…the owners of the race tracks in this vicinity are calling back the banished steeds of speed and bidding the admirers of the same to prepare for a Summer made joyous in the old way… —New York Times, March 1, 1913
Thoroughbred horse racing was back.
It was May 30, 1913, when Belmont Park re-opened its doors. After nearly three years in which anti-gambling kept the New York tracks closed, and after months of hoping and meeting and planning, horse racing returned. On opening day, a crowd of nearly 30,000 turned out to see the 21st Metropolitan Handicap and to enjoy racing without the presence of bookmakers.
The absence of those bookmakers, and the fees they paid to the track, left racetrack managers to figure out how to fund purses and put on a racing program. Earlier in the spring, the sport’s wealthy owners and its racing associations stepped in, contributing their own money in order to prevent the burden from shifting to those owners of lesser means and to ensure that purses would remain at levels attractive enough that owners would want to race their horses here.
It would be decades before pari-mutuel wagering would come to New York, but August Belmont, Jr., chairman of the Jockey Club and president of the Westchester Racing Association, was in 1913 championing it, even as he pledged that no gambling would take place at his track…and took some shots at the state government and those who had worked to shut down racing:
The malignity with which so-called purifiers of public morals persecute racing interests in this State, under the guise of hostility to “race-track gambling,” is really aimed at the sport itself. They do not wish to see racing conducted at all.
They lay to racing the existence of city poolrooms, the cure for which should no more be sought in paralyzing the perfectly legitimate sport of racing and industry of horse breeding than the destruction of the vineyards and the corn and rye fields to stop drinking.
This State could abolish the book-maker and plunger with one stroke of the pen. The French ‘pari mutuel’ has driven them from every race course on the Continent of Europe and is doing the same to-day in Kentucky and in such States where the ‘mutual bet’ is permitted.
In the absence of pari-mutuel wagering, though, Belmont pledged his support to state and local law enforcement to ensure that gambling would not take place at his racetrack. While friendly bets would be permitted, professional book-making would not…though local law enforcement seemed less than committed to honoring Governor Sulzer’s order for strict surveillance, made in a letter to local sheriffs and district attorneys.
Said Nassau County D.A. Charles Wysong, “’I do not propose to run around the race tracks securing evidence whereon to make arrests and prosecute,’” while Sheriff Charles DeMott added, “’You could not stop betting altogether if you had those same men armed with shotguns.’”
Typically, the racing correspondent for the New York Times penned an appreciative panegyric, suggesting that the very nature of those re-opening day racegoers had been changed when the sport was “degambleized” (his word, not mine):
Perhaps for the first time in metropolitan racing history the rank and file took occasion to enjoy the environment under which they were to spend the day. Hundreds stopped along the walks leading to the stands and viewed the natural loveliness of the place. They spoke of the trees, for which the grounds of Belmont Park are famous; the shrubbery, on which much time and money have been expended, and of the rhododendrons in gorgeous bloom.
The Met Mile was won by Harry Payne Whitney’s Whisk Broom II, described as acting before the race as “too full of spirits to appear orderly” (perhaps he too was excited about the return of racing, this English horse making his first start in the United States). After nearly bolting before the race, he refused at the break, but despite carrying the top weight of 126 pounds, he won without jockey Joe Notter asking too much of him, feeling, said the Times, “the strength and bravery of a superb thoroughbred” beneath him.
In multiple contemporary reports, the absence of gambling was dismissed as insignificant, as taking nothing away from the glory of the day, though the Daily Racing Form conceded that some bettors who had come in search of “some small crumbs of their former pleasure shook their head sadly and said that racing had changed for the worst.”
The DRF went on, “But the bugle was there, the horses, the silks of jockeys and the thrill of thundering hoofs. That meant much to race hungry New Yorkers.”
The Evening World, quoted in the Form, took a slightly less sentimental view:
…nobody has yet been bayonetted, shot, shelled, or blown up with hand grenades by the “militia.” In spite of all the ridiculous bluff and bluster, all the sensational reports from “reform” centers, all the rest of the rot directed against racing, nothing has happened.
The road to re-opening was not a smooth one, and there were casualties of three years without racing: some Brooklyn tracks that had closed in 1910 never re-opened, and New York State undoubtedly lost horses, owners, trainers, and jockeys who did not return. But at the end of May in 1913, conversation was not about consequences; it was about celebrating, and about reveling, at long last, in what had been gone for too long.
The climax to the [opening ovation] came when the band that had been playing frivolous tunes high in the grandstand boomed forth the strains of “Auld Lang Syne.” A racetrack crowd is famous for its alertness. It was quick to catch the significance of the song…[Their shouts and cheers] receding, there remained the continuous chatter of a throng made happy by possessing something which it apparently genuinely wanted.
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.
“Metropolitan Press Gives Its Hearty Approval To New Racing Era on New York Tracks,” Daily Racing Form, June 3, 1913.
“New York Racing Again Comes Into Its Own,” Daily Racing Form, May 31, 1913.
“Racing Begins After 3 Years.” New York Times, May 31, 1913.
“Racing to Return.” New York Times, April 5, 1913.
“Sulzer Issues His Order.” Daily Racing Form, May 8, 1913.
“To Bar Bookmaking At Re-Opened Races.” New York Times, May 7, 1913.
“Topics of the Times.” New York Times, March 1, 1913.