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Monday, December 23, 2013

Ghosts of Hollywood Past

We knew the day of reckoning was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier to say good-bye to legendary Hollywood Park this weekend. Strictly from a historical standpoint, its closing unequivocally marks the end of a glorious era—a time when horse racing was fashionable, when the race track was a place to be and be seen, when the “Sport of Kings” held relevance to the common man as well as the privileged. The nostalgic final hurrah of the track that once saw the likes of Seabiscuit, Citation, Swaps, Round Table, Gallant Man, Native Diver, Affirmed, John Henry and Lava Man—as well as Happy Issue, Busher, Bewitch, Royal Heroine, Megahertz, Flawlessly, Princess Rooney, Bayakoa, Paseana, Azeri, Nashoba’s Key, and Zenyatta—felt more like a dirge than a swansong. What a contrast to the absolutely electric atmosphere of Nakayama Racecourse in Japan earlier in the day, where 124,000 on-track spectators rejoiced in Orfevre’s victory in the JPN-G1 Arima Kinen

As fans of horse racing, we continually bemoan the declining presence of our sport, in the media and in the national consciousness. Don’t get me wrong: there are all kinds of problems to be dealt with—both real and mere perceptions—but when you watch events like the Arima Kinen, the Arc or the Melbourne Cup, you realize that no matter how “modern” our machine-driven society becomes and how far we continue to move away from our agrarian past and reliance on the horse, there is something wonderful about watching these beautiful animals do what come naturally to them—run. Gathering together in large groups to observe, to celebrate, Nature’s pure gifts of speed, endurance and competitiveness is seemingly innate for human beings. 

So, why can’t American race tracks get it right? Why are places like Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park closed or closing, and grand dames like Hialeah relegated to mere quarter-horse racing? I’m not the first person to say it, but I’ve been among those who have been arguing for it longest: we need LESS RACING in this country! We are diluting the “product”—racing—by overkill. Mies van der Rohe’s well-repeated adage about architecture is apt here: “less is more.” How will it ever come about? Sadly, it looks like by attrition. Only when the last track is shuttered will it be too late to change course.

As an all-too fitting footnote to Hollywood Park’s legend, did anyone happen to notice that the final Hollywood Park winner, Woodman’s Luck—a horse previously most famous for a YouTube video showing him biting Romeo Royale in a race at Del Mar—has an eerie association with Hollywood’s past? More specifically, his third dam Royal Strait Flush was a full-sister to the great undefeated filly Landaluce, a daughter of Seattle Slew who won her debut at Hollywood on July 3, 1982—and was buried in Hollywood’s infield, after her death from a viral infection, just before the Hollywood Futurity later that year. A track-record-setting (1:08), 21-length victory in the 6-furlong Hollywood Lassie brought Landaluce to the attention of Sports Illustrated; the demise of Hollywood Park will likely go unmentioned. Her grave will be relocated to her birthplace, Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, to be replaced by a housing, retail and entertainment development. Ah, isn’t progress grand? 

P.S. You may have noticed (if you were once a regular reader of this blog) that it’s been quite some time since my last posting—well over a year, in fact. My form line would read “first up off a long layoff” so be patient with me as I warm-up my blogging voice. I haven’t been entirely gone—if you are a reader of Hello Race Fans! (if you aren’t, why not?!?), you know that I have been active there all year, handicapping the Kentucky Derby/Oaks prep races in the spring, and handling the weekly round-up feature. To be honest, though, a pervasive malaise towards racing afflicted me much of 2013, with a near-constant disillusionment resulting from the Derby/Oaks fervor (and its fallout) and the general lack of great stars to root for. Oh, there were definitely some, but as quickly as they excited, they disappointed. I’m hoping 2014 will be a damn sight better, don’t you?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Prioress and the Triumph of American Racing

Only in America would they name a sprint race after a horse best known for winning what is universally recognized as “a severe stamina test.”

From Porter's Spirit of the Times, October 31, 1857
On Saturday at Saratoga, the Grade 1 Prioress will be run for 3-year-old fillies and if ever a race was misnamed it is this one. Contested at six furlongs since its inaugural offering in 1948, the Prioress Stakes was first run at Jamaica Race Course, then Aqueduct, followed by Belmont and now Saratoga. However, the 19th century mare for whom this race is named, royally-bred and part of a tremendously influential family of siblings out of the Glencoe mare Reel, will forever be remembered as the first American-bred and American-owned horse to win a race in England, the prestigious 2-1/4 mile Cesarewitch Handicap in 1857.

