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This is an 1834 Edward Troye painting of the mare Black Maria, daughter of American Eclipse. She won the feature stakes race at Central Racecourse’s inaugural meet in October, 1831. After posing for 2-hours the impatient groom dismounted, put the saddle on the ground and tied Maria to a tree. Angry at such disrespect of a race horse, Troye disgraced the groom through the art, omitting his face as a conciliatory gesture.
1833 painting of the chestnut mare Trifle by Edward Troye. As a 3-year old filly on October 29, 1831, she won the final race at Central Racecourse’s inaugural meet, beating the favored Black Maria. Trifle was the granddaughter of the great Sir Archy.
Paul Belz Writings
ESSAYS, NOVELS, AND COMPILATIONS
The first rules and regulations for an American race track were published by the Maryland Jockey Club for use at its Baltimore City home track Central Racecourse, which opened in October, 1831. The MJC is America's oldest sporting organization, having begun in 1743 with racing in Annapolis, Maryland. George Washington's diaries record that the races in his day were more social occasions than organized sport. The rule book was approved in June, 1830 and published in September. By 1830 horse racing was highly organized.
Baltimore’s First Great Thoroughbred Track
By Paul H. Belz
Central Racecourse was Baltimore’s first nationally prominent thoroughbred racing facility and the initial Baltimore home track of the Maryland Jockey Club. It was as prominent in its day as Pimlico is in modern times. Some of America’s storied thoroughbreds raced there including Hall of Famers Fashion and Boston. The first race ever run on the track was won by a daughter of the great Sir Archy. The first feature stakes race was a six-horse battle won by a daughter of American Eclipse in a grueling match of three 4-mile heats before a throng of 50,000-60,000 spectators gathered from all across the United States. Edgar Allan Poe had recently begun living in Baltimore and was likely among that throng.
From 1831 to 1861, Central was in the top tier of the nation’s prestigious racecourses, attracting presidents and foreign dignitaries to the hilltop overlooking the gorgeous Dead Run Valley on the west side of Baltimore. The ridge above the valley was the highest point in the region. The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine praised the course location. “The distance is just far enough for a ride before breakfast, or for an afternoon’s excursion; and those who have never seen this wild and beautiful scenery on the Franklin turnpike, cannot fail to be most agreeably surprised, to find themselves, so near the city, surrounded by all the various and majestic features of a rocky mountainous country.”
Just as Baltimore was the nation’s mid-19th century political centerpoint, hosting the first six Democratic presidential nominating conventions, its racetrack was centrally located between the prominent northern and southern tracks and derived its name and popularity from that reality. Baltimore was America’s most cosmopolitan city with the first railroad, significant populations of Irish and German immigrants, northerners, southerners, Catholics, Jews, Know Nothings, slaves and the nation’s largest free-black population.
Along with Central Racecourse, horse races in Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah and Augusta, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; St. Petersburg, New Market and Richmond, Virginia; Trenton and Camden, New Jersey; and Long Island, New York, attracted population gatherings unrivaled in size by anything else in the nation until Civil War armies faced off. Crowds of 50,000 to 60,000 were commonplace. Kentucky had tracks, but it was a poor state without large population centers, old tobacco money, or new cotton money. Without the ability to match wealthier state’s purses, its horse-breeding overshadowed its racing.
The popularity of thoroughbred racing was exploding in the 1830s, but tracks were far more numerous in the south because northern religious leaders (especially Puritans) decried galloping horses as sinful, though trotting equines were acceptable.
Baltimore’s Central Racecourse was born in 1831 of an entrepreneur’s lust for profit, and it died in 1861 from the Civil War’s insatiable demand for horses.
The stage was set for Central’s birth during the years 1829-30 when the Maryland Jockey Club determined to move to a growing Baltimore after operating in Annapolis since 1743. It received a new charter from the U. S. Congress in 1830 and elected Revolutionary War veteran General Thomas M. Foreman president.
