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'The Graw,' what it was and could still be 100 years later

World War II (1939-1945)Edward M. BurkeMaryland General Assembly

With the fifth annual Graw Days celebration coming up in Havre de Grace Saturday, Oct. 13, it's also important to remember this past Aug. 24 just marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Havre de Grace Racetrack, the reason for the celebration.

In recent years, much has been said locally and elsewhere in Harford County about "The Graw," as the track became known.

More interest was kindled a year ago when Havre de Grace, the horse named after the race track, or actually the city, according to her owner, was on her way to winning American racing's most coveted postseason honor, Thoroughbred Horse of the Year.

Today, you would have to be in your late 60s to have any recollection about horse racing actually taking place out along Old Bay Lane, since the track closed for good following the spring meeting of 1950.

Of course, succeeding generations of Havre de Grace residents and those from surrounding areas have been steeped in the fond (or not-so-fond in the minds of some) memories of those halcyon days when the city was considered a sporting center for the entire East Coast and beyond, and just every star of the American turf from Man 'O War to Citation came to Havre de Grace to run.

In addition, most of the important structures remain from the track, including the foundation of the grandstand, the paddock and the clubhouse, all in use by the Maryland National Guard, which turned the property into a military reservation following the end of racing. Considering that happened 62 years ago and people are still talking about it - some even boldly dreaming the thunder of hoofbeats might return - I'd say "The Graw" still has plenty of staying power.

I've previously written about the track, aided by interviews with several people, some no longer with us, who experienced it firsthand, but there's a lot I still don't know about it. I'm sure plenty will be said during the various events and presentations planned Saturday in conjunction with Graw Days, and there's a lot that should be known.

I found an interesting post from 2009 on the website http://www.colinsghost.org a racing history and archive, whose operator aided me last year in my own Horse of the Year Coverage.

This particular post using information from the archives of the Daily Racing Form which notes, among other things, that New York's anti-gambling legislation of 1911 became Havre de Grace's gain, as racing was all but shut down up north, prompting many of the dons of New York and Kentucky racing to cast their eyes south to Maryland, where horse racing had been a gambling sport since Colonial times.

The Maryland General Assembly approved legislation permitting racing in Havre de Grace in early 1912, and the governor signed it that April.

"The land on which the new track will be built has been acquired for $20,000 and the plans call for an expenditure of $150,000 for the construction of the track grandstand and other necessary structures," the DRF reported on May 9, 1912. "The track will be located directly on the banks of the Susquehanna River in what is considered one of the most beautiful spots in all America. The grounds include 103 acres about 38 miles from Baltimore and 48 miles from Philadelphia."

There was information about how both the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio railroads ran through the property controlled by Joseph Rhinock, a former Kentucky congressman described as the "moving spirit" behind the venture, and his associates and how special fare deals were planned. "Fine turnpikes connect the property with Philadelphia and Baltimore permitting automobiling and driving from each city," it was also noted. One of those associates was Edward Burke, the New York bookie and racing figure who would visit The Graw in its most successful days and whose name is most associated with the enterprise a century later.

On Aug. 19, 1912, the DRF reported: "The course was practically built in a month, the program has been framed, stakes have been closed and now special train arrangements have been completed for the handling of crowds."

On opening day, Aug. 24, the DRF noted an attendance of 5,000 people, "representing the largest cities in the east - New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington," also reporting, "Well backed horses as a rule raced well and the crowd went away well satisfied with the afternoon's sport."

And, "well satisfied" they would be for about two weeks each spring and fall over the ensuing 35 years (no racing was conducted during World War II years), until the track suffered a death that, to this day, many believe was premature and the result of dirty politics, not economics.

"Racing at Havre de Grace attracted high-class horses, well-heeled owners and the best trainers and jockeys in the country," the Colin's Ghost post notes. "Considering the current success of boutique meets at Del Mar, Saratoga and Keeneland, it's hard not to think what might have happened had the track survived."

Or, I'll add, what could happen if the track somehow gets revived.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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World War II (1939-1945)Edward M. BurkeMaryland General Assembly
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