A dedicated turf and steeplechase venue, known as Belmont Park Terminal Course, operated on the Queens/Nassau County boundary from 1907 to 1927.
New York State, due to its extensive canal network, vast agricultural lands, timber stands, and large urban population centers, has long been the location of equine breeding. It’s believed that formal horse racing began on Long Island’s Salisbury Plain in 1665, only one year after British forces replaced Dutch colonial rule in New Netherland. The successful inception of thoroughbred racing at Saratoga Springs, before the Civil War had ended, led to the construction of numerous other race tracks in the metropolitan New York area.
The Empire State, an epicenter of racing in America, has also always been a hotbed for fervent politics, and individuals with lofty political ambitions and ideals. The election of Charles Evans Hughes as governor in 1906, over newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, ushered in an era of government-decreed morality. For a period of two years (1911-1912) racing did not occur, due to a ban on wagering, and those with equine interests were driven from the state until what had become a complicated legal issue could be settled. The newly imposed decency laws impugned the track directors, and made them responsible and punishable when wagering occurred.
The unexpected heroes in racing’s return in New York were the United Hunts Racing Association’s jumpers, who continued to run during the blackout, using an auxiliary turf track known as Belmont Park Terminal Course, near the railroad depot across Hempstead Turnpike from the Belmont main track. It certainly did not hurt to have Perry Belmont, son of August Belmont and brother of August Belmont II, as the President of United Hunts Racing Association during the time Belmont Park was originally completed in 1905.
The new plant, constructed by the privately held Westchester Racing Association when they relocated their track facilities to Long Island at the former Oatlands Estate of William DeForest Manice, included a stately mansion and was comprised of 400 acres north of the Hempstead Turnpike and 160 acres on the south side. The designers of the new track anticipated most patrons (and horses) arriving by rail, and the acreage to the south of the Turnpike allowed the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to construct a short spur to their mainline, less than a mile north at Queens Village.
This dedicated branch, which operated only on race days, passed under the Hempstead Turnpike in a grade-separated crossing and bifurcated into a 10-track terminus which was served by covered platforms that allowed for the swift handling of multiple trains and large crowds. In railroad parlance, this facility at the end of a line would be known as a “terminal” rather than a “station.” The United Hunts meetings began in this location in 1907, and the proximity of the rail connection gave rise to the use of the name Belmont Park Terminal Course. The United Hunts Racing Association from its inception used the mantra; “for sport’s sake and better sport.”
The Belmont Park Terminal Course staged numerous open and hunter steeplechases over the one-and-one-half-mile circuit, mostly competed by amateurs and sometimes in conjunction with the National Horse Show, in the years prior to the racing ban. The unique mile and a quarter flat turf course was popular with the Long Island hunt and polo set, and allowed polo ponies a chance to compete directly in speed trials known as “scrambles.”
The jump course had a reputation for being one of the stiffest in the country with the brush fences being a real challenge; the timber course for hunters had the same difficult reputation. The throng was usually large and enthusiastic, and box parties abounded through the Belmont Park Terminal Course grandstand, which shared the same green and white color scheme as the main track. Also shared was the former Manice Mansion, a Tudor-Gothic edifice with castellated turrets, which faced Hempstead Turnpike and was the home of the Turf & Field Club, where legendary luncheons were served.
The patrons were treated to what might have been a horse racing first on October 29th, 1911 when the two biplanes, each of which containing a woman passenger, landed on the infield. Another pioneering feature, and perhaps the birth of simulcasting, was tried out when a special telegraph line was run from Churchill Downs and the key operator described the Kentucky Derby by megaphone for the benefit of those running at Belmont Park Terminal.
The New York State Racing Commission granted a license to Belmont Park Terminal Course during the ban, due to the not-for-profit status of events planned there. In 1911 the secretary of the United Hunts Racing Association, Harry A. Buck, who was also assistant secretary of the Turf and Field Club, insisted on being arrested to force a test case of the anti-gambling laws.
