The Belmont Stakes is a hallmark of horse racing, the Test of the Champion, the race that can make or break a Triple Crown contender. And yet, it was exterminated by a simple stroke of a pen. Indeed, not just the Belmont Stakes but all of New York horse racing was devastated on June 11, 1908 when Republican Governor Charles Evans Hughes signed the Hart-Agnew Law into effect. Sponsored by conservative Assemblyman Merwin K. Hart and Republican Senator George B. Agnew, the Hart-Agnew Law made wagering on horse racing illegal and imposed substantial fines and prison terms for violators. Up until that pivotal moment, New York was bursting with no less than seven racetracks – Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Brighton Beach, Gravesend, Jamaica, Saratoga and Sheepshead Bay. Now those very same tracks suddenly found themselves fighting to survive.
On June 15, 1908 over 200 police officers and plainclothesmen descended upon the Gravesend racetrack. Their mission? To arrest anyone caught writing on newspapers, programs or even a plain sheet of paper and charge them with wagering. While the Hart-Agnew Law made written bets illegal, it had a loophole – oral wagering. For the next two years, the New York tracks kept their doors open by exploiting that loophole as bookies simply plied their trade underground. Ignoring the outcry from August Belmont Jr. and Henry Payne Whitney, New York legislators passed even stricter anti-gambling laws and closed the oral wagering loophole. Game over. By 1911, every racetrack in New York had closed its doors.
Thus began the great migration. Desperate owners and trainers sent their horses to Kentucky, Maryland, Canada and Europe. More than 1500 American Thoroughbreds were shipped overseas, twenty-four of which went on to become champions. New York didn’t only lose horses, many owners, trainers, jockeys and stable hands were also forced to relocate to more racing-friendly locales. The economic impact on the towns where these now-shuttered racetracks were located was disastrous. Saratoga Springs in particular was gut-punched with collapsing real estate values and failed businesses.
So what became of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown, during these years of turmoil? Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, two different horses won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in those Belmont-less years so there was no chance for a Triple Crown winner. Then in 1913, after three years without a single horse race in the state of New York, August Belmont bravely decided to reopen the track which bore his name. Over 30,000 horse racing-starved fans answered his call. They came not to bet, but simply to revel in the magnificence of Thoroughbred competition. And what they saw was pure brilliance as Whisk Broom II captured the Metropolitan Handicap. He would go on to sweep the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps as well, thus becoming the first Handicap Triple Crown Winner. The Belmont Stakes was also contested that year and was won by Prince Eugene. From that point forward, there has never been a year without a Belmont Stakes.
In 1934 a bill sponsored by Democrats William Breitenbach and James J. Crawford re-instated wagering and eventually led to the pari-mutuel system being adopted in New York. Ding-dong the Hart-Agnew Law was dead! New York horse racing survived as a whole, but the Hart-Agnew Law had claimed three casualties – Brighton Beach Racecourse, Gravesend Racetrack, and Sheepshead Bay Racetrack. Jamaica Racecourse did reopen its doors and continued racing until 1959, when it was redeveloped as the Rochdale Village Housing Development. From the carnage of the Hart-Agnew Law, three of those original Thoroughbred racetracks still stand proud – Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.
Photo: Belmont Park, (NYRA)