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.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and Shug McGaughey sits placidly in a chair in the shedrow of barn 20. Intent on his Blackberry, he seems pleasantly oblivious: to approaching visitors; to an impending storm making itself known in stirring winds and scudding clouds; to a tempest of another kind, one created by the media as he gets ready to take a shot at the Preakness and at making racing history.
When he finally looks up, he is, perhaps surprisingly after the last week, affably inclined to talk, even when the name of That Other Derby Horse is brought up.
“I was looking forward to going to Pimlico with Easy Goer,” he says, “because we didn’t have any comparison. Was Sunday Silence that much better, or did we just not run our race?”
Like Orb, Easy Goer was favored in his Kentucky Derby, in 1989. McGaughey is not alone in having run two Kentucky Derby favorites: at least 16 trainers have done it. His 50% win percentage with Derby favorites, though, is surpassed by only one man: Henry Forrest, whose only two Derby starters, Kauai King in 1966 and Forward Pass in 1968, were both favored and both won (the latter via disqualification). Each would also win the Preakness, a race Easy Goer lost Preakness by an agonizing nose.
“I was disappointed,” McGaughey acknowledges philosophically. “But I knew we were in the ballgame.
“Then we got back up here, and everything went right for us. I figured that he liked this big old race track better.”
Eight lengths better, apparently, as Easy Goer came home to Belmont and crushed the Triple Crown dreams of his nemesis Sunday Silence, though McGaughey says that’s not what he was thinking about.
“That never came into my thought process,” he maintains, his voice stubbornly Kentucky even after decades in New York . “Never did I want to keep someone from winning the Triple Crown. I was trying to win the Belmont, for Mr. Phipps, probably, more than myself.”
“Mr. Phipps” is Ogden Phipps, father of the Ogden Phipps that co-owns and co-bred Orb, and his name leads to a tangle of memories.
“Mr. Phipps absolutely loved this,” McGaughey says, leaning on the rail that crosses the barn door, gesturing to the shedrow. “He loved his horses.”
In full-fledged reminiscence mode, McGaughey goes on. “A month before he died [at age 93, in 2002], he called me and said, ‘I hear you’re going to work the two-year-olds.’ We were at Palm Beach Downs, and I said, ‘That’s right, Mr. Phipps.’ He said, ‘What day?’ I said, ‘What day do you want to come?’”
McGaughey pauses, clears his throat.
“I wasn’t going to work the two-year-olds,” he says, still with the air of confiding a secret, more than a decade later.
“It was March,” he drawls, emphasizing the month, pausing for a laugh he knows is sure to come. “So I called Dinny [Phipps’ son] and I said, ‘Listen, he’s going to think they’re working, but they’re not.’ At that time, he wouldn’t have known the difference.”
Mr. Phipps came and he watched the horses, sitting on the bleachers at Palm Beach Downs, at the barn afterward eating a sandwich and drinking “some kind of liqueur.” “I don’t know what the hell it was,” McGaughey says.
“And then we’d get the horses out so that he could see them. That’s what he really liked: he liked the young ones, because that was kind of the dream: Is one of these going to be a real good one?”
Standing halfway down the shedrow, McGaughey recalls his first day at barn 20. “They brought me out of Kentucky,” he says. “I was standing down at the end of the barn, and I saw Mr. Phipps come in right here. That might be the longest walk I ever made in my life.”
When Easy Goer was a yearling, he and Mr. Phipps went to Kentucky to see the Alydar colt. “He was out of Relaxing, so that was a pretty big deal to him,” he remembers--Relaxing, who won the Firenze and the Gallant Fox and the Assault and the Delaware Handicap, and who was third, beaten less than a length, to John Henry in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
“We were on the plane coming back, and he said, ‘I guess the Relaxing’s the best one,’ McGaughey goes on. “What was I going to say, no? ‘I don’t think so’? I said, ‘I guess so.’
“He would have gotten a huge thrill out of last Saturday, but he would have gotten a huge thrill out of it for me…for us. Really and truly, that’s the kind of guy he was.”
In the immediate aftermath of winning the Kentucky Derby, McGaughey said several times that he wished he’d won the Derby when he was younger so that he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. With a week to reflect, he’s reconsidered.
“I don’t know if that’s exactly true,” he admits. “I think I probably have more appreciation for it now than I would have in 1989. I just think after wanting to do something for so long that I appreciate it a lot more now. People have been able to kind of look and watch me over the years, and maybe they’ve got a little more appreciation, too, of the time we’ve put in, not only with the horses that are here now but for however long I’ve been doing this.”
The sound of a rake in the shedrow methodically, meticulously underscores his words, the literal and symbolic accompaniment to his paeans to the people who work with him as he reels off the names of half a dozen people who were with when he had Easy Goer and who still work with him now, among them Easy Goer’s groom, Victor…. who is now one of the barn’s night watchmen.
“That’s made the whole journey that much more enjoyable to me: to watch it and watch the people appreciate it. The morale around here is pretty high,” he says, in what may be the understatement of the week.
Slipping easily between memories that go back a quarter century and those that go back a week, he smiles as he thinks about 1989.
“To go to the Derby with the Derby favorite…it was kind of cool, you know?” he asks rhetorically. “Going this year, it was pretty cool, too, you know, but I had a whole different perspective on it than I had when I went down there the last time.
“After the Florida Derby, I told the people around me, ‘We’re going to go there and have fun. I was excited. With Easy Goer, I was probably a lot more uptight. I was younger and I probably thought I was a little sharper than I really was.”
