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Western Reserve Matinee Club

The Rise, the Decline, and the Fall(?) of Matinee Racing

Matinee racing, a vestige of harness racing's past, is in failing health and may well be on it's death bed. There used to be numerous driving clubs around the nation that supported and sponsored Matinee racing, but the numbers are dwindling and participation is on the decline. Our own Club, Western Reserve Matinee Club, is struggling to survive. To understand why Matinee racing is withering away we must look at American history and origins of Matinee racing.

The Rise

The harness horse or "roadster" was an integral part of early American life. He was versatile and highly adaptable to all travelling conditions, good roads or rough country ground. "Devotion to the horse and pleasure in his displays of power and speed were limited to no geographical region or to no social class" [Akers p.4]. Currier and Ives Print The harness horse was a democratic horse and road racing, as practiced by early Americans, was a sport shared on an equal basis by the common-citizen and aristocrat. The town storekeeper, the farmer, the country doctor, the local judge, or reverend, observing a moneyed neighbor driving or riding their trotting horse was neither resentful nor envious, for they too often owned a fast trotter. A person could take pride in rearing, training and driving/riding their own horse. The open road was their racecourse. There were no limits to their opportunities for competition, for every person and their horse met along the road were possible rivals. In the age of the road horse it's no wonder harness racing as a sport arose with vigor. Unlike his counterpart, the running horse, the Thoroughbred was often considered too frail and unreliable for regular use on the rigorous American roads. He was an English import, a Torie, that thrived in America only through the support of a moneyed, English aristocratic class, patronizing their long standing tradition of running horses. However, the trotting horses were a type that the common citizen knew about, understood, and could care about.

Currier and Ives Print Racing at this amateur road level was referred to as "brushing". Almost every town, city, or village had a stretch of road used by the local brushing brigade to exhibit their horses speed and driving talents. For decades the two most famous stretches of road in America known for its high rate of "brushing" were Third Avenue in Manhattan, NY and Jamaica Road on Long Island, NY. Before a trotting track existed in America, these two roads were famous trotting grounds.
Currier and Ives Print On them were held trials of speed and match races both under saddle and in harness. But as the years marched on and America grew, modern forms of transportation and road congestion forced the trotting horses and their drivers from American roads. To escape the confusion on the roads, many trotting horse enthusiasts formed driving clubs and leased, bought, or built tracks on which they could trot their horses undisturbed.

It was on these tracks that amateur racing took on a more formal character. Out of impromptu Saturday afternoon gatherings of horses and drivers at these driving club tracks grew "the Matinees".

Matinee racing seems to have originated with the Waverly Park Gentleman's Pleasure Driving Association at Newark, NJ in 1871. In place of the improvised matches conducted on other tracks, the Waverly Park Association arranged a formal calendar of events and during the racing season held weekly meetings open to members and guests. The aim of the Association, as stated in the Spirit of the Times, was "the realization of pure sport between horses and owners, conducted in a gentlemanly manner and in a way which would arouse and keep alive a generous rivalry, untainted with trickery or cunning devices to gain a victory or leading to wagering." "The rate of speed at Waverly Park is capital," noted Wallace's Monthly in 1878, "the driving of no mean order and altogether the races are far more enjoyable than any public races we have seen during the last several years. Newark can indisputably lay title to being the hub and starting point for true and pure sport in all this sport-loving land" [Akers p.255].

The more formal Matinee idea spread to other driving clubs in America and with time brought the notion of inter-club competitions. In 1894, the New York Driving Club, the Belmont Driving Club of Philadelphia, PA, and Pimlico Driving Club of Baltimore, MD, held a round of such competitions, one in each city. They raced for a trophy described as having a badge made up of the winning Club's crest together with the heads of a mare and her colt enameled on a gold background and with diamond eyes.

The success of these early inter-club competitions in 1894 stimulated amateur driving competitions all over the nation. In Ohio, Harry Devereux a leader in the social life of Cleveland, organized a group of amateurs to form the Gentleman's Driving Club of Cleveland in 1895. Harry Devereux of Cleveland and C.K.G. Billings of Chicago came to be known and recognized as the grand marshals of the matinees. True lovers of the sport, they spent time and money to promote not only their own Clubs, but the matinee movement everywhere.

