NEW YORK CITY — While I'll Have Another will attempt to become to the first horse in more than three decades to win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes Saturday, many don't realize that the 144-year-old race plays an important part in Bronx history.
The Belmont, which takes place in Elmont, Long Island, was first run in 1867 in the area that is now the Jerome Park Reservoir. It has always been horseracing's longest contest, and the initial race featured not a round but a "kidney shaped" track, in order to create extra turns for the houses and make the race more difficult.
"From the beginning it was a test of champions," Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan said. "Having a Belmont winner was always something special."
According to Ultan, the mastermind behind the Belmont Stakes was Leonard W. Jerome, who wanted to turn thoroughbred horseracing into "the sport of kings."
Initially, Jerome recognized it was inconvenient for his wealthy friends Uptown — what is now Midtown Manhattan — to make the trip up to The Bronx, which at the time was a part of Westchester.
So Jerome set about convincing the local towns of Morrisania and West Farms to build roads to the track, Ultan explained. Jerome talked the town supervisors into issuing public bonds to finance the project, and Jerome Avenue and the Macombs Dam Bridge were built, two factors that lead to the annexation of The Bronx.
The first winner of the Belmont Stakes was a horse named Ruthless, which was owned by Francis Morris. Morris's son, John A. Morris, would go on to build the park that the Belmont Stakes would eventually move into in 1891. That park stood on what is now the Morris Park neighborhood, and Morris Park Avenue runs through what was the center of the track.
The race ultimately left The Bronx in 1904. In addition to the Jerome Park Reservoir, part of the area that used to house Jerome Park is now home to the High School of American Studies and the Bronx High School of Science.
Morris Park remained in place — used for car races and one of the very first air shows — until 1910, when a fire broke out there. The building was destroyed after local and city fire departments had to cross their hoses over train tracks to put the fire out, and a train came by, severing the hoses. The track burned to the ground, and the lots were eventually auctioned off.