The wind has picked up, and the cell phones start to quiver with storm alerts. Clouds looming, the sky darkening, McGaughey steps back toward the tranquility of his shedrow.
“It’s been a remarkable journey for me, from where I started to where I’m standing today,” he observes. “I’m hugely appreciative. I was thinking about that driving back here today, how lucky I was in 1986 when I got the call--not to be around these kind of horses, but to be around these kind of people.”
On Sunday afternoon, a bouquet of roses lay outside barn 20 on the Belmont backstretch, their colors nearly matching the red paint on the sign identifying the barn as the home of the Phipps Stable. The bouquet wasn’t quite as imposing as the blanket of roses that had been presented the day before, its meaning less grandiose. It was not a celebration of victory; it was, rather, a welcome home.
A handful of people waited for news of the van en route from Long Island MacArthur Airport, the van carrying half a dozen horses that had flown from Louisville that morning. The names of the horses were not unfamiliar: Hungry Island, the graded stakes winner second by a neck in this year’s Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, and Point of Entry, the multiple Grade I winner, scratched, disappointingly, from the Wood Reserve Turf Classic were among those heading home.
But they and their stablemates had to wait their turn to get off the van…pride of place was given to the winner of Kentucky Derby 139, who walked down the chute and into his shedrow attended by a small shadow of paparazzi and fans, eager to welcome Orb home.
It had been months since he’d been at Belmont: after breaking his maiden at Aqueduct last November, he’d headed south, spending the winter at Payson Park before traveling to Churchill Downs to contest the Kentucky Derby. He might have headed straight to Baltimore from Louisville, but instead, his trainer Shug McGaughey opted to come back to Belmont for a week or so.
McGaughey’s week has been tougher than Orb’s: the trainer has made multiple media appearances, done countless interviews. Orb stayed close to barn 20 until Wednesday morning, when he headed to the track in the rain for a jog, then went back on Thursday to gallop. He’s expected to breeze on Monday before leaving for Pimlico on Tuesday.
For the fourth time since 2003, New Yorkers will have the chance to root home one of their own in the Preakness, in the hope that he’ll come back to Belmont in June with a chance to win the Triple Crown. The roots of Team Orb run deep in the Empire State: McGaughey has trained here for decades, and Orb’s owners, Stuart S. Janney III and Phipps Stable, have been pillars of racing in this state, as owners, breeders, and members of NYRA’s board.
So we kick off this year’s Belmont Stakes blog by welcoming Orb back to Belmont. Over the next month we’ll follow him to Pimlico, and we hope back home for a run at the first Triple Crown in 35 years.
We’ll also, as usual, dig into the history of the Belmont Stakes; we’ll look at some of the other horses that will be running on Belmont day; we’ll check out the latest addition to NYRA’s stakes calendar, a spring version of the popular New York Showcase Day on June 1.
So…welcome back. Welcome back to Belmont. Welcome back to the blog. And welcome back to Shug and Orb, winners of Kentucky Derby 139.
I’m not one of those New Yorkers who thinks that our city is the center of universe and that there’s nowhere better than here. There’s a lot to love about New York; there’s also a lot that’s maddening, if not exasperating, if not infuriating.
There are certain New York things that I love with an almost unreasoning affection. I love coffee from the carts on the street. I love the Empire State Building when it’s red and green at Christmas time. I love walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. I love the subway.
And I love the Belmont. I know that its success and its relevance often depend on the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and lacking a potential Triple Crown winner, it can be something of an afterthought in a Triple Crown season, its winners dismissed as the best of what’s left of the 3-year-olds after a rigorous six months of racing.
So when I’ll Have Another was scratched on Friday morning, after we had been assured that the horse would be OK, I thought...It’s OK. It’s still Belmont day. It’s still going to be great.
But what if it weren’t? What if nobody came? What if everyone were too disappointed to enjoy themselves? What if, as the forecasters suddenly started saying, it rained all day?
But they did come, and they did enjoy themselves. All of those people who scrambled to buy tickets to try to see a Triple Crown winner decided to come anyway (or gave or sold their tickets to people who wanted to be there), and they cheered and bet and ate and drank their way through 13 races, through clouds and sunshine and only a few, a very few drops of rain.
By the time the Belmont rolled around, while it might not have been exactly OK that they weren’t going to see a horse try to win the Triple Crown, they seemed to have made peace with that reality and given themselves over to the thrill of the race itself.
I sat with my brother and our friends for the race, and in front of me, middle-aged men and women formed a kick line during “New York, New York,” moving to the sound of the thousands around us singing as the horses came on to the track. And yeah, I got goose bumps, because it was one of those perfect New York moments, and one that we get only once a year.
And when it was over, it was Union Rags, who romped over this track last fall in the Champagne. We learned his story – that his owner sold him, then dreamt about him, then bought him back, for a lot more money. We watched him flounder this spring…and on Saturday, we watched him squeeze through an impossibly small hole, guided by John Velazquez, one of New York’s own, who will go into the Hall of Fame this year.
This year’s Belmont Stakes wasn’t we thought, or hoped, it would be. But by Saturday night, by the time Phyllis Wyeth had sped down the ramp to the winner’s circle in her wheelchair, by the time she clutched the Belmont Stakes trophy with Michael Matz, by the time Velazquez had explained one more time how he and Union Rags made it through that little space on the rail…we had another day of Belmont Stakes memories, a day of speed and class and redemption and a dream come true, a day when it was maybe OK to think that at least for a little while, New York was the center of the (racing) universe.