Entrepreneur William H. Freeman had grandiose dreams and saw a golden opportunity. His mansion “Arlington” stood on land now in the shadow of Social Security Administration buildings in Woodlawn (present day Caswell Road; house demolished in 1977).
Freeman donated nearby property to the Maryland Jockey Club for a track which upon completion featured a grandstand, a facility for dining, a ballroom, a ladies pavilion and stalls for 50 horses, though up to 100 were in training for each session. Horse vans weren’t available until Englishman John Doe introduced them in 1836, but The Citizen’s Union Steam Boat Line offered free round trip transport to Baltimore for all race horses and riders running at Central Racecourse.
At Central’s finish line stood a cupola topped by a thoroughbred weathervane. Three judges were poised at the cupola to decide close finishes and look for riding fouls. For stakes races, the rules required the Jockey Club president to be one of those three. Five additional judges were strategically positioned around the track to spot irregularities during races. The cupola/weathervane still plays a ceremonial role at Central’s successor Pimlico Race Course.
Following the lead of Long Island’s Union Course which opened in 1821, Central featured a novel “skinned” (dirt) one-mile oval and ran races counterclockwise. That directional tradition had begun in Lincoln County, Kentucky, in 1788 when William Whitley built the first clay and circular track in the United States and advocated reversing the English clockwise custom. His example resonated with horsemen, and in 1921 Belmont Park became the last major track to acquiesce to that patriotic gesture.
The Maryland Jockey Club’s Annapolis history included George Washington’s frequent attendance at the races between 1762 and 1773. When the Club accepted Freeman’s land and agreed to build and operate the course, it infused Central with the national esteem in which it was held. Jockey Club membership at the track’s opening included President Andrew Jackson who had his own racing stable. Other members were Bank of Maryland founders Reverdy Johnson and John Glenn, who approved large loans for several development goals associated with Freeman’s master plan for the race track and Franklin Towne. Johnson had been President John Tyler’s Attorney General. The membership and patronage of such luminaries as the aforementioned insured that Central was prominent on the National Circuit from the outset.
There was no official governing body for the National Circuit, but the top tracks all meshed their racing dates; three or four days each in spring and fall. In Article-1 of its “Rules and Orders,” the Maryland Jockey Club set Central’s four spring dates to begin on the last Tuesday in May and its four fall dates on the last Tuesday in October.
Freeman had already built the Franklin Turnpike, a toll road which extended the city’s east/west-oriented Franklin Street into the suburbs. The turnpike was hailed as the best avenue into the city from the west, facilitating access for travelers utilizing the National Road, which originated in Cumberland and though west-bound, linked with east-bound state roads.
From the end of the turnpike, he added Racecourse Road. Racecourse Road (now Ingleside Avenue) led up a steep grade from the picturesque Dead Run Valley to a junction with Johnnycake Road where the terrain plateaued. The Jockey Club built the track there, and the land is now occupied by housing and Westview & Ingleside Shopping Centers. The Frederick Pike (now Old Frederick Road) was the southern boundary of the racecourse and it was the direct link west with the National Road.
Central Racecourse was to be the jewel that would lure homebuyers to a town Freeman planned to build around a large elliptical park perched high above the Dead Run Valley less than a mile northeast of the new track. He named it Franklin Towne, not to be confused with nearby Franklinville to the north, which underwent several name changes until present-day “Dickeyville” endured.
To enhance the lure of the roads, race track, and town, Freeman added a grist mill and an octagonal building erected over a mineral spring called a chalybeate, reputedly rich with tonic iron. The final piece in the elaborate puzzle was the Franklin House, an elegant four-story inn which offered sumptuous meals, festive balls, and overnight accommodations for revelers after the races.
Tuesday, October 25th, 1831 was opening day at Central. The forty-one rules published on the pamphlet titled “Maryland Jockey Club Rules and Bylaws for the Government of the Central Course” included: (1) No two riders from the same stable can ride in the same race, nor can any two horses from the same stable compete; (2) Riders must wear a jockey’s cap, silk jacket, pantaloons, and half-boots; (3) No professional gambler shall be admitted as a member of the club; (4) No horse owned by a professional gambler shall be allowed to start for any purse; (5) Anyone starting a horse must be a member of the Maryland Jockey Club and provide proof of a horse’s age; (6) If a race ends in a dead heat, the tied horses must race again. It was not listed in the rules, but no women were accepted as members since horse racing was considered a man’s realm. They could attend the races and watch from the women’s pavilion or from their private carriages.