Among the matinee clubs, that of Cleveland was generally conceded first rank. Of the one hundred and fifty members of the Driving Club, men for the most part prominent in the business and social life of the city, about fifty joined in the racing. Meetings were held every Saturday afternoon during the summer. The trophies raced for were ribbons or cups. The matinees, free to the public, became a popular source of entertainment to the horse lovers of Cleveland. On ordinary occasions there was an attendance of about two thousand. At special events there were sometimes audiences of six or seven thousand. The clean character of the racing, the good behavior of the crowds and the absence of a "gambling element" surrounded the matinees with an air of refinement that made them a favorite resort of women. Often at the Cleveland meetings more women were in the audience than men [Akers p.256-7].

All during the mid-to-late 1890's driving clubs were being formed and matinee racing was introduced not only in big cities but also in many small towns. Most likely our own small town of Wooster, Ohio had Saturday afternoon trots utilizing the track at the fairgrounds. The following photo taken during the Wayne County Fair in the late 1890's shows harness racing was an entertainment attraction during the Fair [Blum p.8].

Racing at the Fair 1890's

In 1899, the Gentleman's Driving Club of Boston, MA, offered the Amateur Driver's Challenge Trophy, said to be valued at $1,000, to be raced for by members of any recognized driving club. It was rumored that in the quest for this trophy in the year 1900 over $100,000 was spent on horseflesh by the gentleman drivers who competed for it. Incidently, Harry Devereux won the Boston trophy for three consecutive years with his horse: John A. McKerron.

The races for the Boston trophy in 1900 led to the formation of the League of Amateur Driving Clubs, which at first included the clubs of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, and was later extended to include Columbus, New York City and Memphis. The track rules of the trotting associations were adopted by the new organization, with further rules to define and protect the amateur standing of the drivers and the amateur status of the meetings. Gambling at the matinees was forbidden. The League gave national leadership to the movement for inter-club racing. Regional leagues were organized throughout the country [Akers p.257].

At this point it is important to point out why the anti-gambling sentiment was so strong and important to the founders of matinee racing. These people were living during the height of the temperance and antigambling reform movements. A series of race-fixing scandals involving bookmakers at Thoroughbred tracks inspired a wave of legislation all across the country that outlawed wagering and the Suffragettes were pushing for temperance laws. The result was catastrophic for Thoroughbred racing: at the turn of the century there were well over 300 tracks operating nationwide, but by 1908 only 25 remained and these numbers kept dwindling until the Depression strangled our nation [Hillenbrand p.13]. However, trotting had escaped this reform movement as it had in the past. The American mindset was such that "trotting was not racing". Because the trotting horse had been a transportation necessity for early Americans he still held a prized place in the minds and hearts of Americans. The same could not be said for running horses, the thoroughbred was a horse of pleasure. Since there were still places left in America where the road horse was still being utilized, the following reasoning held up:

Competitions between trotters were held to be indispensable to the business of improving the quality of the road horse. Without tests of speed and endurance in the white hot crucible of competition, how -- it was asked -- could breeders determine which stock was best?

So, with gambling outlawed in much of the country, and the people losing their faith in Thoroughbred racing, matinee racing was held up as a clean, wholesome activity that could be enjoyed by all upstanding citizens.

At first the matinees, financed from the pockets of wealthy men and free to the public, were resented by professional racing interests as a form of unfair competition. They ridiculed the matinee horses and drivers as second-rate. On both counts they changed their minds. The matinees only sharpened the public's interest in the performances of the professional stars. In the matinee stables were horses on a par with the best. The reinsmanship of such men as Billings and Devereux was as polished and skillful as any to be seen on a public track. Sensibly, therefore, the professionals, arranging amateur events as part of their regular programs, made a place for the matinee drivers in their own department of the sport [Akers p.258].

To encourage amateur racing in it's city, the Memphis Trotting Association provided a trophy to be raced for, to wagon , by members of recognized matinee clubs valued at $5,000. The trophy cup was to become the pemanent property of the club whose representative had won it twice. There were two people in the nation who had their mind set on obtaining the cup: Elmer Smathers and C.K.G. Billings. In October of 1902 Smathers had won the first race for the cup with the horse Lord Derby who resoundingly defeated Billings entry in the race: The Monk.

