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.
“’We bid you welcome to our cabin by the sea.’”
With these words, the Coney Island Jockey Club announced its existence in September, 1879. Headed by Leonard Jerome, the club was formed to build a new racetrack in Brooklyn; “the sea” was Sheepshead Bay, in the southwest corner of the borough, and the racetrack that took its name opened in June, 1880.
The track took full advantage of its shorefront location, building, according to an 1880 article in the New York Times, a clubhouse that afforded a “full and commanding view of the ocean, [with] a broad piazza extending along the ocean front of the building.” Ferries transported customers from the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, and from a dock at East 23rd Street directly to the entrance of the track.
On opening day, June 19, 1880, praise for the track’s convenience and appearance were unequivocal, the grandstand said to be “without equal” in the country. The racing was pretty good, too: five races were held on that first card, two stakes and a steeplechase.
View of the Sheepshead Bay Course
© Library of Congress Popular Graphic Arts Collection
The names of the two stakes, the Tidal and the Foam, invoked the track’s location, and the stature of the winners indicated the quality of the racing. For three-year-old colts, the Tidal was won by Luke Blackburn, whose Brooklyn connections went deep; he was owned by Brooklyn’s own Dwyer brothers, and both his trainer, James Rowe, and his jockey, James McLaughlin, also lived in Brooklyn. In fact, all three lived on a block in Park Slope known as Sportsmen’s Row.
Luke Blackburn’s victory, wrote the Times, “was a very popular one, especially with the Brooklyn people, many of whom shouted excitedly as he came up the stretch in the lead.” The horse would win 22 of 24 races that year; decades later, Rowe and McLaughlin would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Between them, the two men won eight Belmont Stakes as jockeys: Rowe in 1872 and 1873, and McLaughlin set the record with six wins between 1882 and 1888. Eddie Arcaro tied that record in 1955.
The Foam Stakes for two-year-olds was won by Spinaway, owned by George Lorillard, and according to William H.P. Robertson, she won seven of nine races and was the champion juvenile filly of her year. Her legacy lives on in the stakes race that’s been run at Saratoga since 1881, the year after she made her debut.
That first Sheepshead Bay meeting ended on June 26. In the 80 races that were run, Lorillard was the leading owner by money earned, with the Dwyer brothers second. Spinaway’s jockey Hughes (no first name given) took the jockey title, followed by McLaughlin.
But it was more than a striking environment and good racing that put Sheepshead Bay on the sporting map: in 1886, the track introduced turf racing to the United States. The steeplechase course was eliminated to make room for a one-mile turf course, and among the races run over it that year was the fittingly, if not originally, named Green Grass Stakes, won by Dry Monopole.
Given the current popularity of turf racing and its historical significance overseas, the reaction of the Times writer at the end of that Sheepshead Bay meeting may come as something of a surprise:
The grass track at Sheepshead Bay has been a failure…Training horses on a dirt track and running them on turf could not have been expected to succeed and was not popular as a novelty. In a couple of years…the attempt may be made to convince American horsemen not afflicted with Anglomania that it can be used with safety, but the Jockey Club will be obliged to make “moors and downs” to train upon in the meantime.” (“Turf Notes”)
He may have had a point, but he didn’t get it exactly right: 127 years later, the turf racing at Sheepshead Bay is commemorated in a stakes race—on the grass, of course—at Belmont Park, the track to which some of the Coney Island Jockey Club’s most prominent fixtures, the Futurity and the Suburban, were moved after the demise of the pretty, and prestigious, “cabin by the sea” at Sheepshead Bay.
1886 Sheepshead Bay Program
© Coney Island Jockey Club
Consulted and quoted
Coney Island Jockey Club program, Coney Island Jockey Club Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.
“Good Racing Near The Sea,” New York Times, June 20, 1880.
“Hark, ‘Tis The Troubadour,” New York Times, June 11, 1886.
“Miscellaneous City News,” New York Times, June 19, 1880.
“Racing at the Sea-Shore,” New York Times, June 27, 1880.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Bonanza Books, 1964.
“The Coney Island Jockey Club: An Organization Which Was Needed On Long Island,” New York Times, September 5, 1879.
“The Coney Island Jockey Club: The New Race-Course And Its New Club-House,” New York Times, March 28, 1880.
“The Futurity at Sheepshead Bay, Sept. 03, 1888, value $50,000 won by Proctor Knott.” Library of Congress, Popular Graphic Arts Collection, LC-DIG-pga-00720
“Turf Notes,” New York Times, June 28, 1886.