Bets or stakes between horse owners were strictly regulated by the Jockey Club, and private gambling was not allowed on race course grounds. A committee of Club members was empowered to hire policemen to arrest violators. With crowds in the tens of thousands from every state in the Union, however, private betting persisted as a primary lure to horse racing, with patrons risking money, slaves, real estate, livestock, and crops.
The first manager of Central Racecourse was James M. Selden, the long-time popular proprietor of the small and exclusive Tree Hill course in Richmond, Virginia, which was surrounded by a moat to keep drunken rowdies out. The Maryland Jockey Club’s long illustrious history in concert with persistent religious objections to gambling dictated that Selden establish and enforce far more genteel standards of behavior on the part of horsemen and patrons.
The racing world eagerly anticipated Central’s opening in 1831. John S. Skinner’s American Turf Register & Sporting Magazine fed the enthusiasm with progress reports on the new track in his magazine’s “Sporting Intelligence” feature of its May, June, August, September, October, and November issues. It was expected that the throngs of out-of-town spectators would bring windfalls to Baltimore’s hotels, merchants, tailors, boot makers, saddlers, jewelers, cabinet makers, and tavern keepers.
The May issue reported that a new Jockey Club had been formed and portrayed Baltimore as a “great middle ground for Northern and Southern horses to meet.” It projected that between sixty to one-hundred horses would be in training for each spring and fall session “drawing stakes horses such as Black Maria, Polly Hughes, Bonnets of Blue, Goliath, and Sussex.” Skinner wrote that he expected the initial fall purse to reach $10,000. He added that the entry fee for the feature race had been set at $500, play or pay (p.p.) and that four horses were required to make a race at the new track. Either the Jockey Club or the proprietor would add $1,000 to the purse. Heats were 4-miles and repeat and subscriptions would close on September first.
The June issue of “Sporting Intelligence” provided more interesting details about Baltimore’s first major circuit track. It reported that the course was “slightly undulating throughout, calculated to give relief and acceleration to the horses, with two perfectly straight parallel quarter stretches, and the whole line in full view from any point on the course.” Skinner added, “. . . the new course will doubtless become a point of strong attraction for those who ride for exercise and amusement.” He reported that Central would run a “Ladies Cup” and hold an annual race ball patterned after Charleston’s where debutantes would make their entrance into society. The magazine also revealed that the fall sweepstakes for Central’s opening session would have 1-mile heats for 3-year old colts and fillies with an entrance fee of $100 (half forfeit) to be governed by Maryland Jockey Club rules. For 2-mile heats, the entrance fee would be $200.
The September issue gave readers the schedule for the opening session at Central Racecourse, beginning Tuesday, October 25th. First Day: “A race of 2-mile heats, for $300, entrance $10. After the regular race will be run the sweepstakes of 2-mile heats, entrance $200, half forfeit, for 3-year old colts and fillies. Four or more to make a race.” Second Day: “The great post sweepstakes, 4-mile heats, entrance $500, p.p. to which the proprietor adds $1,000. There are now six subscribers.” Third Day: “Three-mile heats, purse $500, entrance $15. This day also features the sweepstakes of mile heats for colts and fillies, 3-years old, entrance $100, half forfeit.” Fourth Day: The Jockey Club purse; 4-mile heats repeated, purse $700; entrance $20.” Skinner reported that by October 18th, Central’s stables would be prepared for 50 horses.
