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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Night Racing

Last year I wrote a post called “Curiosities of Winter and Night Racing” that included information about some of the earliest instances of electric lights being used for night racing in the United States. Referencing an August 21, 1894 article in the Milwaukee Sentinel, I discovered that Mazpeth Park in Newton, New Jersey was about to open a 30-day meet “fitted with 880 incandescent lights and 22 arc lamps.” Portland, Oregon also planned for a roofed half-mile track with electric lights around the same time. By 1896, Baltimore’s Arlington Jockey Club had night racing, and soon after so too did Cincinnati, Baltimore, New York and Denver.

Well, in the midst of my current research on horse racing in western Pennsylvania, I stumbled across an August 18, 1894 article in Harper’s Weekly called “Horse-Racing By Electric Light” which makes clear that St. Louis actually had the first night-time racing. Here it is in its entirety:
“There is but one place in the world in which horse-racing may be seen at night. That is in St. Louis, Missouri. The track was built as a regulation daylight race-course, but Missouri pool laws soon after went into force and drove all the “talent” to the track across the river in East St. Louis. A stockholder in the venture suggested that the place be lighted up and run at night as a sort of curiosity, but he did not dream that horses could be run successfully in a long meeting at the full distances that are common on short courses. The venture was tried, however, and it succeeded from the start. Before the summer and fall were half gone the grand stand would not hold the people who thronged to see the races.”

“When the track was opened for business the stabling accommodations were large enough for but forty horses. Now more than seven hundred racers have their homes on the grounds, and new quarters are being built every month. All of the stables are lighted by electricity, and the stable-grounds are also well illuminated. The track is kept in good condition, and the rules that govern the National Association apply in its government. If a jockey has been ruled off the big daylight tracks he cannot ride here, and a horse that has been disqualified elsewhere, or any owner who stands in the shadow of irregularity, has no recognition. The attendance this season has averaged two thousand people a night.”

“There is a bunch of electric lamps every twenty-five feet around the track, which is five-eighths of a mile in length. Over twenty thousand candle-power is expended on the course alone, not to speak of the grand stand and those scattered about other parts of the grounds.”

“The entire atmosphere of the race-course, judged from a distance, is that of a circus. There are hackmen, tamale-venders, peanut-sellers, ticket-peddlers, and what not.”

“About the interior is evidence of everything but that which we commonly associate with horse-racing. The big plaza is brilliantly lighted by incandescent lights, and a throng of people in the cool garments of summer evening wear stroll slowly along to the entrance of the grand stand, which, in a glare of light, stands out against the dark sky in front.”

“When the track is lighted every part of it can be seen, and it shows almost which at the turns, where the force of light is doubled. Away on the back stretch a pair of horses wearily drag a scraper along near the fence. Down in front of the grand stand the clods can be as plainly seen as if it were daytime. Just across the track is the judges’ little stand, with a great dial in front of it. “Next race, 8:30,” it says. It is an odd time to see on an announcement dial at a race-course. The entire thing is strange. There is no dust, no glaring sun, no panting horses, and no perspiring jockeys.”

“Everything is managed as in the regular meeting.”

“The trumpeter calls the horses to the post exactly at 8:30. They enter the track at the gate at the first turn, and parade up past the grand stand and return to the start. This is done in order to give the audience familiarity with the numbers and colors.”

“Until this moment there is nothing in the general atmosphere or familiar sights about the place to remind one of a race-course. But the work of the starter and his marshal is at once familiar. The animals prance, break away, and are driven back time and again. Finally the flag falls.”

“They’re off!” is the shout that goes up from one end of the grand stand to the other. The audience rises. Now it is the daylight race-course over again. The scene is an exciting one. Suddenly, as the racers come into the stretch, a powerful search-light is thrown on them from one of four little elevated houses that are situated at the turns. The colors, even to those of the sashes worn by the jockeys, stand out in the perfection of clearness. The search-light follows the horses around the turn, and then another one takes its place as the animals break into the stretch down past the stand. Never was a daylight race more exciting than this. The spectators yell like mad as the animals go by the judges with a rush. As they reach the turn they go into the glare of the steel-blue search-light, and again is the beautiful color effect presented. The finishes are generally exciting, and the running fair.”
What I found most interesting (in addition to the idea of spotlights illuminating the racers) is the illustration by Max F. Klepper (after a sketch by A. Russell) that accompanies the article:

 Source: “Horse-Racing By Electric Light” Harper’s Weekly, August 18, 1894, p. 788.