One of the things that make racing—both thoroughbred and standardbred—so great is that it is often an unabashedly sentimental sport. So the old eighth pole at the old Aqueduct track, symbolizing the spot where John P. Grier wrested the lead from Man o’War is the same eighth-pole at the new Aqueduct track today. –Landon Manning, The Noble Animals
Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
The race of which Manning speaks is the 1920 Dwyer, when John P. Grier threatened to beat the great Man o’ War. I read Manning’s words in the spring of 2008, struck by the charm and magic of the history they conveyed; perhaps naively, I thought that those words meant that this vestige of racing history still marked the final furlong at Aqueduct. “Bad news,” I thought when I heard that that was not the case. I had no idea then how good it actually was.
Last summer at Saratoga, I talked to NYRA Chief Operating Officer Hal Handel about The Pole, as we came to call it. He was aware of its existence but not of its whereabouts, though he did know that the pole was no longer on the track at Aqueduct. Naturally, we feared the worst.
Months went by and I pestered him about The Pole; various reports came back as Handel talked to the caretakers of NYRA’s past and present. “I think we gave it away,” he said at one point. At another: “I’ve been told that we donated it to a charity auction.” As agonized as I was at the apparently ignominious end of this relic, he carried on, seeking confirmation of The Pole’s demise.
As the weather grew colder, the tips got hotter. “It was in the backyard at Aqueduct for a long time,” he reported. And so one cold Saturday, out we went, searching the little bit of park left at the Big A. No Pole.
And then one day: “It’s here.” Where? “Here, at Aqueduct. It’s in the workshop.”
In the workshop? It’s been there all along?
The Pole had apparently been removed from the backyard in 2002, when initial preparations were made for the installation of video lottery terminals at Aqueduct. Since then, the Pole has sat in the Aqueduct workshop, largely ignored and unnoticed.
Over the last few months, The Pole has gotten an awful lot of attention from NYRA carpenter Sal Farruggia and director of facilities administration Tony Agnese, both of whom have graciously welcomed a nosy history buff to the workshop on more than one occasion. The Pole is in the process of being cleaned, polished, and painted, restored to the condition it was in back in June of 1959, when it was dedicated, a few months before the grand re-opening of Aqueduct.
It weights about 300 pounds and it’s about 12 feet tall; it’s made of yellow pine, with a ball at the top made of redwood; covered in fiberglass and wood lathe to preserve it, the ball will be re-painted in original gold leaf in the coming months.
And this summer, The Pole will find a new home, in a place of honor at Saratoga Race Course, along the main walkway to the grandstand from the Union Avenue entrance.
“We weren’t sure where we should put it,” said Handel. “We wanted it to be where people could see, could appreciate it. We thought about putting it at Belmont, but we decided that it belongs at Saratoga.”
The Dwyer, which will be run this weekend for the 93rd time, has never been run at Saratoga; it’s been run at Aqueduct, Jamaica, and Belmont. And while the two extant tracks of those three have no small amount of racing history on their grounds, this monument to racing’s greatness does indeed belong at New York’s jewel of racing history, at the track that existed for 55 years before the first running of the Dwyer, where thousands of racing fans can every day stop and marvel at what it represents.
Landon Manning, long time turf writer for the Saratogian, would be proud.
You can read more on the 1920 Dwyer at Brooklyn Backstretch; Ashley Herriman of NYRA has written about the Dwyer brothers, for whom the race is named, and their roles in New York racing.