equestrian history · horse racing · suffolk downs

Boston Public Library Photograph Collections: Suffolk Downs

I’m going to do a series of posts exploring the superbly digitized collections of the Boston Public Library, as held on Flickr.

Today’s topic: Suffolk Downs.

I can’t think about Suffolk Downs without feeling a pang of grief. It was a grand track, a classic track, a real Boston kind of track: the sport of kings, but in a hardscrabble kind of way. It was the place where Tom Smith discovered Seabiscuit in 1936, when the track was a year old, which is such a perfect Suffolk Downs story: diamond in the rough, champion amidst the claimers.

When I turned 18, I celebrated at Suffolk Downs. I could bet by myself! I brought friends and my then-boyfriend and we spent the day and I broke even. It’s a place where my two favorite things in life converge perfectly: horses and history.

But racing and horses have been fading fast in eastern Massachusetts for the last twenty five, if not fifty, years. When I was growing up, there were a half-dozen horse farms in my town. There was a Thoroughbred breeding farm that bred for the track. The barn I grew up riding at took in racehorses on layoffs for rehab, a half-dozen at a time. All of that is gone now, except the barn I first rode at: now it’s just a lesson barn, no rehab horses. It’s all buried under McMansions and suburban sprawl and godawful assholes driving pristine pickup trucks.

A few years ago, Suffolk Downs changed hands around the same time as Massachusetts was desperately trying to shove through casino licensing. The new owners said the only way they could make the track viable was if they were granted one of the casino licenses. They were voted down, and now the track is mostly shuttered. It no longer holds regular racing meets, settling instead for occasional days. In 2016, there were only six days of live racing.

But during its heyday, when it was one of the jewels of the American racing scene? There was nothing like it. So today, I’m throwing it back to those days.

All photographs are courtesy of the Boston Public Library’s Suffolk Downs album on Flickr, They’re embedded here, so you can click on them and go see the higher-res pictures.

Crowd watches as horses are led to the track, Suffolk Downs//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Crowd and horses wait, Suffolk Downs

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Race at Suffolk Downs

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Race at Suffolk Downs - see program

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Horse race

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Boston police search stable at Suffolk Downs for Brink's Robbery suspects and loot

(Caption is “Boston police search stable at Suffolk Downs for Brink’s Robbery suspects and loot.” Amazing.)
//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Horse race

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Jockey R. Workman on Time Supply after winning the fifth race at Suffolk Downs - see racing form

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Crowd watches as the winner crosses the finish line at Suffolk Downs//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

falling off · horse racing

Horse weekend fail

I set my alarm early on Saturday morning, with the intention of riding first thing. I slept through my alarm.

So I took a bunch of pictures of the house, instead, for a planned Sunday post. The SD card would not talk to my computer.

Saturday night, I kept an eye on the clock the entire time. I was at my 10 year college reunion, having dinner with some of my dearest friends, but I thought, it’s Belmont day, and there might be a Triple Crown! And then I totally missed it.

Not only did I miss the Belmont, this is the first year in my memory – so in at least 25 years – in which I did not watch a single one of the Triple Crown races live. Not a single one. Every other year I have found a bar, or streaming online, or sat in front of a TV all afternoon. Something.

I was legitimately inconsolable until my sports freak fiance pointed out that I was the one who reversed the jinx. Because I hadn’t watched, he’d won. Strangely, that does make me feel slightly better, as did finding a replay of the race a few minutes afterwards and watching the beautiful effortless way he ran.

Sunday afternoon, I went out to ride. It was a gorgeous day, and Tristan kept bulging toward the door of the indoor. So I thought hey, ok, we’ll go do our first ride in the outdoor.

It was the kind of utter shit ride that happens like twice a year. 50 minutes and the only productive period was the last 90 seconds of the last trot set. Jesus Christ. I wanted to just gallop him endlessly and lather him up and get him good and tired and obedient…except we are on a back-to-work schedule, and that would be irresponsible and cruel. I settled for gritting my teeth and just getting it over with.

Then, to cap it? I fell off.

