Aerial view of Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
Back in the days when I was a little Bunny, 4 to 5 years old, my father, an Army officer, was stationed in Long Island, N.Y. My mother, my sister and I would take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan four days a week for ballet class. The train passed right next to the racetrack and would announce, “Belmont Park”. Every single time my mother would say, “Look, there’s Belmont. That’s where Secretariat won the Triple Crown.”
Who could have imagined at that time I would later be enamored with everything horseracing. We were living just minutes down the street when Point Given (who I love by the way!) won his Belmont. Who could blame me for missing the race - I was only 4 1/2 years old!
The history of racetracks themselves can be quite interesting. Maybe when we all turn to watch this year’s Super Saturday card at Belmont Park, knowing just a little bit about the man who is responsible for building the track will leave us with a deeper appreciation for the races as a whole.
August Belmont Jr. had a massive impact on horse racing, not only for breeding Man o’ War, but also for saving horseracing in New York. He was the first chairman of The Jockey Club that, since 1894, is the registry and rulebook for Thoroughbred breeding in America. Aside from this prestigious title, Belmont was one of the nine founding members of the National Steeplechase Association in 1895 as well as the chairman of the New York Racing Commission. Belmont will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2013, along with Paul Mellon, in the new "Pillar of the Turf" category.
August Belmont Jr. in 1925
Belmont’s plans for building a racetrack were realized when Belmont Park was officially opened in 1905 on Long Island. Since 1867 the Belmont Stakes, named for his father, August Belmont Sr., had been run at the monetarily troubled Morris Park Race Course. The Belmont Stakes was moved to its current home in the track’s inaugural year. Horses carrying August Belmont Jr.’s racing colors won the Belmont Stakes in 1902, 1916, and 1917. The Belmont family won the race six times.
In 1908, August Belmont Jr. established a breeding farm in Upper Normandy, France. Haras de Villers produced horses that would run on an international scale. In 1908, his Norman III won the Two Thousand Guineas in England. He also bred Prix de Diane (French Oaks) winner Qu’elle est Belle II and top 3-year-old Vulcain. After the law passed in New York to ban pari-mutuel wagering, he shipped three of his stallions to his farm in France.
He inherited his father’s 1,100-acre Nursery Stud near Lexington, Ky. There, he would not only raise racehorses, but also polo ponies. Polo Pony Hall of Fame stallion Kentucky would stand stud at Nursery. However, his greatest success would come with the racehorses. August Belmont Jr. bred 129 U.S. stakes winners, including Man o’ War, who had an extraordinary record of 20 wins from 21 starts.
Belmont Park grandstand
By 1918, August Belmont Jr. had been serving overseas in World War I for some time and decided to sell most of his stock. However, he had a special attachment to one yearling in particular: a chestnut colt by Fair Play out of Mahubah, by his widely sought-after import Rock Sand, whose greatest success was as a broodmare sire. It wasn’t until just prior to the sale when he decided to send the colt to the 1918 Saratoga yearling sale. The colt was named for him a year before by his wife, Eleanor, while he was off at war. She dubbed him, “My Man o’ War”. Despite the revision of his name to “Man o’ War”, the colt went on to become an all-time great.
After August Belmont Jr.’s death in 1924, George Herbert Walker and a partner purchased Nursery Stud. It is interesting to note that George Herbert Walker was the grandfather of President George H. W. Bush.
People’s primary focus on the “horse” in horse racing is absolutely justifiable. But the incredible backdrops built for horse racing’s historic moments deserve to be appreciated. Unlike today’s mega-modern racing facilities, our legends of racing graced the grounds that were built in times that were precarious for the industry, typically by one person or a handful of people who were putting their fortunes on the line.
These brave people passionately ventured into the undertaking of building tracks that have offered many of racings memorable moments for us all. I am grateful.