The November issue of “Sporting Intelligence” gave the results of Central’s opening season’s fall meet: “The first race over this new and beautiful course took place on Tuesday the 25th of October, for a purse of $300, 2-mile heats for which Virginia Taylor, Celeste, Malinda, Bachelor, and General Brooke, came to the post. First Heat: Malinda won the first 2-mile heat in 3 minutes and 50 seconds. Second Heat: Virginia Taylor beat Malinda in a come-from-behind effort in 3 minutes and 51 seconds. Third Heat: Virginia Taylor [sired by Sir Archy] was never headed. She won in 3 minutes and 59 seconds.”
This issue of the racing publication also gave the results of the last race run at Central’s inaugural meeting: “The last race of the fall meeting came on Saturday. The meeting was extended for a day because Thursday’s races were postponed due to heavy rains. The last race of Central’s first meeting was won by the 3-year old filly Trifle, who beat the much larger 5-year old mare Black Maria by a length in 7-minutes and 55 seconds. It was a race of 4-miles and repeat (after a half hour rest) for a purse of $700.” Black Maria had already won a race on Wednesday (as had Trifle), and the loss to Trifle marked the 20th mile Maria had raced in four days. The high-endurance mare was by American Eclipse out of Lady Lightfoot while Trifle was by Sir Charles out of Cicero. “After that contest a trotting race was held on the course but most of the patrons left before it ran and it will probably be the last at the course.”
On Friday, two aristocratic French bureaucrats in their twenties had arrived in Baltimore for a week as part of a 9-month tour to study American prisons for their new government. They were being enthusiastically welcomed in every city they visited.
Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont both attended Central’s ball celebrating the races that evening. Beaumont conveyed his impressions in a letter to his brother Achille while Tocqueville made journal entries. Beaumont wrote, “The women of this city have a great reputation, and they truly deserve it. I saw a quantity of very pretty ones. They dress well, are very attractive and excessively coquettish . . .” For Tocqueville, “The company was brilliant, the women were remarkably pretty, but dressed in an odd way.” They were non-paying guests, but both objected to the high five dollar price of the ball with Tocqueville noting that in France, “. . . it would have been felt an insolent pretention on the part of the rich people to separate themselves from the rest.”
They returned to watch the races at Central on Saturday. Beaumont noted in his letter home that the finest horses from Virginia and New York competed and in the finale they saw “... a very fine horse race.” Of Central Racecourse he wrote, “The meet takes place in an enclosure situated at two leagues from the city; in other respects things pass exactly as in our races of the Champ de Mars.” Tocqueville described the scene; “The horses were fine, but the jockeys ridiculously dressed. There were many people in carriages and on horseback. But, all in all, it was not yet like one in Europe. A Negro having ventured to come on to the ground with some whites, one of those gave him a shower of blows with his cane without causing any surprise to the crowd or to the Negro himself.” He added, “At Baltimore it is an association that provides the prizes at the races, established the race-course and manages the race-meetings.”
For his brother, Beaumont described Trifle, the upset winner of the meet’s 5-horse final race; “She is so slender, so slight, and appears so weak, that one would believe she should fall at the first gallop; she is as it were transparent, her muscles are visible through her skin; it always seemed to me she was going to break like glass. None the less she twice in succession took the prize, which was 4,000 francs.” Trifle was the granddaughter of the great Sir Archy.
He added, “The horses in this country are not a breed peculiar to America. There were no horses in this region before the Europeans came; so this was one of the things that caused the Indians the most astonishment. The horses I saw run are of Arab stock. Here at the meets there is one thing that we never see at home, and that’s a trotting race, which always follows the main race. In this country they have a breed of trotters who are really extraordinary and against whom the English horses find it impossible to compete to advantage.”
On Sunday, Tocqueville spent much of the day chatting with Baltimore’s iconic Renaissance man, John H. B. Latrobe. After the American tour, he went home to write “Democracy in America,” a two volume work that became widely heralded and a favorite tool of political scientists and educators in the United States.
The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine assigned a correspondent using the pen name “Godolphin” to cover Central Racecourse’s inaugural, and he wrote glowingly of opening day.
Prefacing Godolphin’s report was magazine editor and Jockey Club member Skinner’s own review: “Our correspondent “Godolphin” has better described than we could have done the first races on the Central Course, but a feeling of pride, as a citizen, will not permit us to let the occasion pass without expressing the common sentiment of admiration at the perfect order and decorum with which the immense concourse of spectators behaved.” He added that the good will and decorum continued after the races.
Skinner gushed with pride: “Another source of pleasure to mere amateurs and spectators, was the perfectly good humour and manly cheerfulness with which the result of each contest was met by all the competitors. The meetings of members and strangers at the social board after each day’s race, were enlivened by sporting songs and anecdotes; and the popping of corks was followed by toasts that, for genuine sparkling wit and appropriateness, were never excelled on any similar occasion.”
Finally, Skinner praised the ball held after the races on Friday of race week, and he announced a new annual tradition of placing a large painting of the winner of the meet’s feature stakes race in the middle of the ballroom. Black Maria had won the post sweepstakes race on the second day of racing. Skinner wrote:
One item in the arrangements for the week’s amusement, as it was new with us, ought not to be omitted—“THE MARYLAND JOCKEY CLUB BALL,” where the beauty and fashion that rendered the ladies’ pavilion the most brilliant point of admiration at the course, reassembled in the evening to charm yet more, by a nearer view, and to repeat their assurances of gratification at all they had witnessed. It was select, full and gay, and was managed with perfection; since everything glided on so smoothly as that no management was perceptible. Never did a ball take, or “go off” better. The portraiture of Black Maria, as large as life, occupied a place in the centre of the ball room, where she will be succeeded, from year to year, by the winners of the great post stake.
That first “great post stake” in 1831 was contested by six horses for a stake of $4,000. The six horses were all sons or daughters of American Eclipse, Sir Archy, or Sir Charles (2 each), and that field was an immense attraction to racing fans. This is how correspondent Godolphin described the feature race and the track’s opening day environment:
For this stake, Col. William R. Johnson’s Virginia Taylor [Sir Archy], Col. William Wynn’s James Cropper [Sir Charles], Dr. John Minge’s Eliza Reiley [Sir Archy], John C. Stevens’s Black Maria [American Eclipse], Gen. C. Irvine’s Busiris [American Eclipse] and Mr. John P. White’s Collier [Sir Charles], were entered.
The amount of the purse, the reputation of the horses, together with the concourse assembled to witness it, gave to this race an interest, scarcely inferior to that excited by the contest between Henry and Eclipse [perhaps racing’s greatest match race]. The course, from the surrounding hills, had the appearance of a vast amphitheatre. Its whole area seemed covered with equipages, (some of them very splendid) mingled with troops of well-dressed men on foot and on horseback. The sun shone with more than his usual splendor—here was not a cloud to be seen—Heaven and the ladies smiled upon the first efforts of the Maryland Jockey Club. How, then, could they fail? Their immense pavilions were crowded with spectators, collected from every state in the union. The one appropriated to the ladies, was occupied by hundreds of the gay and beautiful of that sex, without whose smiles, the flowers of the brightest wreaths, ever wove for victory, would fade and be valueless. Their presence was felt as a security for the observance of those rules, the slightest violation of which would have been deemed a disgrace, too deep for a gentleman, and too dangerous for a ruffian to encounter.
The correspondent’s pen name was probably chosen out of admiration for the “Godolphin Arabian,” a horse foaled in Yemen in 1724 and acquired by the Earl of Godolphin for his stud near Newmarket, England, which is widely considered the birthplace of thoroughbred racing. The stallion became one of the most prominent building blocks of the modern thoroughbred race horse. Coincidentally, a little over a year after Central opened, the widely admired English novelist, playwright, poet, and politician Edward Bulwar-Lytton published a novel titled Godolphin.
Ten years after its heralded grand opening, Central Racecourse helped set the stage at Long Island’s Union Course for one of American thoroughbred history’s great match races, the May 10th, 1842, contest pitting two future Hall of Famers, the mare Fashion and the stallion Boston.
As the year 1841 began, Boston was so feared that no one would challenge him. Many believed him to be the best thoroughbred to ever race in America. His owners, James Long and Colonel William R. Johnson, offered a match race for any two horses, a fresh one for each heat, but no one accepted that invitation. Some races paid them amounts not to enter which nearly equaled the winning purses. With no challengers forthcoming the stallion spent the spring covering forty-two mares. In October, Boston found a willing foe at Baltimore’s Central Racecourse, and the 8-year old won an inexplicably hard-fought race.
At that same fall meet in Baltimore, 4-year old Fashion beat John Blount in 3-mile heats over a slippery course.
Boston and Fashion left Baltimore and immediately traveled to Camden, New Jersey, where they faced off for the first time. It was still October. The filly defeated the aging Boston handily, embarrassing the owners and infuriating his fans and bettors. Confident that the race was an anomaly, Long and Johnson immediately issued a $20,000 challenge for a match race in the spring at Union Course. It was an extraordinary sum for 1842 on the heels of the national economic calamity of ’37. On May 10, 1842, Fashion proved her fall victory was no fluke by setting the American 4-mile record as she won two consecutive heats before a wildly enthusiastic crowd estimated at 75,000.
Fashion ran for the last time in Baltimore at Central Racecourse in May, 1847, when she beat Passenger in four punishing three-mile heats. Public pressure built to retire her and after winning three races in 1848 she was retired to brood-mare service.
In Baltimore, Freeman suffered his own inglorious defeat well before Fashion’s 1842 triumph over Boston. Ironically it was one of the key backers of his race track who destroyed the dream of a vibrant town. President Andrew Jackson started his “pet banks” (selected state banks) in 1833 to destroy the national bank of Nicholas Biddle’s. Biddle retaliated by cutting credit and increasing interest rates, triggering a panic which devastated plans for Franklin Towne.
In 1835, the Bank of Maryland failed, precipitating riots which included attacks on the homes of Freeman and his lenders, Johnson and Glenn. The death blow was delivered two months after Jackson left office in 1837 when one of America’s worst economic disasters struck, closing 90% of the nation’s industrial plants. Franklin Towne was relegated forever to the status of tiny hamlet though the race track and inn continued to thrive.
Central Racecourse met its demise in 1861 following the April 19th Pratt Street riot in Baltimore. General Benjamin F. Butler imposed martial law in the region on May 13th. Troops were stationed at Franklintown (re-spelled) to guard the turnpike. The race track never held its spring meet. Anyone with valuable horses hid them because theft was rampant by would-be cavalrymen whose lives in wartime would depend on the quality of their mounts. Central Racecourse never re-opened.
Baltimore remained without National Circuit horse racing for the rest of the decade.
In 1868 at a dinner party hosted by Milton Sanford at the Union Hall Hotel in Saratoga, New York, racing luminaries responded to the initiative of Maryland Governor Oden Bowie to help him resurrect the Maryland Jockey Club and build a racecourse in Baltimore’s Pimlico neighborhood. The friends agreed to lend their prestige and race their current yearlings in Baltimore in two years’ time in a “Dinner Party Stakes” race for 3-year olds. This early commitment helped Bowie to raise capital and re-ignite Baltimore’s racing fervor. The Governor had Pimlico Race Course ready to open in October, 1870, and on the 27th Sanford’s colt “Preakness” won that Dinner Party Stakes race. To show his appreciation, before leaving office in 1872 Bowie established an annual race to honor Sanford’s horse, and the first “Preakness Stakes” was run in the spring of 1873.
The national respect of the racing fraternity and a tradition of excellence in Baltimore were seeds planted, germinated, and cultivated by Central Racecourse and the Maryland Jockey Club. Those efforts produced a harvest that reaped Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness Stakes.
Central faded completely from Baltimoreans’ collective memory, aided by a June 16, 1966, fire that completely destroyed the Maryland Jockey Club’s historic library housed in the “Old Clubhouse” which burned to the ground. Few area residents are aware that Central Racecourse ever existed.
The sterling history of a once-great race track deserves to be resurrected and to endure.