Because Tristan had been sooooooooooo shitty and lethargic all day, and the outdoor footing is deeper and different than he’s used to, he’d been quite trippy. After our last trot set, I dropped the reins and let him walk it off, and 2 minutes later, he tripped, and didn’t recover. Down to his knees. Onto his face. I tipped forward, and had a moment of “should I?”and then realized he wasn’t recovering, said “fuck it” and attempted some kind of ungainly safety dismount.

Only he started to get up as soon as he felt my weight shift, and my carefully planned hop off turned into a fall, and I didn’t have enough mental presence to change plans, so I sort of flopped off and landed hard on my lower back and left hip, then smacked my head for good measure.

I hung onto the reins – not that he was going anywhere, he was mostly looking at me like “wtf, lady?” – and just lay there. I’d gotten the wind well and truly knocked out of me. Then I got my breath back and swore, a LOT, and LOUDLY. Then I rolled to my knees, catalogued my aches, and got back on to finish out the cool down.

Then I went home and filled our big new bathtub to the brim with hot water and Epsom salts and had two glasses of wine and sulked.

Last night, I slept like shit, because the torqued muscles in my back started to ache as the first-stage aches faded. I am moving slowly and popping Tylenol today. Back at it this afternoon. Sigh.

horse racing · tunbridge world's fair

Harness Racing at the Tunbridge World’s Fair

In a continuation of my day at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, I present to you a picspam of harness racing!

(Previously: pony pulling; lo, it was awesome.)

Fairgrounds harness racing is apparently a different sport from regular track harness racing. For one thing, many owners drove their own horses, and there’s something of a tradition of one-horse owners who do just the fairgrounds circuit.

(Aside: basically the whole time I was watching this racing I had the line from Music Man stuck in my head: “Not a wholesome trotting race, no! But a race where they sit down right on the horse – like to see some stuck up jockey boy sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!” Continue on to 76 trombones, etc.)

Anyway: here’s the race card for the day.

You can click to embiggen if you want to read it more clearly. Races were split between trotters and pacers, and all races were a mile. All purses were $520 or $530 – not huge money!

I confess, this made me laugh and laugh: the national anthem was played by holding a microphone up to what looked and sounded like a cassette player.

The track looked (and felt, since we walked across it several times) to be quite hard. I’m not sure I would’ve raced Tristan down it! They also didn’t so much drag it as grade it about halfway through the race card – it looked like scraping the dirt, rather than churning it up.

So I took about 8 million pictures, working on my timing, and from now I’ll only insert occasional commentary. Enjoy gorgeous trotting horses at an historic track!

As you may be able to see, the near horse broke quite spectacularly – this was a very tight final stretch with the finish line about 100 yards to our left, and both drivers were yelling and cheering the horses on!

And two videos, one of pacers and one of trotters.

book review · horse racing · marguerite henry

Book Review: Black Gold by Marguerite Henry

Black Gold
by Marguerite Henry

Otherwise known as, god damn you anyway, I wasn’t doing anything with that heart, you go ahead and shatter it into a million pieces.

So for various reasons that I will talk about in a little while, I found myself at the town library seeking out Marguerite Henry books. I had zero intention of re-reading Black Gold, but there it was on the shelf, in the big hardcover edition, with Wesley Dennis illustrations. I couldn’t not. (There oughta be a law about publishing Marguerite Henry books without Wesley Dennis illustrations: I’m looking at you, current crappy paperback editions.)

Black Gold is one of Henry’s YA re-tellings of a true historical story, which actually sums up most of her canon, now that I think about it. It has the requisite boy who falls in love with the young horse, clever personalities, quirky details, and really wonderful writing. The real Black Gold was maybe not so mythical or personable, but in many essentials, the story is the same.

In summary: Black Gold is the son of the sprint mare U-See-It, owned by Al and Rosa Hoots and trained by Hanley Webb. U-See-It was banned from the track after Hoots refused to give her up in a claiming race, and so the decision was made to breed her to Black Toney.

Black Gold proved to be an excellent racer himself, and won the 1924 Kentucky Derby, among other stakes races. He was groomed and ridden by J.D. Mooney, who went on to be a celebrated jockey on other horses. Black Gold was retired for soundness issues, but proved to be a dud in the breeder’s shed, so he went back to the track at age six. He broke down in a race in New Orleans: “on three legs and a heart, he finished the race.”

