HAVRE DE GRACE — Between 5,000 and 6,000 people poured into the city on Aug. 24, 1912, to witness something of a miracle. That was the day when the Havre de Grace Racetrack opened for business.

Horse racing fans from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C, eagerly pushed through the gates that afternoon to marvel at the still incomplete facility that had first class stands and facilities, but a “cuppy” track that would not permit fast track times. Still, it was a great track for horses who preferred a soft run.

The New York racing contingent was well-represented on that first day, since the sport had been discontinued in that state in 1911. But the majority of spectators and bettors came from Philadelphia, with Baltimore and Washington close behind.

“It is evident from the good attendance and the enthusiasm displayed that the new course is bound to prove popular,” recorded the Daily Racing Form about opening day. “Well backed horses as a rule raced well and the crowd went away well-satisfied with the afternoon’s sport.”

Among the familiar names behind those well-backed horses, and indeed the racetrack that came to be known as “The Graw,” was New York’s Arnold Rothstein who likely delighted in the capacity crowds. It is believed by many that Rothstein, who arrived in Havre de Grace on Aug. 7, 1912, may have tarried in the city up until opening day on Aug. 24, 1912, keeping a watchful eye on his investment in the track. It would be interesting to know what his reaction to the first meet was after one jockey died and then a legal battle to ban on-track bookmakers ensued.

Rothstein was known to his associates in New York as “The Brain,” but he was also called “The Fixer,” “Mr. Big,” “The Man Uptown,” and “The Big Bankroll,” as kingpin of the Jewish mob in New York. Rumored to have organized corruption in professional athletics, including conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series in the infamous Black Sox Scandal. One writer, Leo Katcher, avowed Rothstein transformed organized crime into big business. He was reported to have fixed many a race at Havre de Grace, as well.

Rothstein’s criminal organization would come to include such memorable gangsters as Meyer Lansky, Jack “Legs” Diamond, “Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Dutch Schultz with their respective bosses. Rothstein would be called upon to mediate differences between the New York gangs, earning staggering fees for his mediation services. By 1925, 13 years after the Graw opened, Rothstein was one of the most powerful criminals in the country with a massive empire, partly from being for a time the largest bootlegger in America. Luciano, whom may view to have held Rothstein as his mentor, credited Rothstein with teaching him how to dress for success as a future kingpin and became one of New York’s most notorious gangsters.

With brief shutdowns during World War II, the Graw would operate from 1912 until 1950 hosting a spring meet that was considered key for colts bound for the Kentucky Derby. The second meet, held in the fall, brought in some of the best handicap horses in the country for races that included the Havre de Grace Handicap. Among the 3-year-olds to win the Havre de Grace Handicap was the first Adams Express in 1919 straight through to: Roamer in 1915, The Finn in 1916, Omar Khayyam in 1917, Cudgel in 1919, Crusader in 1926, Chance Pay in 1927, Sun Beau in 1929, Valenciennes in 1931, Equipoise in 132, Faireno in 1934, Challedon in 1939 (and again in 1940, and Natchez in 1948. Perhaps the most well-known winner of the Havre de Grace Handicap today was the 1938 winner, the famed horse Seabiscuit.

Samuel Riddle’s great Man o’ War raced at The Graw and won the Potomac Handicap there on Sept. 29, 1920. Riddle would later say Man o’ War ran his greatest race at Havre de Grace. His son, Triple Crown winner War Admiral, won his first race at The Graw on April 25, 1936.

Memorable, high-class horses with their very affluent owners flocked to The Graw, bringing with them the best and most well-known trainers and jockeys in the country. The land off Post Road and Old Bay Lane in Havre de Grace was acquired for $20,000 with the construction of the grandstand, track and other buildings slated at $125,000. The Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad operated trains across the land, with each company vying to have the most handsome railroad station closest to the track. Former U.S. Rep. Joseph Rhinock, of Kentucky, even arranged each railroad company to have a 50-cent, round-trip car fare just for the races.

The 1940s brought both increased competition from Delaware Park and Garden State Park Racetrack in New Jersey, and shutdowns of The Graw during the wartime years. By 1949, the owners of The Graw turned over some of their racing days to Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course. By 1950, the racetrack in Havre de Grace crossed its own finish line, and in January 1951 it was sold to Alfred G. Vanderbilt, II, who owned Pimlico, and Morris Schapiro, of Laurel Park, who closed The Graw. It later became property of the Maryland National Guard, in a $10 purchase deal, and remains so to this day.

But The Graw and the racetrack itself are not forgotten, though little remains to tell the story save a highway marker and fenced off buildings on the National Guard property. But if one were to listen very closely to the 1973 movie “The Sting,” which is set in 1936, J.J. Singleton can be heard reporting, “At Havre de Grace, the winner, Light Chatter …”

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.