The mare Lou Dillon In May of 1903 C.K.G. Billings spent $12,500 at a dispersal sale in Cleveland for the mare Lou Dillon and added her to his stable of matinee horses, hoping that she could bring him a victory in the next Memphis race for the coveted trophy. His investment paid off as she became a phenomenal horse that captured the attention of the nation when she became the first horse to trot a 2:00 minute mile. Faced with racing against Billings with Lou Dillon, Smathers knew that Lord Derby did not have a chance of winning. To beat a two-minute trotter, Smathers knew he had to be driving a two-minute trotter. There was only one other horse in the world who had obtained a two-minute mark and that was Major Delmar, who had taken his record, 2:00.1, by trotting against time behind a wind-shield. (A large wedge-shaped contraption made of canvas that was pulled behind the prompt horse in front of the trotter to block the wind.) The price set for Major Delmar was $40,000 but Smathers did not balk at the price and bought the horse. He was intent on winning the Memphis cup.

When October of 1903 rolled around there were only two entries for the Memphis Cup amateur race, as there were no other horses wishing to engage the two-minute trotters. It was the match race of the century, but at the time was overshadowed by Dan Patch's Memphis mile paced in 1:56.1m. Lou Dillon was driven by Billings and Major Delmar driven by Smathers. Deprived of his wind-shield Major Delmar was no match for Lou Dillon. She easily won in straight heats: the first by four lengths and the second heat trouncing him by six lengths; each heat timed in 2:04.3m to wagons.

In October of 1904 the deciding race for the Memphis Cup was held. Again, Billings entered Lou Dillon and Smathers brought back Major Delmar.

In the first heat, Lou scored fast, but hardly had she gone a hundred yards when a flick from Mr. Billings' whip informed the crowd that the mare was not trotting in her usual form. Major Delmar moved quickly into the lead. At the three-quarter pole, Lou was several lengths behind him. Her confident, airy manner was gone. There was no fire in her racing, no blazing finish, such as the crowds had learned to expect from her. The heat was a walkover for the Smathers horse. Between heats, Lou was examined by a doctor and pronounced unfit for racing. Mr. Billings refusing to withdraw her, drove her a second heat in a slow time, thus permitting Major Delmar to win the race and Smathers to win the cup. It was a gesture of a gallant sportsman [Akers p.266-7]

The trophy became the property of the New York Driving Club as Smathers was driving as a member of their club. However, the story of the race for the Memphis Cup did not end with Smathers' win.

The Decline

Both Smathers and Billings decided to retire from competitive driving in matinees, and Smathers quit matinee racing altogether. Billings bought Major Delmar for his matinee stable. The trainer of Major Delmar, after being released from his employment by Smathers, confessed that Lou Dillon had been doped before the start of the Memphis race in 1904 at the insistance of Mr. Smathers.

Detectives were put on the case, and as a result the Memphis association brought suit before the Board of Review for an investigation of the entire affair and the return of the cup to its holding, on the grounds that it had been won by improper means. The hearing was dramatic and bitterly fought on both sides. It ended in the expulsion of the man making the confession, who went into hiding and refused to testify, and of the manager of the Smathers stable, for collusion to cause Lou Dillon's defeat; but Mr. Smathers was declared not a party to the plot and allowed to retain the cup. He, however, had sold all of his horses a few weeks after winning it and retired from the harness turf, to which he never returned [Hervey p.261].

This incident had far reaching effects: it shook the public's confidence in amateur racing and dulled the enthusiasm of those who practiced it. The charge that a gentleman driver, to win a race only for the honor of himself and his club, had resorted to this despicable act, tarnished the integrity of amateur racing. It could not easily be rubbed away or forgotten. Never again would matinee racing reach the heights that it did before this incident.

Of course there were other circumstances more fundamental than a stable scandal that brought about the decline of the matinees. As Henry Ford provided Americans with mass-produced affordable cars, thousands of once loyal horse-citizens were seduced into plush comfortable seats behind a steering wheel and no longer needed their horse. Some car dealers, wanting to make a sale, would even take your old driving horse as a trade-in. The market became flooded with cheap horses, causing the breeding industry to reel.

