Early April saw New York State lawmakers adopt the 2022 budget and approve a plan to accelerate the siting of three new full casinos in the metropolitan New York area. This plan will see the casino licenses awarded to those able to cover the $500 million fee and be approved in a selection process.
Both locations for many years have successfully demonstrated their feasibility by conducting horse sports, and each of the casino facilities are managed by experienced operators, Resorts World at the Big A, and MGM at Empire City. With Aqueduct in the Big Apple so well known, perhaps this is a good opportunity to delve into the origins of Empire City.
Before the Nation or the city of New York was established, Swedish settler Jonas Bronck arrived in the Dutch New World in 1639. He settled north of the convergence of the Harlem River, Long Island Sound and East River, across from the Dutch village of Harleem on Manhattan Island.
The community, with its rich farm land, was called Bronck’s Land, which easily converted to the Bronx. Dutch officials in charge of New Amsterdam pursued hostile relations with the native Lenape tribe. Their retaliation in 1643 was a harsh raid which killed many settlers, including Jonas Bronck.
Peter Stuyvesant replaced antagonistic administrators before the English replaced the Dutch. Sometime in the 1670s, Richard Morris, from Wales, came into possession of Bronx land. Morris was from a large family and his decedents would be influential during colonial times and the forming of the new American nation. The subsequent generations would refer to the settlement as Morrisania. One of these decedents was the rascally gentleman known as Gouverneur Morris. He was a patriot in the American Revolution, a framer of the United States Constitution, a planner of the city of New York’s urban grid, and an early supporter of the Erie Canal.
The Morris Family, like many in the developing new nation, kept horses for various reasons. As horse sports developed and were refined, they were eager participants. The eastern section of Morrisania had fine flat ground where contests could be staged.
There was yet another race track that operated in what is now the Bronx, known as Fleetwood Park. This facility was operational between 1870 and 1897. This was a driving park for trotting horses, which the New York Times once described as “a queer shaped course” and grandstand. As city property became increasingly valuable, it was difficult to stage horse racing in an urban setting. When Fleetwood Park was closed and sold, it left the city of New York without a location to contend the Grand Circuit light-harness races.
Before the widespread popularity of the automobile, many owned a “roadster & rig” and the urge to race was overwhelming, and “matinee meetings” ensued. Such was the case for William Henry Clark, an attorney and Corporate Council for the city of New York, reputed as the brightest mind in Tammany Hall and Wall Street. He was articulate, appreciated art, and a patron of the turf where he made many friends. In the nineteenth century workplace, jobbery was considered fair and a perk of employment, and Clark was able to build a personal fortune in the exchange of real estate, the value of which he was able to foretell through professional connections. Clark was also a presence in Saratoga Springs, owning thoroughbreds and a regular plunger in the gaming houses and patron of the hotels and restaurants.
With Fleetwood Park gone, Clark decided he should build a new trotting track for Grand Circuit meetings in the vicinity of New York, yet north of city property. His planned track would again be in Westchester County, between Mount Vernon and Yonkers, a bit over a mile from each. The land he selected had not been previously developed, and was a thick 100 acre forest of pine and cedar. This location, when cleared, offered a stunning view of both Long Island Sound and the Hudson Palisades. The track would be ready for racing in 1899, and would be known as Empire City.
Clark spared no expense on the new venue, hiring Seth Griffin, who had developed a master track builder reputation, and noted civil engineer Charles W. Leavitt, Jr. The track would be a mile long, and 100 feet wide. As a counter attraction, Empire City was designed to allow thoroughbred meets. A great deal of design attention was paid to the track base and extensive drainage, with the plan to have a “fast-and-safe” track. William H. Clark was digging deeply into his ample resources to complete this new track.
Jockey Danny Mahar, Clark’s well-paid contract rider, was aboard his entry Banastar for the spring of 1899 running of the Suburban Handicap at Sheepshead Bay race track in Brooklyn. Banastar, who had earlier won the Toboggan and Brooklyn Handicaps, was a notoriously ungovernable colt for the starter, and he held up the Suburban for 45 minutes. When they were finally away, Jockey Mahar pulled up the chestnut after only a few strides, and had plenty to explain to the stewards and disappointed owner; neither were satisfied, which led to a ban for the rider. The failed Suburban was a bleak vicissitude for W.H. Clark.
