When old-timers in this waterfront village get to reminiscing about the “good old days,” they start swapping tales about the Havre de Grace Racetrack that first opened in 1912.
Perched on the bluffs above the Susquehanna River and on the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, the Maryland track attracted legendary horses, fabulously rich owners and top-tier trainers and jockeys. Affectionately dubbed “the Graw” by locals, it was one of racing’s gems. Racing history was minted here.
It was where Sam Riddle insisted Man o’ War won his greatest race and where his resplendent son Triple Crown winner War Admiral earned his first victory. Exterminator thundered home in the Philadelphia Handicap, setting an American record. Sir Barton, Equipose, and Seabiscuit rolled to impressive victories at the Graw. And on a rainy April afternoon, it was where the famed Citation suffered the only blemish of his Triple Crown season in 1948.
Trainer Jimmy Jones wanted a tune-up for the Chesapeake Stakes (1 1/16-mile) on April 17, a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Jones entered Citation in the Chesapeake Trial, a six-furlong race five days prior. With Eddie Arcaro in the irons, Citation went off at 1-2.
“Citation got carried really wide by a tiring horse ridden by Carson Kirk and finished second by a length to Saggy,” recalled Joe Kelly, 93, turf writer for the Baltimore Sun who covered the track from 1946-1950.
“He ran a hell of a race, and I remember Eddie Arcaro wanted to clobber Kirk. Citation beat Saggy decisively next time out and went on to sweep the Triple Crown. Best racehorse I ever saw.”
The racetrack drew its crowds from all over the Mid-Atlantic region. Passengers arrived by train from Philadelphia and New York as well as Washington and Baltimore; railcar loads of fans would descend from the platform and stream down to the racetrack eager to wager on the day’s racing card.
“With those train lines it was in shooting distance of all those cities,” said Kelly. “Fans could wander down to the stable area at the water’s edge and see these thoroughbred legends grazing under the elm trees. You could sit in the stands and look down the C&D Canal as the ships headed down to the Bay. It was a beautiful spot.”
In the 1920s and the early ‘30s those train passengers would also partake in a turn at the roulette wheel and dice table or pay a visit to a nearby raucous speak-easy during the Prohibition era. The town developed a reputation as “Little Chicago.” Restaurants, hotels and cathouses all prospered. Alphonse Capone and his cronies would roll into town in big and bulbous black Chryslers, register at the Chesapeake Hotel and hurry over to the Graw looking to cash in with insider tips.
Harford County Executive David Craig gathered oral histories from people who visited the track for a college research project. He wrote about the track in the Harford Historical Bulletin in 1994.
“A lot of people I grew up with, their fathers were bookies, and the town had its share of murders and prostitution,” Craig related. “At the track you could sit in the top of the grandstands before the era of the radio and telephone and signal a house in town and tell them what the results of the race were and change the results of the race before anyone in the world knew.”
Birth of the Graw
Passage of anti-wagering laws in New York by Governor Charles Evan Hughes in 1908 saw attendance and handle decline sharply and tracks eventually closed. Down in Harford County, pari-mutuel betting on horseracing was approved and reported in the Havre de Grace Record on June 15, 1912. Seen as a way to strengthen Maryland’s racing and breeding industry, two weeks later construction on the racetrack was launched. New York racing titan August Belmont provided much of the financial backing, while Edward Burke was tabbed to run the Graw. A burly six foot two inches tall with a heavy square jaw and bushy white mustache, Burke, 50, was known to be the best price-maker in New York.
The Graw opened on August 24, 1912. Post time was 2:45 and an estimated 5,000 people turned up paying $1 each in admission in an era when grocers sold sirloin steak for sixteen cents a pound. The inaugural winner on the card was Insurance Man. The Havre de Grace Handicap attracted 32 entries over a distance of 1 1/8-mile with a purse of $1,500. Adams Ex stormed down the stretch to win.
The next week concerns about gambling and drunkeness by both sexes threw the track into a tailspin and an injunction threatened to put an end to racing. However, the controversy soon faded away and in September 1913 the racing season opened again. The track operated continuously from 1912 to 1950, except during World War II (1942-1945). It hosted two meets each year. The spring meet served as one of the key destinations for colts bound for the Kentucky Derby, while the fall meet attracted some of the best handicap horses in country for races like the prestigious Havre de Grace Handicap.
Allen Murray caught the racing bug as a young teenager. Today, he and his wife Audrey own the Murmur and Berkley thoroughbred farms in Darlington, Md.
“Used to walk hots for a $1 an hour, added up to $25 during the meet, and that was important money back then,” Murray, 78, recalled. “All the major stables and their best horses came to race. I remember crowds 15 to 20 deep on the rail. It seemed if you were in the horse business you were rich. Our family had a four bedroom house in town and we’d all move into one room and rent out the other three. During race season it was a big festive atmosphere.”
Immortals of the turf
The village was first known as Hammer’s Town until French General Lafayette spied the town during the Revolutionary War and exclaimed, “C'est Le Havre de Grace.” He said the town reminded him of the French seaport, Le Havre. Incorporated in 1785, the name means “Harbor of Grace.”
