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This year, the Belmont Stakes, the fourth-oldest horse race in America, celebrates its 150th anniversary as the premier test of three-year-old Thoroughbreds. We will all be watching on June 9 to see if Justify will become the first Triple Crown winner since American Pharoah broke the 37-year dry spell of no horse being able to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. The Belmont Stakes, named for August Belmont, Sr., has had its home at a variety of tracks, including Jerome Park Racetrack in the Bronx where the first race was held in 1867 when a filly named Ruthless won by a nose. Several years later, the race was held at the Morris Park Racecourse until May 1905, when Belmont Park, built by August Belmont, Jr., opened in Elmont, New York. The race has been held there ever since, except for 1911 and 1912 when anti-gambling laws shut down the track and in the early 1960s when it was held at Aqueduct Park due to renovations at Belmont Park.
By 1918, Belmont, Jr., was caught up in the technology of the day and had heard about an experiment the government was conducting. That experiment was air mail. According to a new book, Stamp of the Century by Kellen Diamanti and Deborah Fisher, Belmont heard that the Post Office Department was having trouble finding suitable locations in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC for early airmail terminals. Customized biplanes — the Curtiss JN-4H, a.k.a. the Jenny — needed large tracts of land for take-off and landings. Belmont told the government that they could use the large grass infield at his popular racetrack as the runway for the first airmail flight, scheduled for May 15, 1918. Just eight years earlier, Belmont Park had hosted its first airshow, featuring Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Stamp of the Century
I won’t engage in spoiler alerts, but Stamp of the Century details not only the first harrowing airmail flights from New York to Philadelphia and Washington, DC, but celebrates the most famous stamp in history, the Inverted Jenny, which in 1918, was printed to commemorate the first airmail flight. Daring pilots had to build their planes within 48-hours before the first scheduled flight. Two newly built planes and one training plane departed from Belmont Park, despite looming bad weather, and went down to Philadelphia the night before the first flight. That morning, one plane made it to DC to the Potomac Park polo grounds in time for the official launch, with President Woodrow Wilson in attendance.
The man in charge of the whole operation hoped that the other pilots would be able to finish a third plane and have it ready at Belmont Park that same morning when the mail would arrive for the scheduled 11:30 am flight to Philadelphia’s Bustleton’s Field on route to DC. On May 15, speeches were made at Belmont Park; the Long Island Rail Road delivered two sacks of mail by special car to Lieutenant Torrey Webb, who bravely took off at exactly 11:30 am, to the delight of spectators and children singing the Star-Spangled Banner. Torrey arrived in DC three hours later and became the first pilot to deliver air mail. However, things were not going so smoothly in Washington DC. To find out what happened on that first day of airmail, check out stampofthecentury.com.
Belmont Park in 1918
In 1918, at the yearling sale, August Belmont, Jr., sold a chestnut horse named Man O’ War when he was downsizing his racing stable due to World War I. The 1918 Belmont Stakes winner was Johren, who won by two lengths over a mile and 3/8 course. He was owned by Harry Payne Whitney and piloted by the short-lived jockey Frank Robinson. The race was run “clockwise” in the early days of the race, like in England, to give wealthy patrons in the clubhouse a better view of the finish. Johren beat out British-born War Cloud in the Belmont Stakes. War Cloud became the first horse to compete in all three Triple Crown Races.
In late August 1918, a two-year-old horse named Sir Barton would place second in the Belmont Futurity, but was sidelined by an injury, only to come back in 1919 as a three-year-old and be the first horse to capture the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. Today, he is listed as the first Triple Crown winner, although the term wasn’t coined for many decades to come. He wasn’t even the most talked about horse in 1919; America was falling in love with the stand out two-year-old Man O’ War, who would take the Belmont Stakes in 1920.
But just like Sir Barton and Man O’War, trailblazers in Thoroughbred horse racing, airmail and that first flight from the infield of Belmont Park in 1918 not only helped launch faster mail delivery, but provided the framework for today’s modern commercial aviation industry. In a way, we have the horses, and the people who loved them, to thank for technological advances that eventually put the horse out to pasture in the transportation world.