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Why are all American racetracks left-handed? David Ashforth reveals how a long forgotten racetrack set the tone for racing in the US.

Byline: David Ashforth

BRITISH horseracing glories in the rich variety of its racecourses. Flat and jumps, turf and all-weather, left-handed and right-handed, hilly and flat - an extraordinary collection of idiosyncratic shapes. It is different in the US, where jump racing is a fringe activity and, until the recent arrival of synthetic surfaces, every racecourse's main track was dirt.

Virtually every race is run on a flat, oval, left-handed track. There are no right-handed tracks in the US. Why not? The legacy of William Whitley and American independence Deep in rural Kentucky stands a late 18th century house with white bricks above the front door, marking out the initials W W. From the 1780s, Colonel William Whitley, a pioneer settler, held horseraces at nearby Sportsman's Hill. It was not the only, nor perhaps the first, racetrack in Kentucky but it had a particular claim to fame.

Whereas other tracks were straight, Sportsman's Hill was circular and left-handed. Spectators watched the races from the top of the hill in the centre of the half-mile circuit.

Some of Kentucky's early leaders, including Isaac Shelby, its first governor, were said to have attended morning race meetings, followed by a hearty breakfast.

Whitley hated the British and tradition maintains that his insistence on racing left-handed on dirt represented a deliberate departure from the colonial practice of racing on right-handed turf tracks. It was a rejection of colonial habits and a demonstration of America's newly gained independence. Although several racecourses in Britain, including Chester, Doncaster, Epsom and York, were left-handed tracks, Whitley's experience was gained in Virginia, a centre of horseracing long before he moved to Kentucky.

When Whitley was growing up, racing in Virginia was an elitist activity. It often took the form of match races over straight quarter-mile tracks but circuits were also laid out on grass fields, and these may have been right-handed. Whitley may also have been aware of the situation in New York, where New Market racecourse provided a right-handed turf course.

During British occupation, 'God Save the King' was played between races, as it was at the Flatland Plains course in Brooklyn, which the British renamed Ascot Heath.

Sportsman's Hill may well have been the first racecourse of its kind, combining a circular, counter-clockwise, natural dirt track, organised on democratic lines, with supporters able to participate and spectate on equal terms. It was certainly in keeping with the spirit of the times and, within a few years of Whitley's death, in 1813, left-handed dirt tracks had established themselves as the American way of racing.

In 1831, in a letter to the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, 'An Old Turfman' - Cadwallader R Colden - wrote: "In England, they run upon turf and it is much to be regretted that our racecourses are not also turfed over. I know of but one turf course in the United States, which is upon Hempstead Plains, in Queen's county, Long Island, 20 miles from the city of New York." That was New Market.

One of the reasons for the pre-eminence of dirt was that horses ran faster on it. Speed, demonstrated by fast times, was becoming a prized asset. A dozen miles from New Market was the Union racetrack, opened in 1821, with a 'skinned' dirt surface.

"It has been admitted," Colden wrote, "after repeated tests, that the same horses take from three to five seconds more time to run a mile over the New Market turf than over the naked soil of the Union course."

New Market was unusual, but not unique, in being right-handed. In 1804, a newspaper report suggested that the reason First Consul, unbeaten in Philadelphia, lost at New Market was due "to his running to the right instead of to the left as he was accustomed". This prompted the reporter to ask why First Consul had been entered to run at Harlem, "as the manner of the running is the same there". In time, New York 's racetracks conformed to the emerging national pattern but, a century later, there was to be a final throw of the right-handed dice.

A curious episode ... David Dunham Withers proposed to make Monmouth Park "the Ascot of America". Ascot was a right-handed track and Withers, a leading figure in American racing, president of the Board of Control, forerunner of the Jockey Club, decided that the latest version of Monmouth Park, the New Jersey track originally opened in 1870, would follow Ascot's clockwise example.

On July 5 1890, under a headline reading, 'Monmouth's Opening Day. America's Greatest Race Course Opened to the Public', the New York Times gushingly hailed the new venue as "magnificent, perfect, a monument to DD Withers, which will make him remembered gratefully by every racegoer for decades to come". The newspaper's correspondent acknowledged that having the horses "run the reverse way of the track may seem a trifle strange at first but this is an innovation that all can easily accustom themselves to".

By the end of the first day, this already seemed optimistic, since "the jockeys were at a loss to know just what to do and how to ride". For them, the change was "a startling one". As the meeting drew to a close, at the end of August, the New York Times conceded that, "to most racegoers, the long straight tracks at Monmouth and the horses running the reverse way of the track are innovations that have been anything but popular".

Withers had influential political enemies and, with increasing efforts being made to suppress betting, the 1891 programme was moved to Jerome Park and Morris Park racetracks, in neighbouring New York. By the time racing resumed at Monmouth Park, in July 1892, Withers had died and Alfred Walcott, the racetrack's president, was in charge.

The New York Times now took a much less sanguine view of Withers' decision to run races "the reverse way of the track", a decision taken in one of Withers' "particularly erratic moments, just to satisfy one of his whims".