In September 1920 another legendary figure turned up in town -- Man o’ War. The incomparable champion of the American turf was competing in the $10,000 Pontiac Handicap. Just a short trip from his owner’s Glen Riddle Farm in Berlin, Md., the Graw was a homecoming for the colt. The loamy track was the site of Man o’ War’s first extensive training before he set out on his two-year old campaign in 1919.
During his morning works “Big Red” had the whole backstretch buzzing. He struck his regal, high-headed stance. His coat was rubbed and brushed, and gleamed like polished copper. Grooms, exercise boys, owners and trainers hugged the rail when he stepped onto the track.
Top-tier owners, breeders and promoters filed into the clubhouse on the glorious September 22nd afternoon. The racing secretary pronounced Man o’ War would race under a career-high 138 pounds— the stoutest load a three-year old ever carried in this country. The heavy, cuppy track was another deterrent to the long-striding colt after a lengthy season.
The racing chart states, “Man o' War was a bit fractious at the post, but broke well and assumed command under a strong pull round the first turn, then (jockey) Kummer rated him along easily and he drew away without effort when Wildair (carrying 30 pounds less) challenged about the middle of the stretch and was easing up at the finish." Man o’ War won by 1 ½ lengths. His final time was 1:44 4/5, beating the previous time of 1:45 flat. He earned $6,800 for the effort, his 19th win from 20 starts.
A Depression era horse, Equipoise, was known as the "Chocolate Soldier." Courage, class and good looks, Equipoise had it all. Under sunny skies and on a fast track Equipose competed on opening day at the Graw on April 16, 1930. The Lima Sunday News reported: “Equipoise, brilliant C.V. Whitney four-year-old, today showed 20,000 fans here that his return to form at Bowie was not merely temporary as he ran off with the $10,000-added Harford Handicap in easy fashion.”
Equipose returned to the Graw in the final start of his racing career in the Havre de Grace Handicap where he finished second, conceding twenty-eight pounds to Osculator. Plagued by chronic sore feet, 5-year old Equipoise retired from the turf and was honored with his second Horse of the Year title in 1933. He became the second most popular runner in America, trailing only Man o’ War.
War Admiral learned to be a racehorse at owner Samuel Riddle’s training center in Berlin. Standing just 15.3 hands, War Admiral was a full hand smaller than his superstar sire Man o’ War. When George Conway thought the colt was ready to race, the trainer shipped him over to Havre de Grace for his debut on April 25, 1936.
“The Admiral” showed quickness and a determined spirit in his victory on Philadelphia Handicap Day. Walter Haight, the horseracing writer for the Washington Post, reported: “A first-time starter, War Admiral, battled Sonny Joe, another first-time starter, to a nose decision in the opening dash for juveniles. The winner, a son of Man o’ War, ran Romney Royal into defeat and then had enough left to outlast Sonny Joe, a Vanderbilt youngster. Ground Oak was third in the field of ten. War Admiral, ridden by Jockey Moose Peters, paid $17.”
Carrying Riddle’s colors in the spring of 1937, three-year old War Admiral scored an easy victory in a six furlong allowance at the track and then wired the field in the Chesapeake Stakes at the Graw, winning by an easy six lengths, prepping for his historic Triple Crown sweep.
Seabiscuit showed up in 1938. Owner Charles Howard parlayed Seabiscuit’s overwhelming victory in the Havre de Grace Handicap into the spectacular match race versus War Admiral at Pimlico on November 1, 1938.
Citation won his racing debut at the Graw in April 1947. He was the last superstar to compete at the track in 1948 when he swept the Triple Crown and won a record 19 of 20 races.
“Calumet would come up from Florida and it was an impressive sight to see Citation in the morning,” Kelly remembered. “Trainer Jimmy Jones would be on a pony bringing six or seven horses out to the track. Ben Jones would be around too. It was a show unto itself.”
When Edward Burke died in 1943, a new board of directors had been approved and General Milton A. Reckford, commandant of the Maryland National Guard, became the new chairman and took control of the Graw. Reckford had sold off the Guard’s previous site at Fort Ritchie to the federal government and needed a new facility. The National Guard bought the racing plant for $1.4 million. In 1949, Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie began eying Havre de Grace’s dates.
“I always felt it was the most popular and had the best location, but with Havre de Grace out of the picture, the other three could split its 25 dates,” Kelly said. “Garden State was opening in New Jersey and it drew heavily from Philadelphia whereas Havre de Grace was a 90-minute train ride. I think the Maryland politicians used that as a good talking point.”
“Everyone thought it would be Laurel that closed, but it was Havre de Grace,” added historian David Craig. “It was typically second behind Pimlico in profits to its owners and the state. Didn’t matter, the deal was done within a matter of a couple of weeks.”
The fabled track’s last day of racing turned out to be April 26, 1950. The track’s stockholders sold out to the Union Trust Co. representing Pimlico and Laurel for $1.8 million on January 1, 1951. Today, the old clubhouse is still intact and serves as the administrative office of the National Guard.
“Racing is all about politics, and especially in those days,” Kelly noted. “That’s the way the cards fell.”