By GREG MELIKOV of
Flamboyant financier Leonard W. Jerome and well-heeled friends, including banker August Belmont Sr., built a racetrack in the Bronx that opened on Sept. 25, 1866.
The crowd at Jerome Park, named for its founder, included Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and members of New York’s fashionable society. It was the first track to attract women in large numbers. Even the horses were chic – ribbons of owners’ colors were braided into their manes and tails.
On opening day, Jerome’s horse Kentucky visited the winner’s circle and the owner hoisted 12-year-old daughter Jennie on his shoulders.
Jerome and Belmont also founded the American Jockey Club, which later evolved into the Jockey Club. It was said of the pair at the time, “People like Belmont and Jerome do not enter society, they create it as they go along.”
Jerome Park was an English-style track that required runners to negotiate three turns because of a dip in mid-backstretch while racing clockwise.
On June 19, 1867, a stakes named for Jerome’s closest friend was first staged. The Belmont went to the filly Ruthless, victorious over three horses.
When the track closed 22 years later to make way for a reservoir needed by the New York City water supply system, the Belmont Stakes moved in 1890 to Morris Park in the Bronx. The winner: Burlington over eight challengers.
In 1905, the race was shifted to a new track in Elmont, N.Y., built by several business partners including August Belmont II. The winner: Tanya, a filly that defeated six rivals.
Since then the race has been staged at Belmont Park except for 1963-67 when it was held at Aqueduct while the track was being rebuilt.
Belmont traditions range from something old and something new to something borrowed and something blue.
Something old: One tradition lost to modern times is the winner’s colors being painted on the picket fence of Esposito’s Tavern near the track until it became a church.
In 1921, Grey Lag won the first Belmont run counter-clockwise.
The race sometimes is known as the “Run for the Carnations” because a blanket of white carnations, between 300 and 400, is draped over the winner’s shoulders. The flowers, glued on a green velveteen cloth, come from California or Bogotá, Columbia.
Because the race is 1 ½ miles, the longest of the three Triple Crown events, it’s also known as the “Test of the Champions.”
Something real old: The giant 300-year-old white pine in the paddock is featured in the Belmont Park logo.
Something borrowed: The official Belmont song “Sidewalks of New York” was replaced in 1997 by “New York, New York” made famous by Frank Sinatra. The reason: management believed it would be more familiar to a bigger audience.
Something blue: Anti-betting legislation was passed in New York State, closing Belmont and canceling the race for two years, 1911-12.
Something new: In 1997, track officials added a cast iron horse and jockey 4 feet high in the saddling area. Both are painted the colors of each year’s winner.
In 1998, the Belmont Breeze was made official drink of the race. The main ingredients: whiskey and sherry.
An interesting footnote: Jennie Jerome and her two sisters spent much time in Europe thanks to their father’s wealth. On the Isle of Wight, Jennie met Lord Randolph Churchill. In 1874, they were married at the British Embassy in Paris.
They produced two grandsons for Jerome. The oldest was Prime Minister Winston Churchill.