“The first stake of national importance for sprinters in America”

Morris Park racesOriginally 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”.  (Hervey)

When the first edition of the Toboggan was run, back in 1890, the race’s creators couldn’t possibly envision that its 122nd edition would be run on a day that a temperature in the 30s would feel absolutely balmy.  As Hervey notes above, the Toboggan only tangentially gets its name from winter sports. For most of its life, it was run on a circuit without winter racing, and it was christened to note 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. And given the weather here over the last couple of weeks, and today’s forecast, they might, perhaps, find useful a real, and not a metaphorical, Toboggan if they want 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.

entrance to Morris Park grandstand, from the Library of Congress

Morris Park grandstand

Morris Park lawn

Morris Park lawn

Sharing the card with the Toboggan is the historic Withers, first run in 1874.

This post was first published in January 2011 and most recently updated in February 2012. Click here for previous versions and comments.

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)

2 thoughts on ““The first stake of national importance for sprinters in America”

  1. Just came upon this page after reading the Forbes article on Future Pool 2 wagering. I appreciated the info on how the last 2 pools turned out. Then an amazing coincidence: While reading the Forbes story, I watched Salutos Amigos rally to win the Tobaggan today at the Big A. Then I clicked on the link from Forbes page to your blog, and it linked to your story on Morris Park and the origins of the Tobaggan! I’ve always enjoyed stories about the old tracks in NY. Living not far from where Sheepshead Bay Race Track once existed so many years ago, it’s fun to imagine what life would be like if the track were still there. I look forward to reading more posts from your blog!

    • Welcome, Cedric! Nice move by Salutos Amigos– and as a Brooklyn resident, I mourn the loss of all traces of those old tracks. Would love to have seen them —

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