While recently researching an entirely different issue in a database of 19th century newspapers, I was sidetracked by several curious horse racing-related accounts that I thought I’d share, either out of their relevance to current issues or for their mere peculiarity.
I’m as guilty as others of scoffing at racing conducted in wintery climes, but an 1891 article originally published in the New York Journal and subsequently reprinted in the March 21 Atchison (Kansas) Champion, David W. Higgins boldly claimed:
“It has been argued that racing horses in cold and snow and rain is cruelty to animals; that racing during winter months is not sport; that the worst elements of humanity are attracted. None of the foregoing claims will bear scrutiny. When snow and sleet abound does commerce stand still? Does the merchant notify his stableman to keep the draught horses in their stalls and deliver no goods until the weather improves? Winter racing is the truest, most successful and prosperous kind of sport. It is business and pleasure happily and successfully commingled.”
Much like the NHL’s Winter Classic, it can also be a curiosity, as visible in this notice in the January 18, 1864 Daily Cleveland Herald which notes: “The Detroit sporting men have been making the most of the cold weather. Horse racing on the ice attracted crowds of people for a couple of days, and more races are promised.”
As if racing on ice weren’t challenging enough, how about horses that, in addition to running, have to swim for part of the race, as this 1890 Atchison Champion article relates happened in New Zealand:
“At a horse race the course lay across the sands at Okaroa Bay, and, through delay, the tide rose so high that the horses had to swim some distance before the winning post was reached. The result was that one of the animals, which would otherwise have been beaten, came off victorious, on account of superior natatorial powers.”
Certainly gives new meaning to the term “wet tracker” doesn’t it?
And for those who bemoan racing juveniles, how about this tidbit from the December 11, 1890 Milwaukee Sentinel:
“The Minnesota Horse Breeders’ Association, in session here to-day, made some important changes in its rules. The old rule forbidding the racing of yearlings was stricken out, and hereafter there will be regular races between colts.”
Considering their level of maturity, a yearling racing sounds quite dangerous, but it wasn’t much safer for their human counterparts either, judging from this 1866 Wisconsin State Register article:
“An atrocious murder was committed on the track of the Chicago Driving Park, on Saturday, during the fifth heat of an exciting trot between the celebrated horses Cooley and General Butler. ...The sun had gone down, and it was so dark that the horses could not be seen more than half a dozen lengths from the judges’ stand. The two horses and two drivers started off in the darkness. Two minutes later the horse General Butler came around the track without his driver, running at the top of his speed, and continued running until tired out. His driver, McKeaver, was found lying on the track, bleeding and insensible, with his skull fractured. He died on Sunday afternoon. The wound which he received was inflicted with a piece of board, which was found near him fringed with his blood and hair. Evidently a blow had been dealt him as he passed, or the board had been thrust in his way so that he should dash his brains out against it, by some persons as yet unknown.”
Whether his competitor or a race observer, his murderer was undoubtedly aided by the track darkness. Twenty-eight years later, it wouldn’t have been an issue if the race had occurred at Mazpeth Park in Newton, New Jersey, as they were experimenting with night racing with electric lights. Surprised? So was I. The August 21, 1894 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel noted: “Horse racing by electric light is to be inaugurated in about two weeks by the Newton Jockey Club at Mazpeth Park, with a thirty-day meeting. The track has been fitted with 880 incandescent lights and 22 arc lamps.”
Around the same time, similar plans were underway for Portland (Oregon), as explained in this article from the 1894 Morning Oregonian:
“If certain well-developed plans do not miscarry, Portland will soon have a racetrack whose like is not now on earth. It is proposed to construct contiguous to the White House road, and within half a block of a street railway, a half-mile track with a roof and an outer wall, and enough electric lights inside the structure to make racing at midnight as practicable as it now is at noon.”
In 1896, it was reported in the Atchison (Kansas) Daily Globe that Maryland had also jumped into the night racing fad:
“The Arlington Jockey Club of Baltimore has inaugurated a racing scheme which has never had a parallel in the whole history of the turf. As is well known among horsemen, the laws of Maryland limit the session of a race meeting to 30 days. The Arlington association opened its track on April 25, and in order to get all possible use of the time allowed by law runs 11 races every day, 6 in the afternoon and 5 at night. It is this night racing that is attracting the attention of the public.”
“A most elaborate electric light plant has been placed in operation, and the grounds are brilliantly lighted. The old grandstand at Arlington has been torn down, there being no use for it. To take its place an immense casino has been erected in the field, almost entirely covering the space within the half mile track. Revolving chairs are used, so that spectators can see most of the races without leaving their seats.”
According to an 1897 article in the Denver (Colorado) Evening Post, electric lights were in use at horse racing tracks in St. Louis and Cincinnati, as well as Baltimore and New York, and Denver was shortly to enjoy such “wholesome” entertainment:
“The track is lighted with clusters of incandescent lights arranged with mathematical precision and in such way as to cast absolutely no shadow on the track. Every movement of the jockies [sic] and horses can be seen as plainly as in the sunlight. ...The meeting promises to bring a large number of horses and race track people to Denver, and will also give all lovers of sport an opportunity of witnessing a clean, well-conducted entertainment in the evening when business people employed during the day can get away and enjoy it.”
And there you have it, the predecessors of Penn National, Mountaineer, Delta Downs, and Los Alamitos—under incandescent light.
“Winter Horse-Racing” The Atchison Champion (Atchison, KS) Tuesday, March 24, 1891; pg. 6; Issue 43; col B.
“Horse Racing on Ice” The Daily Cleveland Herald (Cleveland, OH) Monday, January 18, 1864; Issue 14; col B.
“Horse Racing in New Zealand” The Atchison Champion (Atchison, KS) Friday, April 25, 1890; Issue 21; col B.
“Minnesota Horse Breeders Extend Limits, Racing of Yearlings to Be Permitted” The Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI) Thursday, December 11, 1890; pg. 7; col B.
“Horse Racing and Homicide” The Wisconsin State Register (Portage, WI) Saturday, October 06, 1866; Issue 30; col D.
“Horse Racing by Electric Light” The Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI) Tuesday, August 21, 1894; pg. 2; col E.
“Horse Racing at Night A Novel Project Being Pushed by Some Portland Men” Morning Oregonian (Portland, OR) Thursday, August 16, 1894; pg. 8; Issue 10,959; col A.
“Horse Racing at Night” The Atchison Daily Globe (Atchison, KS) Friday, May 01, 1896; pg. 3; Issue 5,749; col D.
“Horse Racing by Electric Light to Be Inaugurated in Denver” The Denver Evening Post (Denver, CO) Friday, July 09, 1897; pg. 7; col C.