In 2008, Teresa Genaro over at Brooklyn Backstretch delved into the New York Times coverage of Prioress’ European campaign, particularly two letters written by a Newmarket correspondent reacting to her Cesarewitch win by concluding she “is only a very second-rate animal.” At Thoroughbred Heritage, Patricia Erigero elaborates more upon Prioress’ career, including the interesting fact that the year following her Cesarewitch win Prioress dead-heated for second in the same race, this time carrying 126 lbs., the second highest weight in the field. During her racing career, she won carrying as much as 140 lbs., although she also failed to win at that weight too, attempted at age 7—and over a distance of three miles. Yes, three miles!

During my recent stint at the National Sporting Library, I uncovered a fascinating account of Prioress’ Cesarewitch victory in Porter’s Spirit of the Times (vol. III, no. 9, October 31, 1857), the hard-to-find publication edited by William Porter after he left his position as editor (and co-founder) at the older Spirit of the Times paper; after Porter’s death in 1858, it became known as Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. The issue in question featured the race as its cover story, with an illustration of Prioress defeating El Hakim and Queen Bess in the run-off race contested on the same day as the Cesarewitch after the big event ended in a triple dead heat.

The paper reprinted the October 14 London Times race results with a list of all 34 competitors, carrying weights ranging 129 lbs. (carried by Fisherman and Warlock, the later only because his jockey was six pounds overweight) to a mere 66 lbs (carried by the 3-year-old fillies Wild Honey and Queen Bess). Can you imagine a 66-pound jockey?!? The 3-year-old colt El Hakim carried 93 lbs, as did 4-year-old Prioress. The betting public favored 3-year-old colt M. Dobler at 4-1, with El Hakim second choice at 8-1; Queen Bess was 30-1, while the American invader Prioress went to post at 100-1.

Porter’s reporter, coyly known only as “Don John,” sets the scene thusly:

Imagine the wide expanse of that noblest race track in the world (or rather series of tracks), embracing many miles of mossy turf, with thousands of spectators from all parts of the United Kingdom, and Continental Europe, assembled to witness the great and all-engrossing struggle for the Cesarewitch; and then conceive, if you can, the feverish anxiety manifested, when no less than thirty-four thorough-bred horses appeared, saddled for the fray, their several jockeys attired in all the glory of silk and satin of the rainbow’s hues, whilst the animals they bestrode represented the flower of English racing chivalry—the large majority of them having previously won honor and renown in many a well-contested field, whilst of the small minority of candidates for Turf honors, high hopes were entertained by their friends and owners. It was an array to make the eye brighten, the pulse quicken, and the whole frame to quiver with excitement, as the gallant squadron passed in review, prior to wheeling into line for that grand charge, the result of which was awaited with so much anxiety, and which would bring joy to some, and the confusion of defeat to others; whilst, causing, perhaps, a couple of millions of dollars to change owners in a few short moments. Can you wonder that, although hastily scanning with eager eye the form and condition of each other candidate, I gave a long and lingering gaze to the gallant mare who was the sole representative of America; or that, as she passed down the track, I wished her “God speed” on the journey homewards, and then resigned myself to fate.

I love his description of the start:

The starter, flag in hand, gathered his noble field of horses together, and after one or two attempts, brought them to a stand still line. In a moment the red signal fell, and away they went, helter-skelter, like a cluster of bees, close together, for the dash of two and a quarter miles, the start being a beautiful and most effective one.

After the start, Prioress settled mid-pack with El Hakim, while Queen Bess battled for the early lead. As the correspondent notes, “at the Bushes the pace began to tell” and Queen Bess took the clear lead with Prioress and El Hakim joining her as they descended the hill and approached the cords. El Hakim was at Queen Bess’ neck, while Prioress is described as “running by herself on the far side.” As the correspondent notes:

One of the most exciting Cesarewitch finishes ever seen then ensured. Prioress, half way up the cords, seemed to be about coming in alone, but the tiny jockeys of El Hakim and Queen Bess made a determined set to, and the judge, unable to separate the first three, pronounced a dead heat.

They finished the 18-furlong event in a time of 4:09.