At Saratgoa during the summer of 1899 Clark seemed uncharacteristically daring. The New York Times reported, “In a year that was remarkable for high play at the clubhouses, Mr. Clark was looked upon as the highest high-roller of them all.”
The Empire City Race Track opened on September 4, 1899, and more than 12,000 spectators turned out to experience the magnificent park. Mostly a success, an issue occurred transferring from train service to the track. Additionally, Westchester County Sheriff Molloy upset all the bookmakers with his presence. The inaugural race meet ended a day earlier than scheduled, due to a failure to fill some races with entries. Additionally, to Clark’s chagrin, the Jockey Club reinstated jockey Danny Mahar.
Invoices were arriving from contractors and others involved in track construction and the Empire City purses were not paid for the first meeting at his track, in spite of the good attendance. Needless to say the owners of the winners were very disappointed.
As 1900 began, Clark was hopeful that the new century would bring him the success he needed to span his financial void and satisfy his creditors. The Empire City track would certainly receive more racing dates in its second season. He made wide-ranging arrangements for a great campaign that season, and he and his trainer Matt Allen nominated liberally for the stakes of the Westchester Racing Association, Brooklyn and Coney Island Jockey Club, Brighton Beach and Saratoga Racing Association.
Clark developed the habit of driving to the Empire City track every Sunday early in the day, and returning to New York in the evening. In early February this exposure resulted in a cold, which at first seemed no reason for concern, until it became pneumonia.
Ironically, and sadly in retrospect, during his illness, several New York dailies ran articles of Clark’s conjectured suffering from Bright’s Disease and being in financial ruin. For William H. Clark, the hinge of fate swung in the unfortunate direction and he died on February 17, 1900, only in his mid-forties.
The invoices continued to arrive, on March 2, 1900, landscape engineer Charles Leavitt filed a mechanic’s lien against Empire City Race Track for his unpaid work. Supplementary misfortune was published in the Morning Telegraph which pointed out that under the Jockey Club’s Rules of Racing, Rule 61 stated, “Subscriptions and all entries or rights of entry under them, become void on the death of the subscriber.”
The Telly continued that Clark’s entries were made in his name, and as a result of his death, none of his extensive nomination funds could be returned to his widow. This ruling caused extensive conversation and a plan of action among horsemen. This clarion call was reinforced on May 11 when his entire racing stable was sold at auction in the paddock at Morris Park under the direction of the Fasig-Tipton Company, where bargain prices prevailed.
In late October of 1900, the second meeting was scheduled for Empire City, where the running of thoroughbreds was planned. A gathering was conducted by the sportsmen of New York City for the benefit of Mary Sexton Clark, the widow of William H. Clark, and their three young children. It was at this assembly where Richard T. Wilson pitched his plan for a syndicate to buy Saratoga Race Course to William C. Whitney, a dynamic figure in national politics, finance and racing, and received immediate agreement. The requisite funds for the Saratoga Racing Association venture were successfully and quickly raised.
Subsequent operators of Empire City were James Butler and heirs. William H. Cane, “Mr. Trotting,” reopened the war-closed track in 1950, and converted it to strictly harness, introducing night racing and the Yonkers Raceway moniker. The Tananbaum family took over 1954-1971, and sold to the Rooney family of Pittsburg Steelers fame, whose patriarch bought the team after a good day at the Saratoga track. The Rooneys deeded out to MGM in 2019. Perhaps a new chapter will soon be written for this historic property.
Illustrations, from above: Fleetwood Park Morrisania, NY July 9th, 1878 courtesy Library of Congress; Advertisement for the inaugural race meeting at the Empire City Trotting Club courtesy The Spirit of the Times 3/18/1899; and portrait of William C. Clark courtesy New York Herald 02/18/1900.