Dear readers, This is the latest article from frequent contributor, Patty Saffran, the Contributing Editor for Horse Directory Magazine, about the last surviving harness racing track on LI. One aspect is about the English Thoroughbred stallion Messenger, bred by Richard Grosvenor, First Earl of Grosvenor in the 18th C. The magnificent horse came to the US in 1788 and was the foundation stud of just about every important US Thoroughbred and Standardbred you’ve ever heard of including Seabiscuit, Man o’ War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, etc. Messenger is buried on LI with a memorial plaque.
Port Jefferson Station, LI residents were once so wild about harness racing that they originally named their village Echo after their local hero, the famous bay gelding harness horse named Echo. Echo won many races at nearby harness tracks located in villages like Setauket, Huntington, and Smithtown and on his local track, the Gentlemen’s Driving Park, which was founded around 1880. There were twenty five harness tracks on LI in the 1880’s. While Echo and his contemporary harness horses may have been pushed aside for the auto and cement roads, the track where he raced, the Gentlemen’s Driving Park has miraculously survived. The Park is the only harness racing track left on Long Island and Jack Smith, President of the Cumsewogue Historical Society of Port Jefferson Station, and many other civic- minded residents are determined to preserve it.
Mr. Smith recently gave us a tour of the race track, now in a wooded area and hidden from the main road. While the half mile oval is overgrown in the center and on the perimeter, the track is still visible. As we walked around the track, he explained, “The Driving Park was once part of the Grand Circuit of Harness Racing Tracks of the North East and a member of the National Trotting Association. It was the site of many exciting races in its day. Adjacent to the track was the site of legendary owner and trainer Robert L. Davis’s Cumsewogue Training Stables – he also oversaw the race track. Today that land is occupied by the Davis Professional Park. The track itself is located in the woods east of Morgan Avenue and northeast of Canal Road. The oval track is clearly evident in aerial photos of the area.”
Mr. Smith continued, “The Driving Park was in use for harness racing until about 1946, but most of the racing was up until about the time of WWI. The reason this track has survived is that until the mid 1950’s teenagers used to race jalopies there. Now, our township is in the process of acquiring the property and, to date, has purchased about half of the acreage. Our Councilman, Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld, has been very diligent in pursuing the acquisition of this historic property. It is being preserved and the land purchased through open space funding.”
On our tour, Mr. Smith said that he has found an actual ticket stub from a race day from July 4, 1892. Also, while looking for horseshoes with a metal detector, he found a pair of period field glasses. These and other items about the Gentlemen’s Driving Park were on recently on display during October-November 2012 at the town library.
In 1892,The Port Jefferson Echo (named after the town hero, Echo) reported: “The trotting and running events on the Gentlemen’s Driving Park [later called the Herman Floyd Race Track] on Thursday afternoon, attracted a large attendance, and the number no doubt would have been greatly augmented had the condition of weather been more favorable. Many ladies were present. The fact that no liquor is sold at the park and the absence of its attendant demoralizing scenes have made it possible for ladies to enjoy the races quite as well as their husbands or sweethearts”. Further back, it was reported that Decoration Day, now called Memorial Day, were special race days at the Park in the late 1880’s with ladies admitted free.
The revered local trotter, Echo, a bay gelding was originally bred and owned by Captain Nathaniel Dickerson. Dickerson’s breeding book has yet to be discovered but from the number of races Echo won and the price that Dickerson sold him to D.B. Goff for in 1881, $1,500. (over $34,000. today), he was considered a quality horse. At some point, Echo was sold to Frank Edsall of New York City, a known owner of harness horses who was such a racing devotee that when he died in 1898, he was buried in the famous harness racing town of Goshen, NY. Edsall owned Echo when he was finally defeated on August 9, 1884 in Smithtown by his arch rival Fredonia Boy owned by Colonel Beecher and George Ticehurst of Smithtown.
The Port Jefferson Times from August 2, 1884, describes Echo, with affection, something that is rarely seen anymore with reporting on horse racing, “Echo is the pet of the local turf, and the pride of Capt. Dickerson’s heart. A horse that defeats him, will be a good’un. It is doubtful that Solon can do it – ’tis possible that Fredonia Boy may.” The actual race on August 9, 1884 had the crowd in a stir, with lots of money bet on Echo. It was run at the distance of a mile in five heats. There was a judge’s dispute concerning two of the heats, resulting in one judge so disgusted he left the stand and had to be replaced. When it was all over, Fredonia Boy edged out his rival Echo in three out of five heats with Solon third. The analysis was, “The pride of Capt. Dickinson’s heart was broken” and the loss was pinned to Echo being “out of form”, and Fredonia Boy’s driver, Ticehust, being “the best in the county”. Times were between 2:40 and 2:33, with slower high wheelers. (After 1900, many races were run in faster smaller sulkies with tires and more aerodynamic lower driver positions, and the times started dropping.)