Of all the things I had forgotten about Marguerite Henry – and it’s been quite a while since I re-read her books – her writing was what surprised me the most on this re-read. It’s not an easy story; while there is charm and sweetness in the early pages, the last third of the book is a heartwrenching story as Jaydee (Henry tells the story primarily through the lens of a young J.D. Mooney) recognizes Black Gold’s soundness issues and has to make the painfully adult decision of stepping away from the horse. Hanley Webb is determined to race him and Jaydee can only watch as the horse is basically run into the ground.

In many ways, the final chapters of this book are incredibly adult for the audience. Hanley Webb’s very real weaknesses and foibles take center stage and Black Gold’s story becomes, clearly, a canvas for human frailty. His is not the story of the superhorse who retired to pasture, but rather the hard campaigner who tried and tried until he finally couldn’t. In a softer story, Jaydee would have gotten through to Webb, and Black Gold would not have run that final race. Henry certainly pulls her punches in other historical stories (Justin Morgan Had a Horse stands out in particular) but not this one. The horse dies as a direct result of obviously poor decisions by people who should’ve been looking out for him.

As I said: not an easy read. But a really, really beautiful one. For example, here’s Jaydee thinking about going back for Black Gold at the end of the book:

His eyes were set far off. He was thinking that all he’d be able to do for Black Gold would not be enough. He could sit bird-light on the little horse’s neck. he could cluck to him with heart and soul. He could threaten him with the whip. But two things he knew – it would not be enough and it would not be fair.

In short: recommended, but have tissues handy.

horse racing · secretariat

Like a Tremendous Machine

I am a Triple Crown atheist.

Real Quiet strained and affirmed my belief: so close. If he could get so close, surely someone could bridge that gap.

War Emblem completely shattered that belief. I still remember exactly where I was and how I felt when he stumbled out of the gate. Spring and summer of 2002, my first year of college, watching the Derby and the Preakness on the big screen, then home for the Belmont, in my parents’ living room, kneeling in front of the television, hoping, then heartbroken.

So I will watch the Belmont tonight, and I will have a faint, desperate hope, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe. I wish I did.

I’m choosing today to remember instead the greatest racehorse who ever lived, in his greatest race.

From William Nack’s Secretariat:

He is galloping to the beat of twelve. Aglide, he turns for home in full flight. He opens twenty-one lengths. He increases that to twenty-two. He is running easily. Nor is the form deteriorating. There remains the pendulumlike stride of the forelegs and the drive of the hindlegs, the pumping of the shoulders and neck, the rise and dip of the head. He makes sense of all the mystical pageant rites of blood through which he has evolved as distillate, a climactic act in a triumph of the breed, one horse combining all the noblest qualities of his speed and his ancestry – of the unbeaten Nearco through Nasrullah and Bold Ruler, of the iron horse Discovery through Outdone and Miss Disco, of the dashing St. Simon through Prince Rose and Princequillo and of the staying Brown Bud through Imperatrice by way of Somethingroyal. He defines the blooded horse in his own terms.

horse racing · secretariat · video

Secretariat and the 1973 Belmont

As far as I’m concerned, this is the best video on the internet. Yes, the entire internet. In fact, I have been known to say that this video, this specific video, is the reason the internet exists.

I can’t watch it without breaking into big, ugly, gulping sobs at about the halfway mark.


They’re on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine! Secretariat by twelve, Secretariat by fourteen lengths on the turn! Sham is dropping back. It looks like they’ll catch him today, as My Gallant and Twice a Prince are both coming up to him now. But Secretariat is all alone! He’s out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses! Secretariat is in a position that seems impossible to catch. He’s into the stretch. Secretariat leads this field by 18 lengths, and now Twice a Prince has taken second and My Gallant has moved back to third. They’re in the stretch. Secretariat has opened a 22 length lead! He is going to be the Triple Crown winner! Here comes Secretariat to the wire. An unbelievable, an amazing performance!