Sunday, July 20, 2003

Seabiscuit raced at River Downs in its heyday

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Alfred Bellew was 25 and an assistant starter when he saw Seabiscuit at River Downs.
(Tony Jones photo)
Alfred Bellew was there 67 years ago when Seabiscuit ran consecutive races at River Downs. Then 25, the Covington native was working as an assistant starter at the Cincinnati track.

"He was a little fussy about getting in the gate," Bellew said. "I do remember that faintly."

The memories are faint because at that point, the colt hadn't yet caught fire. The River Downs races were the 51st and 52nd of Seabiscuit's career, and he finished third in each. Yet within a couple of years, he was a national phenomenon.

Now 92 and still working at River Downs as an assistant to the paddock judge, Bellew is one of the few left who can claim to have seen Seabiscuit in person.

"It's surprising there's this new interest in the horse," said Bellew. "But it was such a phenomenal story of the changeover: He was a mediocre horse, then he really blossomed."

Bellew was one of few Midwesterners to have seen him, because most of the horse's 89 starts took place at East and West coast tracks. The River Downs races marked Seabiscuit's only appearance in Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana.

Such a presence isn't unprecedented in Tristate racing history. Enquirer research found 13 Hall of Fame horses that raced at area tracks.

All but two of those ran here in 1936 or before, most either at River Downs or Old Latonia Racecourse in Covington. In Seabiscuit's case, the horse arrived after running his first five starts under new trainer Tom Smith at Detroit Fair Grounds.

Gradual approach works

Seabiscuit hadn't thrived under a heavy race schedule for James Fitzsimmons, at the time the nation's leading trainer. But when Smith bought the horse in August 1936 for owner Charles Howard, he set about a more gradual training regimen for the 3-year-old.

On Sept. 7, in his last race in Detroit, Seabiscuit won the Governor's Handicap against a good field. It was the first inkling of his talent.

He raced in Cincinnati on Oct. 3 in the first running of the $2,500 Western Hills Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile stakes race.

Seabiscuit, the third choice at 5-to-1 odds, had a troubled trip and was fifth after three-quarters of a mile. He rallied for third, 11/2 lengths behind winner Marynell and a length behind Cristate, the latter of which he had beaten in his previous start.

On Oct. 17, he ran in the $2,500 East Hills Handicap, another 1 1/16-mile stakes. Second choice at 3-to-1, Seabiscuit struggled over a muddy track. The favorite, Mucho Gusto, won by 11/2 lengths over Safe and Sound, with Seabiscuit another length back. The horse's handlers were satisfied with the efforts and more encouraged by his strong workouts during his time in Cincinnati. In his next race, at Empire City Racetrack in New York, Seabiscuit won the Scarsdale Handicap, a good midlevel stakes race.

That gave Smith and Howard enough confidence to head to California, where Seabiscuit began his finest racing. By August 1937, Seabiscuit had won seven consecutive stakes races.

Area tracks' highlights

Seabiscuit's appearance was one of the last by a Hall of Fame horse in Cincinnati.

The heyday of local racing occurred before the Depression at Old Latonia, formerly at 38th and Monmouth in Covington. Every year from 1915 to 1924, and again in 1927, Old Latonia led all North America tracks in total purses awarded. The Latonia Derby was in those days considered on par with the Kentucky Derby.

Yet in 1919 the Kentucky Jockey Club bought all the tracks in Kentucky, and the man in charge, Col. Matt Winn, began to de-emphasize the Latonia races. The track started to slump in the late 1920s and closed in 1939.

River Downs' highlights in those days came in 1926, when Crusader set a track record at 11/4 miles that still stands (2:02), and in 1935, when the great filly Myrtlewood set what was then a world record for six furlongs (1:09 1/5) in a match race against rival Clang.


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