Harry Buck had his roots in journalism, being the son of Col. E.A. Buck, publisher of The Spirit of the Times, a leading sports publication in the 19th century, and his effort was successful in the courts. The court decision removed the race course directors from responsibility for wagering at the track. This legal precedent allowed racing to return to the Empire State in 1913, but many breeders, horsemen and track operators had relocated, and were not part of the rebirth, which was further stymied by the impending war in Europe.
The Belmont Park Terminal Course often staged army or military races, with varying conditions limited to active duty troops, and regularly contested by uniformed officers of various nations. Lieutenant George S. Patton competed in several military events staged at Belmont Park Terminal during the autumn of 1912. The future general, who later earned the sobriquet “Old Blood & Guts,” was competing in equestrian events then, having just returned from the Stockholm Olympic Games representing the United States, where he finished fifth in the Modern Pentathlon (swimming, shooting, fencing, equestrian and athletics).
When the Jockey Club tracks reopened for racing in 1913, the steeplechase, hunt events and turf flat racing continued at the Belmont Park Terminal Course. The United Hunts Racing Association held their annual “days” and the bucolic green hollows and hills of the midfield were cause for real excitement. The large number of “gentlemen” riders insured a large society following, and also participation of celebrities of the era, such as dancer Vernon Castle riding his own horse Chimney Sweeper while his wife and dance partner Irene watched from the stands with her pet monkey.
During the first week of April 1917, as the United States Congress was preparing a Declaration of War on Germany, a tremendous conflagration occurred at Belmont Park and damaged the three-storied, balconied clubhouse and destroyed the grandstand and many other buildings, including the Belmont Park Terminal Course grandstand, jockey quarters and train terminal.
The fire was a deliberate act, simultaneously originating in six separate locations. With many of the functions of the track curtailed by the ruined buildings, it was decided to operate as originally planned and amazingly racing resumed with the use of circus tents, carpeted with heavy cocoa matting, for the comfort of the patrons of the turf.
Some of thoroughbred racing’s biggest stars of that era gave the Terminal flat turf course a whirl, including Papp, Cudgel and Kentucky Derby winner Exterminator, who did not like the turf course and finished second in his next start after shedding the garland of roses.
Everyone welcomed the Armistice and the return to peace and normality. The 1920s brought about a new enthusiasm for sport in America, while also ushering in the “great experiment” of Prohibition. A fan favorite at Belmont Park Terminal was the gentleman rider Harry S. Page, immediately recognizable with his erect posture and rearward saddle placement, an eyepatch covering his left eye, and a monocle in his right.
Another benefit of the Terminal Course was its function as a schooling ground for jumpers, while sharing stabling facilities and other equine services with the main track. The immeasurable economy of scale provided by keeping jumping stock with other racers cannot be understated. Certainly farrier services, feed delivery, veterinary visits and manure removal were all simplified by this incorporation.
In the years following the death of August Belmont II in 1924, and his brother-in-law Sam Howland in 1925, the Westchester Racing Association, which had always operated the Terminal Course in parallel with all other racing functions, began to weigh options. The management decided to develop the portion of the property south of the Hempstead Turnpike, which contained the Terminal Course, into a residential community. The mitigating factor in this decision was unsurprisingly, money.
By the late 1920s the Westchester Racing Association’s Belmont Park was being bested by purses offered at the Maryland and Kentucky tracks, which derived great profits from their pari-mutuel machines. New York State would not adopt pari-mutuel wagering until 1940, after many years of painful wrangling in Albany. In order to attract the best competitors back to Belmont Park with large purses, the Terminal Track would be sacrificed. The Daily Racing Form of June 22, 1927 carried the announcement of the decision under the headline “Belmont Terminal No More.”
Photos, from above: Belmont Park Terminal owner/trainer access badge courtesy National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame; United Hunts Race program cover 1926; Belmont Park Terminal paddock from a 1926 United Hunts program courtesy Keeneland Library Collection; portrait of Harry A. Buck; and Belmont Park Grandstand on 6/14/1919.