Matthew B. Gilmore
PUBLISHED: JANUARY 1ST, 2018
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
On April 14, 1908 the last horse racing circuit was run at the Benning race track. The season had opened several weeks earlier, on March 23rd, under a cloud. Legislation to abolish pari-mutuel betting (pools and bookmaking) at Benning had been introduced the preceding December and was progressing through Congress. Benning was running on borrowed time (and indeed had been since its opening almost 20 years earlier). Betting on horse racing had been under fire in Congress since the 1880s. But over this season hung much more of a sense of foreboding.
The myth persists that the legislation ending pari-mutuel betting was snuck through Congress while opponents were attending the races. Congressman Thetus Sims, the bill’s sponsor, had resorted to some unusual legislative maneuvers (the language was included in an unrelated bill to widen Benning Road) but it seemed clear that passage was inevitable — if the bill got out of committee.
Washington — a Racing Mecca?
Georgetown and Washington society (up to the highest echelons) appreciated horse racing since before the founding of Washington — even presidents were involved in the racing scene, and John Quincy Adams was known to attend the races. President Andrew Jackson entered his horses under the name of his nephew A.J. Donelson when he raced them in Washington. Wendy Kail’s “On the Track — Thomas Peter, Henry Clay, and the Duchess of Marlborough” recounts early Georgetown horse racing, starting in 1769. The first steeplechase in the United States took place in Washington in 1834, hosted by the Washington Jockey Club on October 19th.
Benning track was preceded by (and coincided with) several other tracks in the District’s Washington County – then the hinterlands of Washington City. Most long-lived of racing locations was the Crystal Springs race course, later known as Brightwood Trotting Park track, in 1859 and ceased in 1908. Two and a half miles north of Washington City, Brightwood, or Piney Branch Race Course, was located where Colorado Avenue and Kennedy Street, NW meet, immediately north of Crystal Springs resort on the banks of Rock Creek. Today 16th Street, NW runs directly through the site
When the legislation reached President Theodore Roosevelt’s desk he readily signed it, despite that, or perhaps because, it had been one of his daughter Alice’s favorite haunts. The end of race track gambling ended professional horse racing in the District. Without gambling horse racing was not a financially viable proposition. The Washington Jockey Club considered holding a fall season in 1908 but ultimately decided against. Betting at Brightwood Park ended. Ivy City track would soon disappear — plans to extend New York Avenue through the site were published in 1909. In 1915 the 12 stables at Benning track burned, a loss estimated at $25,400. A variety of other sporting and recreational events took place at the track, such as bicycle and automobile races. In 1943 Mayfair Mansions (originally Mayfair Gardens) and apartment complexes was built over the site of the track, bounded by the large oval shape of the track.