a lecture series on NY racing maybe you can do it at the picnic area at Saratoga where you would have a captive audience. The fans are there early on race days. Joe

    • Joseph, I’ve written on occasion on some of the other tracks–if you type their names in the search box above or check to the tags to the left, you’ll find posts on Brighton Beach/Coney Island, Gravesend, Jerome Park, Morris Park, and Sheepshead Bay. But I always want to do more on them, especially on the Brooklyn tracks.

      Having spent a lot of time hanging out in the Saratoga backyard, I’m not convinced that a history lesson is what would keep their attention! But you never know…would be fun, that’s for sure.

  5. Thanks, this is not a Brooklyn or a NY track what about the track that ran in the Preakness section of Paterson,NJ where the horse Preakness was stabled and became the name of the 2nd leg of the Triple Crown after he won a race in Maryland owner by a man who made the wool blankets for the union army.
    It is very interesting to me were the old tracks were and who were the people that built them…………..Thanks Joe

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