Edsall later entered Echo in another race he did not win at Narraganset in September 1884. A few months later, Edsall sold Echo. In The American Gentlemen’s Newspaper, NYC in November 1884, “By Frank Edsall of this city, has sold, through D. B. Goff. [Echo’s previous owner] to Mr. Wm. C. France, the bay gelding Echo, 2:28)4, by Regulus. He was bred by Captain Dickerson, of Port Jefferson. L. Echo was tried to the pole with F. D., 2244, last Saturday, and they speeded a quarter in 31 seconds.” This period sale notice is actually an exciting find today because it mentions Echo’s sire – Regulus. While the records seem to have been lost for Echo, Regulus has turned up in a stud book, Wallace’s American Trotting Register, Vol. 4. It turns out that Captain Dickerson bred possibly his unnamed mare to “Regulus (Suffolk Chief) foaled in 1864, got by Hambletonian 10, dam by American Star, bred by George Lorillard, N. Y. and owned by Joseph Rowland of Miller’s Place, LI [right next to Port Jefferson Station]”. With Echo’s pedigree going back to Hambletonian10, his sire, Abdullah, and thus also to Messenger, Echo is officially descended from the famous foundation sires of the Standardbred, horse royalty. The get from these sires had a natural ability to trot and pace fast. Even the sire of Messinger, Mambrino in England, was noted as preferring to trot around the pasture. Researchers today have discovered that a horse’s ability to trot or pace and to maintain that gait is genetically determined.
It turns out that Long Island turns is rich in horse history and figures in the saga of Messenger. The great Messenger was brought over from England by Irish sportsman Thomas Benger to stand at stud in Philadelphia in 1788 for $15. (Top Thoroughbred stud fees today are from $10,000. to over $100,000.) The gray Messenger was in demand as a sire for pacers, trotters and Thoroughbreds. Messenger was sold, resold and eventually retired to the Townsend Cock farm, Locust Valley, LI after a life at stud in nearby states and locally at the Philip Platt farm in Flushing LI. Messenger colicked and died at the Cock farm in 1808. At what is now called Messenger Hill Farm, a beautiful memorial bronze plaque to this stallion may be found sitting on a large rock along Duck Pond Road, just east of the Piping Rock Road intersection, opposite the Friends Meeting House. The text says:
“Approximately twenty paces to the south of this spot lies MESSENGER, Foaled in England in 1780, brought to America in 1788, Buried with military honors on January 28, 1808, Descended from England’s greatest Thoroughbreds, Son of Mambrino and of a daughter of turf, Bred by the First Earl of Grosvenor, No stallion ever imported into this country, Did more to improve our horse stock, None enriched more the stock of the whole world, Today his blood is carried by most American Thoroughbreds, As the great founder, Of the breed of Standard Bred light harness horses, His blood is now dominant, In America throughout Europe and in Australia, Among his direct descendants is every two minute trotter, ‘None but himself can be his parallel’, [Homer describing Hercules] In tribute to, His enduring greatness, This memorial has been erected by American horse lovers. A.D. 1935”.
Messenger’s line is through two of the Thoroughbred foundation sires on both sides (the Darley Arabian on the sire line and the Godolphin Arabian on the dam line). There is a bit of confusion concerning Messenger because Messinger’s sire is Mambrino and one son is also Mambrino. The son was bred in the US to Amazonia, possibly a daughter of a Messenger son, Saratoga. The mare was not beautiful but she was a speedy natural trotter. Amazonia contributed much to the eventual Standardbred’s impulse to trot or pace. Amazonia and Mambrino (US) produced Abdullah, also a homely horse but an incredibly fast trotter. The sires’ line of descent is as follows: Mambrino b. England 1768 – Messenger b. England 1780 – Mambrino b. US 1807 – Abdullah b. US 1823 – Hambletonian 10 b. US 1849, the most important North American sire of harness horses who was born in Orange Country, NY and sired 1,335 offspring for a stud fee of approximately $500. (Top Standardbred stud fees today are around $15,000.) Messenger’s descendants include the Thoroughbreds American Eclipse, Man o’ War, Kelso, Seattle Slew and Secretariat and the Standardbreds Niatross, Dan Patch, Greyhound and Bret Hanover.
Messenger’s grandson Abdullah (sire of Hambletonian 10) was foaled in 1823 at the Tredwell farm, Salisbury Place, LI. Later in November 1854, Abdullah died later on LI of a not so fortunate fate. The horse’s brilliance and strength in a way condemned him. S.W. Parlin writes in The American Trotter 1905, “The man who took care of him [Abdullah] at one time stated to the writer that the cause of his lack of patronage late in life was the fact that many of his get, though good-gaited trotters, were inclined to pull too strongly on the bit when speeding on the road for the comfort of their drivers. [This made him a fantastic sire for racing harness horses.] It is said that the owner of Abdallah finally gave the horse to a farmer on Long Island, with the understanding that the farmer should care for the horse properly as long as the animal lived. The farmer became tired of his bargain, so the story goes, and sold the old horse to a fish peddler for thirty-five dollars. The fish broker hitched Abdallah to his cart, but the horse did not take kindly to that occupation and kicked himself free. The peddler then turned Abdallah loose, and he finally died on Long Island from neglect and starvation”.
Echo, the hero of Port Jefferson Station, who through Regulus was descended from the illustrious Messenger, Abdullah and Hambletonian 10, won races at the Gentleman’s Driving Park and on many other race tracks. As mentioned in the sale notice of 1884, Echo was sold by to William C. France. France at the time was a well known breeder of Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds. A few years before he died in New Rochelle in 1901 at his son’s home, France had financial difficulties. It was reported in his NY Times Obituary that he had been forced to sell his 387 Thoroughbreds [!] from his Highland Stock Farm in KY. France was known for having bred the famous trotters Fred Wilkes and Allie Wilkes at this same farm. After the sale notice for Echo, the trail runs cold for now as to where William C. France ran or retired Echo. Hopefully, more articles will turn up on Echo as well as period photographs of him and the Gentlemen’s Driving Park. Port Jefferson Station should be proud of its efforts to save this historic harness racing track from intrusive development.