At this time of year thoroughbred horses and their jockeys race around the storied tracks throughout the country--Hialeah Park, Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Saratoga--names that conjure up the mystique, tradition, and excitement of horse racing. But there are names that are all but forgotten in racing lore. For during the late 1800's to the early 1900's the County of Kings was also home to the "Sport of Kings". With racetracks in Brighton Beach, Gravesend and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn was for a brief time the racing capital of the U.S. The grandest of these racetracks was in Sheepshead Bay.
The much-anticipated opening of the Sheepshead Bay racetrack came on June 19, 1880. With its covered grandstand, two-ringed track and railroad leading up to the gates, Sheepshead Bay was a beautiful site. Created by prominent businessmen Augustus Jerome, August Belmont, and William Vanderbilt, the Coney Island Jockey Club had held their races at the Prospect Park Fairgrounds (confusingly, this was located in Gravesend, not near Prospect Park at all), but needed fancier and more prestigous surroundings. The new Sheepshead Bay racecourse located on Ocean Avenue between Avenues X and Y was a magnificent structure with two tracks (one dirt and the first grass track in the U.S.), restaurant accommodations, a view of the ocean and the top jockeys and horses in America.
The premier event was the Suburban Handicap conceived by James G.K. Lawrence who became the track's president. Just four years later he would create the Futurity Stakes which would become the richest race ever run in the United States. This booming business brought hundreds of jobs to the area and contributed to the develoment of this part of Brooklyn as a resort area with grand hotels like the Manhatten Beach, the Orient, and the Brighton Beach.
But the good times and economic boom would not last forever. Horse race betting was banned by Governor Charles Evans Hughes in 1910 bringing about the demise of much of the racing industry. Although the ban was lifted for the 1913 racing season, it was too late for the Sheepshead Bay Race Track, which was sold to the Sheepshead Bay Speedway Corporation, and converted to automobile racing.
There are no markers to show where the racetrack once stood, the location being taken over by residential housing. It exists in maps and atlases, in the stories told by older generations to their children, and in the form of the Suburban and Futurity events held at Belmont Racetrack in Elmont, Long Island. The legacy of the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack also lives on in the First Baptist Church of Sheepshead Bay, whose history we'll explore in Part II. I leave you with a short film courtesy of the Library of Congress, made by Thomas Edison in 1897, of a race at the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack.