Jamaica, the ugly darling of the New York racing fans, opened this spring for what will probably be the last season in its 56-year history. Next year it may be on its way to becoming a middle-income housing development for the workers in the needle and building trades unions, which have indicated interest in the Jamaica site. This, some chronic reformers might say, is altogether fitting and proper, for Jamaica has in its time no doubt done its part in depriving a number of hard form workers in New York's five boroughs of decent housing and an adequate income. But it is not for this reason that Jamaica, often called the poor man's Saratoga, faces the bulldozer's blade. Like its proletarian counterpart in Brooklyn, Ebbets Field, it is doomed by its obsolescence. It will not, however, be soon forgotten.
Jamaica, a strictly concrete, utilitarian race track, has always been more popular with $2 bettors, who sometimes bet 20s and 50s, than beautiful Belmont or the old Aqueduct, now being replaced by a dream track. At Aqueduct the salt breezes cooled off horseplayers now and then. At Belmont bettors had a grove of trees to sit under between races. But Jamaica, more constricted and looking like a betting factory, was never marred by such frills. Jamaica represented pure, pristine greed. It was always as ugly as sin. There was no place to sit down under trees. In fact, it was hard to find a tree, and the only place to sit was in the 17,500 seats in the grandstand and clubhouse. That never kept people away. The largest number of people ever to go to a New York track was at Jamaica on Memorial Day of 1945—64,670 paid, turnstile-registered patrons.
The opening-day crowd at Jamaica on Monday, April 27, 1903 was 18,000. That was very good for the time, when the five boroughs of Greater New York had a mere 3,500,000 inhabitants. Five hundred of the opening-day crowd represented Tammany Hall, which controlled New York politically at the moment. Several of the founding fathers of Jamaica were Tammany leaders. "Big Tim" Sullivan, who dominated the East Side of New York, controlled the new Metropolitan Jockey Club, which put up Jamaica to compete with New York's five other tracks: Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, Gravesend, Morris Park and Aqueduct.
On that opening day, Sullivan sent "one of the biggest commissions he ever placed on a horse" into the big betting ring, where 65 bookmakers could accommodate 10,000 customers. (Another 65 could operate for 10,000 more bettors in the surrounding infield.) He is rumored to have won $20,000 on his own horse, Setauket, in the second race, and he won in a romp. Eugene Wood, a Tammany lobbyist at the state legislature in Albany, and also one of the founders of Jamaica, for whom the Wood Memorial, one of Jamaica's biggest stakes, is named, was also a heavy bettor. He used to bet with Tim Mara, a popular bookmaker of the era, until one day Mr. Mara, a pious man, caught Mr. Wood telling his beads as his horse was coming down the stretch. ''Don't ever try betting with me again," Mr. Mara said sternly. "I can beat you any time, but I can't beat you and God."
The big race on opening day in 1903 was the Excelsior, still run but not on opening day. William C. Whitney's 4-year-old bay colt Blackstock won and took $6,730 of the $10,000 purse. (The purse of the last Excelsior to be run at Jamaica this year is $25,000.) Among those present to watch the victory besides Mr. Whitney and his son, Harry Payne Whitney, were Jim Jeffries, then heavyweight champion of the world, Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom Jeffries had won the title four years before, and Kid McCoy, claimant to the middleweight title at the time.
Many celebrities have gone to Jamaica in the ensuing years, but they were always lost in the proletarian shuffle. Nobody did any socializing at Jamaica, and nobody ever cared what anybody else wore. The theme song of Jamaica might well have been The Sidewalks of New York. George Ryall, who writes on racing for The New Yorker under the name of Audax Minor, aptly nicknamed Jamaica "Footsore Downs." Toney Betts, who writes about racing for the New York Mirror, claimed the only equivalent to its working-class atmosphere was London's Alexandra Park. Tom O'Reilly, of The Morning Telegraph, found it as comfortable as the neighborhood saloon. Although I have been lucky at Jamaica, I always found its human atmosphere like a cross between a zoo and night court.
One was always well protected by Pinkertons from well-known pickpockets and other crooks at Jamaica. On the track's first day in 1903 three detectives from the police department's Central Office staff attended the races, looking not for winners but for Barney Kelly, well known to them, who had recently come out of jail in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. On the night of his release he had relieved a wealthy Wilkes-Barre resident of his silverware. Detectives McCarley, Deevey and Gallagher, accompanied by a post office inspector, had no trouble spotting their man. He was standing in the center of the big, ornate grandstand yelling his head off for his horse running in the third race. They surrounded him.
"Don't bother me," Barney Kelly screamed, "I've got a bet down!"
The Central Office men stood beside their man and remained quiet during the running of the race. "Gee, look at Palmbearer, it's Palmbearer in a walk," Barney Kelly shouted.
"He looks like a winner," Detective Gallagher agreed. Kelly never took his eyes off the horse, and the detectives got interested, too. "How much you got down, Barney?" Deevey asked. "Just a tenner—but, gee, look!" Palmbearer led down the stretch and under the wire. "Bully boy!" Kelly shouted. "Say, you fellows are mascots. Come along now and we'll cash in."