It was an innovation, the New York Times declared, "that the horsemen have had no fancy for, and one that the public likes even less".

It was also unAmerican, a step taken because of an absurd view of "what is the proper thing to do to satisfy the notions of the English people. Mr Walcott knows that the English people are not patrons of the track, and he cares more for what the sensible Americans want than he does whether the Prince of Wales approves of what is being done at the Monmouth track". A year later, Monmouth Park brought the experiment to an end.

... and another August Belmont II was a member of New York's racing elite, chairman of the Jockey Club and of the New York State Racing Commission, and president of the Westchester Racing Association, the body behind the opening, in 1905, of Belmont Park. Belmont II was the racetrack's president, while Hwfa Williams, intriguingly, was its official adviser.

Williams was the manager of Sandown Park, a right-handed course. He was a friend of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, while Williams' wife, Florence, was a society hostess described by the King as "the best dressed woman in England".

Williams' sister, Edith, knew the future king more intimately, as his mistress, before she married the Earl of Aylesford. In her autobiography, It Was Such Fun, Florence recalled that Hwfa was "asked to give the Belmonts the benefit of his experience in starting a racecourse".

Belmont had strong transatlantic connections, winning the 2,000 Guineas in 1908 with Norman III, and the 1912 St Leger and 1913 Eclipse with Tracery. Williams doubtless encouraged any inclination Belmont may have had to make the new racetrack the only one in the US to race right-handed.

Recalling Monmouth Park's experience, the New York Times noted that "the novelty was regarded as such a failure that the method was abandoned" but declared, airily, "there is no probability that there ever will be any abandonment of the new plan at Belmont Park", with horsemen "so well prepared for the innovation that there is hardly even a chance for complaint".

As opening day loomed, the paper's confidence was unshaken. "The new method of riding in what is generally spoken of as the reverse way of the track has not proved a difficult matter," it said, "and horses and jockeys easily adapt themselves to the change, and all of the big stables have been training in this way for many months."

By the time the autumn meeting opened, the New York Times had changed its mind, reporting that the prospect of again racing the reverse way "fills horsemen with apprehension".

Early in 1907, the Daily Racing Form looked back at Belmont's meetings the previous year and remarked: "Favourites did not fare well. The reverse way of running is thought by many to have disconcerted the public in its estimation of the chances of its choices".

Anti-wagering legislation brought racing at Belmont to a halt from 1911 to 1913 and, when it resumed, opposition to racing clockwise intensified. In 1915, August Belmont called a meeting of owners and trainers to discuss the reason for small fields. Horsemen complained about racing the reverse way, contending that "they should not be asked to break their horses to running the reverse way after they have once broken them as yearlings and trained them to run the 'right way'."

Two years later, Belmont defended the arrangements in the face of a "crusade which has been started among certain horsemen and trainers, assisted by some well meaning and loyal turf writers on the subject of racing the 'wrong way', as they call it".

Belmont pointed out that "horses are raced abroad from left to right, and go to other courses the following week and run the conventional way. They race up and down hill and these varying proving grounds test the quality of their horses and help to make them superior to ours".

Clearly irritated, Belmont asserted that resistance to racing the reverse way was a matter of "mere habit and blind custom. It is," he wrote, "unwise to pander to these prejudices. I do not think they are entertained by the more intelligent owners and trainers, who know something of racing outside of our own country. Having the precedent of Sandown and numberless tracks abroad for running what people call the 'wrong way', we believed it for the good of racing that the change should be made, and we were under the delusion that it would furnish a relief from the monotony which it appears now the public seem to prefer".

Critics, raising the ghost of William Whitley, did not take kindly to suggestions that the English way was a better way. On the day that Man o' War won the Withers Stakes at Belmont, May 29 1920, The Thoroughbred Record accused the Westchester Racing Association, and therefore its president, August Belmont, of being "UnAmerican in spirit". It "snobbishly apes the method in vogue on many English courses".

Belmont was forced to admit defeat. Two weeks later, when Man o' War won the Belmont Stakes, it was reported that the following year's meetings would be run the conventional way.

The New York Times looked forward as eagerly to racing counter-clockwise in 1921 as it had relished the prospect of racing clockwise in 1905.

"Belmont Park has long been regarded as the finest course in America," it declared, "and had but one objectionable feature, that the horses were required to run" in a "style which prevails on many of the courses of England but which never proved popular here, chiefly because Belmont Park was the only track using that style".

If a man as influential as August Belmont could not break the mould fashioned by William Whitley and adopted throughout the country, it was unlikely others would repeat the attempt. Man o' War would be the last horse to win the final leg of the Triple Crown racing right-handed.

Sportsman's Hill today On July 4 1975, independence day, Martha Scott, a descendant of William Whitley, organised a commemorative race meeting at Sportsman' s Hill, and celebratory races were held there for several years.

In 1993, a monument was erected, dedicated to "the racetrack that changed the direction of horse racing in the US". Last year, Kentucky's department of parks bought Sportsman's Hill, now overgrown and largely unnoticed. It hopes to carry out an archaeological investigation.


overgrown and unnoticed, the site of the racecourse
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 25, 2010
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