One of the reasons for my long silence here is that I’ve been fabulously busy recently. In particular, I spent several weeks buried in old Brooklyn newspaper archives, manuscripts and ephemera at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and research from the Keeneland Library for a story I was researching about the grand history of horse racing in Brooklyn. For about 30 years, Brooklyn racing had no peer, and the borough in many ways grew around its famous racetracks. The story was as fun as any I’ve written. You can read it here, in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section, and the following is a short passage.
There are no obvious traces left of Brooklyn’s grand horse racing past. Not even a plaque where any of its three storied racetracks once stood, reminding unsuspecting passersby of the famed circuit that prospered there for three decades and laid the foundation for the modern game. The still-mourned Ebbets Field has a small plaque marking its former site, but before Brooklyn was a baseball town it had been synonymous with horse racing. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle observed around the turn of the 20th century that “the sport for which Brooklyn is most famed is horse racing.”
There are no mourners left for seaside Brighton Beach, Gravesend, and the grandest of them all, Sheepshead Bay, known in its time as America’s Ascot. Together they made Brooklyn the racing capital of America. Like other racetracks in New York they closed by the end of 1910, casualties of a prohibition on gambling in the state. That ban was lifted in 1913, but by then, the power center of New York racing had moved eastward into the more open spaces of Queens and Long Island. The Brooklyn trio never reopened, supplanted by the newer courses of Aqueduct, Jamaica, and magnificent Belmont.
Aqueduct is the only track left within city limits. It opened last Friday for its six-month slog through almost three seasons. It will soon become more like a casino with the addition of thousands of slot machines.
As strange as it sounds, it was easier to be a racing fan in New York City a century ago than today. The subway runs to Aqueduct, but no direct line runs to Belmont after the Long Island Railroad eliminated daily service. A yellow school bus now picks up racegoers once in the morning at a nearby station.
By the early 1880’s, one could reach the beachfront of Coney Island, home to the Brighton Beach course and within a mile of Sheepshead Bay, by any of nine steam railroads and one horse-car line. By 1886, the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad, today’s F subway line, deposited racegoers at the Gravesend entrance.
Closer inspection of Brooklyn’s history reveals a fixed legacy – for racing and New York. The Brooklyn tracks started everyday racing from spring to fall, established great fixtures such as the Suburban and Brooklyn, moved the classics from four miles to 1 1/4 miles, and gave away purses that made racing broadly profitable. Neighborhoods rose around the tracks, and the most extensive railway system in the country developed as a way to carry racegoers to these ever-popular locations.