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Monday, June 4, 2012

How I’m Spending My Summer Vacation

Being in academia, my summers are usually pretty low-key affairs. Lots of home improvement projects mixed with sitting by the pool, playing with the dog, and watching a ton of horse racing. This summer is different. As a rather natural extension of my research on Pittsburgh industrialists and their role in the high-rise development of downtown Pittsburgh, I fell into another topic, fascinating to me and fortunately virtually untouched in academic circles: the history of horse racing in western Pennsylvania—the breeding and racing of both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. For that reason, I’m thrilled to have been selected for the 2012-13 John H. Daniels Fellowship at the National Sporting Library & Museum! For two weeks in late July, I’ll be immersed in their collection and loving every minute of it.

Why western Pennsylvania? In this frontier region physically and culturally isolated from Eastern cities until the mid-19th century, western Pennsylvanians enjoyed the competitive nature of horse racing, with numerous informal contests held on city streets and farm fields, as well as well-attended events at race tracks, driving parks and important agricultural meetings. Newspaper accounts of the era tell us as much, as do other tangible bits of evidence. Nearly every sizeable town in western Pennsylvania once had a race track or “driving park.” Some county fairs (such as those in Butler, Clearfield, Greene, and Indiana counties) still host harness and/or flat racing events, and, of course, we have The Meadows and Presque Isle Downs, but so many more have disappeared. I intend to not only document these long-gone race tracks (some of which had sizeable grandstands and other structures), but also examine more thoroughly how their lands were repurposed or redeveloped.

Luna Park, c. 1907
Right here in Johnstown there were once two tracks: the Tri-County Driving Park Association’s track at Luna Park (built in 1904) is now the footprint of Roxbury Park; the Johnstown Driving Park Association built its track in Westmont in 1893, and by 1905 it had closed, now forming the streets surrounding the gracious tree-lined Luzerne Street.

Waynesburg Fairgrounds
Closer to home, in Washington County, the former Millsboro Driving Park was a 60’ wide half-mile track constructed in 1875 on what is locally known as Sandy Plains. In case you’re interested in a major restoration project, it’s currently for sale, for $425,000. In my home county of Greene, the Waynesburg Fair and Agricultural Association built a track and grandstand (seating 2,500) in 1912 (the track remains, but the old wooden grandstand has been replaced); I haven’t yet been able to nail down the construction date for the Carmichaels Fairgrounds, but have found its track record was set by a pacer named Beaut Kennedy in 1911, so it’s at least that old.
Carmichaels Fairgrounds
 These are but a few of the many tracks I’m currently exploring, and for that I need help. If you or anyone you know has old photographs or information about these tracks, please leave me a comment here or send me an email (see About Me information in right sidebar). I’m basically interested in all the counties west of the Allegheny Mountains: Erie, Crawford, Mercer, Lawrence, Beaver, Washington, Greene, Fayette, Westmoreland, Allegheny, Butler, Venango, Warren, McKean, Forest, Elk, Cameron, Clarion, Jefferson, Clearfield, Armstrong, Indiana, Cambria, Blair, Bedford and Somerset.

In addition to racetracks, the breeding of race horses occurred in western Pennsylvania as well. While congressman William Lawrence Scott’s late 19th century Algeria Stock Farm in Erie County is well known—counting English St. Leger winner Rayon d’Or among its important stallions—few realize that as early as 1811, the imported English race horse Honest John (by Derby winner Sir Peter Teazle) stood stud at Morganza in Washington County. In the early 1890s, in Franklin, near Oil City, Prospect Hill Stud Farm bred trotters of such quality that period writers dubbed it the “Palo Alto of the East” in reference to the great California stud farm of Governor Leland Stanford. Such information is outside the mainstream discussion of American breeding; nevertheless, it is an important part of the larger picture of breeding history, and certainly the role western Pennsylvania breeders played. It is the intent of my research to help fill in the historical gaps, and demonstrate to a contemporary audience just how important horse racing once was—and can continue to be—in this part of the Commonwealth.

I’m also fascinated by the western Pennsylvanians involved in the sport, such as Captain Samuel S. Brown, owner of Senorita Stock Farm (now part of Kentucky Horse Park), but also a farm in Bridgeport, near Monongahela, PA. He won the 1905 Kentucky Derby with Agile, the 1904 Travers with Broomstick, and the 1886 Suburban with Troubadour—and he made his money as a Pittsburgh industrialist. John W. Galbreath wasn’t a Pittsburgher, per se, but as a long-time owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates we’ll claim him as such; synonymous with Darby Dan Farm, he and fellow Pittsburgher Paul Mellon (Rokeby Stables) share the rare feat of having captured both the Kentucky Derby and the Epsom (English) Derby. How many non-racing fans realized how significant Galbreath’s champion Roberto (yes, named after the tragic Pirate great Roberto Clemente) is even in today’s bloodlines? If you haven’t done so before, read my 2009 blog post about how Art Rooney Sr.’s talent for playing the ponies helped built a legendary football team. These are but the tip of an iceberg.

There’s also so much more to explore about: jockey Donna Burnham who rode for Jim Zimmerman at several race meets at Waynesburg before moving on to the big time; Hall of Fame harness driver (and Greene County native) Dave Palone; and someone named V. J. Reynolds from Waynesburg who, according to the Daily Racing Form in 1910 arrived at Lexington with three 2-year-olds and a 3-year-old, with the intent of racing over the Kentucky circuit. Who was this guy?!? These are the kinds of things I’m fascinated with, which should make for a busy yet enjoyable summer.