What happened next is an extraordinary thing—a deciding heat of another 2-1/4 miles “run after the last race in a deepening twilight, which rendered it impossible to distinguish the colors of the riders at a distance.” Our intrepid correspondent reports:

El Hakim was first off, but after going about fifty yards, Prioress, overpowering [her jockey] Fordham, rushed to the front, and carried on the running to the ditch gap, where she was pulled back, and lay about three lengths in the rear, Queen Bess going on with the lead, closely attended by El Hakim. On coming down the Bushes hill, Prioress hung to the left, and a shout was raised of “the American’s beaten!” But Fordham roused the mare with his whip, and before reaching the foot of the hill she bore her colors in advance, and quitting her opponents half-way up the cords, won cleverly by a length and a half; El Hakim beating Queen Bess by a head only for second place. A loud and prolonged cheer hailed the triumph of the American colors, and [owner] Mr. Ten Broeck was warmly congratulated upon the first victory achieved by him in England.

The “second” Cesarewitch of 1857 was concluded in 4:15, and, interestingly, the very next day Mr. Richard Ten Broeck won his second race on English soil, the Bedford Stakes with his 2-year-old filly Belle, also ridden by Fordham.

However, it was Prioress’ victory that had all of America gloating. Porter’s Spirit of the Times declared it a “Victory of America Over All England” and within its historical context, this race marked a key moment in American racing. Think of it, sending a horse—via pre-Civil War means of transportation—abroad to race in the country where the sport of thoroughbred racing first began, not to mention the country from which the United States had but relatively recently acquired its independence. Even today, other than the outstandingly-sporting Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey, it’s rare for American horses to ship abroad (other than for the lucrative Dubai World Cup races). So, Richard Ten Broeck’s English invasion marked a significant event.

As John Dizikes notes in his book Sportsmen and Gamesmen, American racing of the 1850s occurred on dirt tracks that were oval in shape and run in a counterclockwise manner, much different from the grassy, irregular meandering courses found in England where contestants ran to “the Right.” Also, as Dizikes rightly contends, “English horsemen took the traditional view that the race was against the competition and not the clock.” (p. 129). So, fundamentally, American racing had diverged from whence it first emerged, and its proponents sought to promote its legitimacy by taking on the staid English traditionalists on their own turf. For that reason alone, the Americans had reason to celebrate, and Porter’s correspondent led the cheer:

Victory! Victory! Victory! a plain, straightforward, honest victory at last; not the victory of a match race between horse and horse, but the victory of America over all England, in the greatest handicap race of the English racing year. The legitimate triumph of “Young America” over “Old England,” the defeat of the flower of English racing stock by the American mare Prioress, is the feat I have to record—a feat which obliterates the memory of previous disasters, and compensates for all the disappointments to which American sporting men—proud of their native land, and firmly convinced of the equality at least of the American with the English horse—have been subjected.

We have been accused of being a nation of boasters; our vaunted equality as breeders and trainers of race-horses has been laughed at; our debut at Goodwood, with animals out of all form and condition, enabled our victors to sneer at our puny efforts, as they described them, whilst our subsequent appearances elsewhere have been synonymous with defeat. It is now our turn to smile. We have beaten the English at their own game; and they are now content to admit that we had reasons and cogent ones, for the ground we took at starting, and that, with health and condition on our side, we were at least their equals. They expressed a desire that we should win one race, at least, in reward of the “pluck” and spirit we had displayed in sending horses across the wide Atlantic to compete with them. We have gratified that desire, and carried off the richest prize that was open to our competition; a prize far superior, in both intrinsic value and as a racing test, to the much-coveted Goodwood Cup, and a prize of which we may justly feel proud. As we bore defeat after defeat with meekness, confident in our strength, and that the time would inevitably come, when a victory worthy of us would be ours, so let us bear ourselves in the hour of legitimate triumph.

That’s why Prioress meant so much historically, regardless of her overall career, failure as a broodmare and early death—and why a mere sprint race 155 years later fittingly celebrates our racing history for a change.


John Dizikes’s chapter on “Richard Ten Broeck and the American Invasion” pp. 124-157, in his Sportsmen and Gamesmen: From the Years that Shaped American Ideas about Winning and Losing and How to Play the Game (Houghton Mifflin, 1981; reprinted University of Missouri Press, 2002) is well worth reading as an informative study of mid-19th century American horse racing—the societal context of the sport as well as the subculture formed within it. It’s available free via Google Books here.