Pearl Harbor came at the end of his second year at Belmont, and Vanderbilt went off to war as skipper of a PT boat. Widener was then given the Belmont job he had been known to covet. But on Vanderbilt's return from the war, Widener remained in charge. "I wonder if I should have sued under the G.I. Bill of Rights to get my old job back," Vanderbilt once said in jest. Horsemen have speculated for years as to why the Establishment of New York racing never again placed Vanderbilt in a position of serious responsibility. One strong possibility is that the Establishment considered him much too independent and progressive.
Vanderbilt's two years at the helm of Belmont are still to be regarded as the zenith of his life in racing. He was an extremely wealthy young man, having inherited a great deal of money on reaching his majority ("about $8 million will catch it," he once told a reporter who had made a too generous estimate of the amount). He kept some two dozen horses in training and actually supervised their training himself. He was handsome and bright and liked the company of such offbeat personalities as his friend Oscar Levant, the concert pianist and wit. His whimsical humor was a kind of legend around the racetracks; once when Jockey Ted Atkinson was about to set off on a Vanderbilt long shot named Rusty Gate in the mile-and-three-quarter Saratoga Cup, Vanderbilt presented him with a sandwich, a flashlight and a wrist compass, observing, "It may be dark before you get back." But above all, Vanderbilt was utterly devoted to the sport of horse racing.
At Belmont, then the most prestigious racetrack in the country, he was in a position to put his theories on racetrack management to a full test. One of his major contentions was that racing should be run for the pleasure of the general public and not for the privileged few, and that you have to put on a real show for the public, not just expose them to some betting machines. As he did at Pimlico, Vanderbilt insisted on one or more good races a day for quality horses, no matter how small the field, and he always started at least one race a day in front of the grandstand where the public could get a good look at the horses. This inevitably led to longer races, for Belmont's track is a mile and a half in circumference, but that, in Vanderbilt's mind, is also to the benefit of racing. "The public may not consciously care whether a race is long or not," he says, "but the longer the race the more chance the spectators have to get involved emotionally, to put it in a pretentious way. After all, racing should be an entertainment, an amusement, a spectacle."
Only a quick look
These are principles that Vanderbilt claims have been forgotten by modern management, including the New York Racing Association. Generally, racing cards today consist of an unbroken succession of sprints that begin somewhere over on the backstretch, giving the customer just one quick glimpse of the horses as they stampede past the finish line. Even the mile races begin at the end of a backstretch chute several hundred yards from the grandstand. On the big summer Saturdays the complete program may contain no more than a single race starting in front of the grandstand.
The thinking behind the policy, according to Vanderbilt, is both simple and simpleminded. Big fields make for bigger betting. If the racing secretary feels, as he does even at Aqueduct, that the management will be on his back for allowing races with small fields to go to the post, he is likely to cancel a good race with a small field in favor of a race for cheap horses with a big field. This becomes a vicious circle. Trainers and owners, knowing that there will be a preponderance of sprints for cheaper horses, will aim for those events. There will be less and less incentive to own and train quality horses for longer races. Quite obviously, if a man can buy a Thoroughbred for anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000 and be reasonably certain of getting him into a race every week or 10 days for a purse that may be worth at least half the value of the horse, he will do that in preference to buying a horse for $20,000 or $30,000 and training him for longer races where the purse may be worth only a fifth or a tenth of the horse's value and the chance to race may come only half as often.
As the economic advantage of the cheap sprinter increases, the whole level of racing decreases. "Just getting a lot of horses out there for the public to bet on is a bad thing for racing," Vanderbilt says with considerable emphasis. "The better horse must have more earning power than the inferior horse, otherwise he is not worth more money."
Vanderbilt points out that at Canada's Woodbine track quinella betting has been satisfactorily introduced to stimulate pari-mutuel betting on small fields. Thus, there is no loss of revenue to either the government or the racetrack itself when a race for quality horses attracts only a few starters.
These are ideas that Vanderbilt pressed for years. But in 1954, his great colt, Native Dancer, was retired to stud at Sagamore after winning 21 of his 22 starts, and Bill Winfrey, his trainer, retired shortly thereafter to live in California. The time seemed propitious for Vanderbilt to turn his attention to other interests. He sold off all his horses except the cripples and two distinguished geldings, Find and Social Outcast, whom he continued to race "for sentimental reasons," and devoted most of his time to philanthropic activities such as the World Veterans Fund, an organization designed to unify all the veterans' organizations in the free world behind the ideals and aims of the United Nations.
Then, a year ago this month, Vanderbilt was in Saratoga, as is his wont, for that venerable race meeting which is an annual pilgrimage for the sentimentalists of the sport. And there he was persuaded to head up the old breeders group that had been merged with the new owners organization the previous year. His return to active duty in racing, even in a quasi-official capacity, was the occasion for considerable rejoicing among horsemen. Vanderbilt, who had been more or less rebuffed by the Establishment and had turned his active mind to other things, was back in action. Obviously, it would not be long before the Establishment would note this return.