With the Great War ending in November 1918—and after the deaths of nearly 117,000 countrymen—Americans had more reason than ever for patriotic celebrations after enduring the horrors of a war they never wanted to enter—and chose to view with regret and an increasing sense of isolationism afterward. Funny how war can make people feel that way—the denial, the false sense of bravado, not to mention the revisionist attitude in how and why one believes what they do before the barbarism of war becomes real. And how quickly we forget the sacrifices made by others, in favor of our own creature comforts.
On that Fourth of July in 1919, tens of thousands of Americans flocked to racetracks, particularly Latonia and Aqueduct, in record numbers, to enjoy the quintessential American pastime despite record high temperatures. Looking back on the races held that day exposes so much about what has changed regarding thoroughbred racing in this country. At that time, less races with larger fields and more stamina-testing route races with true handicap weights drew large enthusiastic crowds—and horse racing was more sport than business.
At Latonia, the 7-race card featured the ninth running of the Independence Handicap, contested over 1-3/16 mile. The next-to-last day of the 28-day spring meet saw sunny skies and 85 degree temperatures as the first race went to post at 2:15 p.m. As reported by the DRF:
“An epoch was reached in Latonia racing this afternoon when that course was taxed as it never had been taxed before to accommodate an attendance that by far surpassed any former crowd that has witnessed racing over it. An idea can be gleaned as to the immensity of the throng from the fact that programs were out long before the bugle called the horses to the barrier in the initial race, and the management has provided 4,000 more programs than on Derby day.”
The races featured full fields—four had 12 starters each, while the smallest was nine horses (after five pre-race scratches). In addition to the feature race, there was a 6-furlong open claiming race for 3up; a 5 1/2 furlong maiden special weight event for 2-year-old fillies and an identical race for juvenile colts and geldings; a one-mile open allowance race for 3up; a 1-3/16 mile claiming race for 3up colts and geldings only; and a 1-1/2 mile claiming race for 4up.
Notice that other than the juvenile contests only one of the races was a sprint while all the others were a mile and up. Today’s huge 10-12 race cards are often dominated by sprint races, more like tests for quarter horses than thoroughbreds—and when was the last time a claiming race was written on dirt going 12 furlongs? Ideally, you’d like to think condition books are written dominated by sprint races because someone believes that’s all our attention span can handle, but it’s more likely due to the lessening quality of bloodstock due to commercially-popular breeding practices and the quarter-horse mentality introduced to the sport by certain trainers in the past several decades.
Back at Latonia on that 1919 day, a 3-year-old filly named Iwin captured the open allowance race over two 6-year-old veterans, Sands of Pleasure and Bromo—both multiple stakes winners, past and future. How much more interesting would American racing be today if more mixed gender racing occurred not just at the highest levels, but also at the claiming and allowance levels on a daily basis? Instead of contesting open company races among horses clearly matched in abilities especially at the lower levels, we continue to segregate females from male competitors even when the rest of the world has clearly demonstrated it isn’t necessary to do so. Perhaps it makes financial sense to write so many restricted races, but it’s also made the sport so much duller.
It’s also interesting to point out that, as a broodmare, Iwin’s progeny included not only Louisiana Derby winner Boo (Black Toney), but also a Light Brigade colt named Brass Monkey who won 41 races—in 277 starts. In an age when quality horses are lucky to make 15 lifetime starts, what does it say about the state of the sport when history demonstrates to us that horses regularly made over 100 starts and raced at the highest level for years, not just in all-too-brief spurts like today?
Consider the great Kingston(Spendthrift) who, from age 2 to 10, won 89 of 138 races—and only finished out of the money four times. And he still went on to become a leading sire whose progeny included Belmont Stakes winner Ildrim. No rushing him off to stud in order to make a financial killing—for however brief a period his popularity may be, if his first crops don’t produce the expected early winners that seem to be the sole sign today of breeding “success.” Consider that when the first juveniles appear this year for Hard Spun, Street Sense, Stormello and all those others rushed off to stud in recent years.
In New York on that Fourth of July day, a “sweltering humanity invaded the Aqueduct course” fleeing record-high temperatures in the city that neared 100 degrees, and the crowd was so tightly packed that the New York Times noted the thousands of straw hats “suggested a shiny new ballroom floor of yellow pine”—one in which “a skillful dancer might have fox-trotted from stand to rails on the head coverings.” The New York Tribune observed:
“The biggest crowd out to the races this season and by far the greatest multitude ever gathered at Aqueduct, paid an Independence Day tribute to the thoroughbred sport. This was a most glorious tribute to the American turf, though the racegoers suffered the most unusual inconveniences in order to arrive at the course. Because of the great holiday jam of the hoi polloi to get to the Long Island beaches, the race trains at the Penn Station were thrown away off schedule. The railroad had not the equipment necessary to take care of the unprecedented demand and for a long time all ticket sales were stopped. Thousands upon thousands tried the trolley route while other thousands, lucky enough to have the wherewithal, gladdened the hearts of the taxi companies. Long before the time of the first race the regular parking spaces within the grounds were packed with automobiles so that many of the aristocratic late arrivals had to hoof if in from the main highway, ankle deep in dust.”
Can you imagine such holiday crowds today? They came to see the historic Carter Handicap, run for the 21st time over seven furlongs. While the Harry Payne Whitney entry Dominant—returning off a three-year hiatus—was the heavy favorite, it was Joseph Widener’s 5-year-old French-bred gelding Naturalist who set a new track record (1:23) with his win—all while toting 132 pounds. Interestingly, it wasn’t the highest impost Naturalist had carried—earlier in his career he had wired a sloppy Jamaica 6f contest carrying a whopping 140 pounds. A half-brother to Chiclet, a well-named Spearmint filly that ran second in the 1918 Manhattan Handicap, Naturalist’s second dam was the great sprint mare Correction (for whom the Aqueduct handicap is named).
Handicap races today aren’t what they used to be—or is it just that there are no older horses running worthy of great handicap weights? Look no further than the recently-run G2 Suburban Handicap as a prime example. How very disappointing to see such a venerable race fall out of favor due to the lack of worthy champions, or more precisely, quality older horses that run more than three or four times before the Breeders' Cup races (if they make it that far). It may be mutinous to say so, but in many ways the Breeders' Cup has played a major role in the decline of overall racing quality in America.
So, Happy Fourth of July, fellow racing fans! Let us celebrate today all those things, past and present, that make our country so great, including our great horse racing history.