“Originally this race was run over the memorable six-furlong straight course at Morris Park, then the newest and most elaborate of Metropolitan racing plants—which was a bit down grade and for that reason nicknamed the “toboggan slide”. (sic) (Hervey)
As racing historian John Hervey notes above, the name of the Toboggan has nothing to do with winter sports. For most of its life, the Toboggan was run on a circuit without winter racing, and it got its name from the slope of the course over which it was run at Morris Park in what was then Westchester County, now the Bronx. From 1890 to 1896, the race was called the Toboggan Slide.
The Morris Park Racecourse opened in 1889, the creation of John Morris and Leonard Jerome, whose own namesake track in the Bronx would shortly be closed. The topography of the landscape proved challenging in the track’s construction, but would serve to give the course its distinctive slope:
…the expense that would have been incurred in removing a solid table of rock prevented the obliteration of that “hill” in the course which has aroused so much criticism. As it is, this inequality of ground involves an ascent which has been facetiously dubbed “the Matterhorn,” and a descent in the main course…The hill again crops up in the Eclipse course, which is a straight six furlongs, or, if not exactly straight, having so slight an elbow in it that no horse can gain any material advantage through its existence. But in this case the inequality of the ground is entirely in favor of the horses, presenting a considerable decline. This, of course, accounts to a great extent for the many phenomenally fast times which have been made here. (Trevelyan)
And indeed, in the very first running of the Toboggan Slide, in 1890, August Belmont – whose own namesake track wouldn’t open for another fifteen years (and when it did, the Toboggan would make its new home there) – ran a filly named Fides who set a course record of 1:10 1/4, a “phenomenal time,” according to one race report. She broke the old record by three-quarters of a second.
According to Hervey, the Toboggan Handicap was the “first stake of national importance for sprinters in America”; he called its list of winners “a sort of honor-roll of our ‘speed marvels.’”
When the Toboggan moved to Belmont in 1905, it was run on the “Futurity course,” a six-furlong straightaway from right to left in front of the grandstand and clubhouse, as when Belmont opened, horses ran in the “English way,” or clockwise. Kevin Martin at the excellent racing history site Colin’s Ghost has an image of this course in a post about the Futurity; scroll down to see it.
A 1959 article in Daily Racing Form notes the history of the Toboggan:
From 1905 through 1921, it was run over the old straight course, an extension of the front stretch, at Belmont Park [noted above as the Futurity course]. From 1922 through 1927, the Toboggan was run on the main course, shifting to the then new Widener course in 1928, where it stayed until this year, except for the 1941 renewal, which was on the main track.
The Widener was the diagonal straightaway that cut across the main track at Belmont; Eight Thirty, owned and bred by George Widener, won the Toboggan when it was run across his owner’s eponymous course in 1940; he won it again the next year when it was run on the main track.
Today’s horses, unlike their historical Toboggan counterparts, won’t run up and down a hilly course, nor will they run on a straightaway. Had the race been run a week ago as scheduled, those horses might, perhaps, have found useful a real, and not a metaphorical, Toboggan if they wanted to set any course records.
The Museum of the City of New York offers several images of Morris Park, though none that I can definitely label as a view of the hilly course. These photos all come from the Museum’s collection, unless otherwise noted, and are from New York’s Byron Company.
Most recently updated January 30, 2016
Sources and further reading
“A Great Race for Fides,” New York Times, June 1, 1890.
“Morris Park Race Track, the entrance to grandstand” (photograph). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, circa 1903.
Harwood, Bob. “New York: Comely Stakes Provided Excellent Contest.” May 8, 1959.
“Morris Park Races” (poster). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Fred T. Alder, circa 1895.
Museum of the City of New York, images of Morris Park.
Hervey, John. American Race Horses: 1940. New York: The Sagamore Press, 1940.
“Sliding Through History,” Brooklyn Backstretch post on the 1893 Toboggan. March 8, 2008.
Toboggan stakes page at New York Racing Association.
Trevelyan, Francis. “The American Turf: The Race-Courses of the East.” Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Sports, Travel and Recreation. Vol XX. April-September, 1891. pp. 129-140. (via Google Books)