Harness racing's problems were intensified by America entering the first World War, causing many men to withdraw themselves and their horses from the sport. Among those quitting was C.K.G. Billings: matinee racing's chief supportor. He sent his treasury of trotters to the sales ring in 1917 and turned his stock farm at Curles Neck, VA over to the government for military uses. The only horse he kept for personal use was Uhlan, 1:58m. The horse Uhlan The sport of harness racing was in a deep recession and matinee racing was almost non-existent during mid-teens and early 1920's.

However, there were a few bright spots for matinee racing post-WWI. A few organizations such as the Metropolitan Driving Club of Boston, MA, the Goshen Driving Club of NY, the Road Association of NJ, and the Nassau Driving Club of Long Island, NY (made up of men from the East Coast Polo set trying their hand at trotters), managed to continue their matinees, though on a smaller scale. It was also during this period that amateur harness racing brought in a new participant: the lady driver. The restrictive social codes of American society had lifted and American women were reveling in new found freedoms.

If she chose to put her heels in the stirrups of a sulky neither the laws of Vanity Fair nor the opinions of Mrs. Grundy forbade [Akers p.315].

During the mid 1930's the Depression forced many state governments, desperate for revenue, to legalize wagering on horse racing. As a consequence the horse industry started to rebuild and thrive again up to and during World War Two.

The period after World War Two brought thousands of service-men back to America to proceed with their lives and start new families in new homes with new jobs. Americans wanted and bought goods and materials not available during the war. American industries expanded to meet new peacetime needs. With an energy never before experienced across all of America there was growth everywhere. Greater general prosperity led to more leisure time for the average American and during the 1950's they fell in love with sports. New fans were added to all types of sports, including harness racing. As a result matinee racing experienced a revival. Our own club, the Western Reserve Matinee Club, was founded sometime during the 1950's.

The Fall(?)

However, it was during this time that matinee racing experienced some fundamental changes. The matinee racing season was reduced from weekly events during the Summer to a couple of times a year in the Spring. The days of big matinee stables filled with expensive, class horses, driven competitively by their owners were gone. Furthermore, the average horse owner could no longer afford the expense of a horse used soley for matinee racing. The matinee races began to fill with young inexperienced horses driven by their trainers. The trainer's only interest was in teaching and preparing the animal for the racing conditions it might encounter at the county fairs or pari-mutuel racetracks. Matinees also began to attract America's youth interested in learning how to drive a horse. With the trainer-driver or youth-driver in the sulky the emphasis during the race was placed on teaching a horse manners, staying on gait, and moving around the track in a controlled, often timed, manner. Very often the races were divided into time-bar classes, meaning the winner could not go faster than the set time-bar for the race or face disqualification. Another practice that came into vogue was to school the horses behind the mobile starting gait for a half-mile before the "race" even begins. Matinee racing lost all form of it's competitive nature. From a spectator's position, matinee racing became less than exciting to watch. As a result the grandstands during matinee racing events were practically empty. Matinee racing became nothing more than schooling sessions for horse and driver.

Matinee racing has been able to struggle along in this capacity for the past 50 years or so. But recently, some changes put in place by the United States Trotting Association may have had some unintended affects that tend to deter people from participating in matinee racing. For instance, a horse's lifetime electronic eligibility papers are issued the first time at a cost of $95.oo (the old 40 line eligibility papers used to cost $40.oo). Granted, the new papers are lifetime and never have to be re-newed. But, as an owner looking to enter a two-year old (a risky race prospect) in a 2:30 time-bar matinee race, they may think it's not worth the money as the horse may never make another start.

Another more harmful change was the creation of a new driving category called the Special License: a license valid for amateur racing at all meetings. Such license shall be issued at the direction of the Executive Vice President upon the filing of an application [USTA]. This new driving category is basically a replacement for the matinee license. New driving clubs with their members having this "Special License" have sprung up around the country and have essentially re-created matinee racing. However, they have renamed it "Amateur Racing" and created racing opportunities for themselves at pari-mutuel racetracks and allow betting. Young drivers and new driving enthusiasts now opt to get the Special License, join these driving clubs, and race at these new Amateur Racing events held at pari-mutuel racetracks. These Amateur Racing events appear to be on the precipice of replacing matinee racing altogether.


Author: Susan Zimmerman
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Last Updated: July 1, 2003; 5:30 pm EDT