The Rogue, the Wit and the Master: How Jérôme, Travers and Belmont Organized the Belmont Stakes

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by Kate Richards

It was April 1866 in New York. Three men met in Leonard Jerome’s office on Wall Street to discuss sports and horses, particularly the need for a nearby track for organized races in New York. They were relaxed with each other even though each man had very different characteristics, but they were friendly competitors, in a romantic case, rivals. They probably smoked cigars brought back by Belmont from one of his diplomatic trips to Cuba where he advocated a purchase of the island for the United States from Spain. Recently elected national chairman of the Democratic Party, Belmont sr., was an accomplished politician and at times an adviser to President Lincoln regarding appeasement of southern states by offering cotton growers an offshore location to exploit laborers and appease abolitionists. “Cotton was necessary for the growth of manufacturing…secession was not” advised Belmont sr… For August Belmont, anything and everything was business and as such, a profitable opportunity.

“Ccc-cotton, you say. Let’s add those ff-thin c-Cuban cigars,” the ever amiable Willie Travers probably smiled.

William R. Travers was a lawyer by profession and traveled between Saratoga, his home port, Newport and Bermuda on his yacht, “Fanny”, so named as a jib against Jerome and Belmont who shared a mistress. Shrewd in his investments, Travers was quite wealthy but was best known for his self-deprecating storytelling, usually involving himself and his pronounced stutter. In the 1889 New York Times obituary of Traver, he was noted as the most popular man in New York, president of the Athletic Club, president of Saratoga Racing, and a member of 20 social clubs. At a time when popularity was attributed to the number of clubs one belonged to, Travers won the garland. (NYTimes 1889 obituary) Literally every man on Wall Street had a Travers story to share. One such anecdote involved a banker named Henry Clews, proud of his seed success. Travers, overhearing such boasting from Clew, began to stare at Clew’s bald head.

Clews, noticing Travers’s gaze, asked “Well, what’s Travers’ problem?”

“H-Henry,” Travers inquired.

The crews replied, “Why certainly, I made myself!”

Travers quickly came back, “So, ww-when you were there, ww-why didn’t you p-put more hair on the top of your head.”

Another story by Henry Clew about his witty friend Willie Travers involved Clews soliciting Travers’ creativity regarding a costume for the upcoming Vanderbilt Ball. Travers replied

“Clews, w-why don’t you d-smear sugar on your head and go like a pill p. »

(The Saratogian) (NYTimes 1889, Library of Congress)

The history of racing, and if you think about it, our modern day sport, is a bountiful treasure trove of colorful personalities, horse pedigrees and ideas that originated in ambition, egos, accidents of destiny and dream landscapes. The shape of things to come, anchored in the narrative of the history of the belmont stake must be told with a tasty richness and understanding the personality of these men… Belmont, Travers and Jérôme.

Fierce. Jerome’s grandson, Sir Winston Churchill, remembered him as “fierce” in his approach to business and sport. (WinstonChurchill.org)

With his drooping mustache and talkative personality, Léonard Jérôme was a connoisseur of women, beautiful horses and racing yachts, a very handsome “rogue”, so much so that his very suitable wife, Clara, took advantage of the social seasons at home. stranger with the three daughters Jerome, young Clara, Leonie and the infamous Jennie, later Lady Randolph Churchill. The Jerome sisters were part of the wave of American heiresses that swept through the London marriage market teeming with impoverished aristocrats. The writer, Edith Wharton wrote about them in her latest novel, “The Buccaneers”. Ms Wharton also made prototypical use of Belmont-Jerome males in her previous novel, “The Age of Innocence”, modeling her character Julius Beaufort on the publicly known personality traits of the wily Belmont and snake charmer, Jerome. Wharton described Beaufort.

“The circumstances of his life and a certain native insight made him more worthy of speaking than many men, morally and socially his betters… how not to feel the difference and be drawn to it” Wharton (1920)

Historical New York newspapers claim that these men would compete on the track, on the ocean, or for the charms of a socialite named Mrs. Fanny Ronalds. Belmont and Jerome were Butch and Sundance, along with their Huckleberry friend, Travers, who were prototypes for Wharton’s male figures full of pride but equally ready to advance visionary opportunities in business. It was to them that Knickerbocker males flocked for tips, loans, and business promotions. Mark Twain coined the phrase “golden” to describe this emerging business class, but he wrote the words cynically. America, particularly Wall Street, apparently held an endless supply of risky opportunities and it was the speculators who were looking for gold. It was these men, especially Belmont, who for a time conjured up gilding and harnessed its glow for anything that involved winning.

Although not as flamboyant as Jerome or as verbally memorable as Travers, the elder Belmont possessed a well-tuned “master of all he saw” approach to business, politics and sport. Born Aaron Schonberg in Prussia, later annexed to Germany, he was the son of a well-connected Jewish family and landowner. His father was able to place Aaron, now renamed August, in a coveted internship with the Rothschild banking group in Germany where the young man quickly rose from an internship to representative status representing the Rothschilds in Italy, then Cuba and finally At New York. The Rothschild American Representative Bank went bankrupt in 1837 and newcomer August Belmont sr. filled that void with his own business. As he ascended the bank, the polyglot, now named Belmont, began his ascent through the city’s hardened Knickerbocker social circles, meeting and marrying Caroline Perry, the daughter of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry. He then became an Episcopalian. So adept at exploiting future opportunities, Belmont made himself indispensable to city fathers, social lions, the diplomatic corps, and the Democratic Party, initially supporting Stephen Douglas, then a trusted adviser to Abraham Lincoln. It was racing that linked him to Travers and Jerome and his, Belmont’s, admiration for the club atmosphere and betting potential inspired by the English racing scene.

He purchased a farm in Kentucky for ranching purposes, but with Civil War blood conscription he found that upstate New York, promoted by his friend, William R Saratoga-based Travers offered safer potential as an attractive racing and breeding location. The next step in his master plan was to establish a regional groceries store in Westchester County. It is for this purpose that the three men, all influencers, met to carve out a monetized Stakes race and with it, the first place of the race, Jerome Park. Jerome and Travers had successfully developed Saratoga’s racing encounter with Congressman “Old Smoke” Morrissey and JR Hunter. Beginning in 1863 with a four-day meet, the first Travers Stakes was won by a colt named Kentucky owned, in part, by Jerome and Travers. Later, at the turn of the century, Belmont’s son, also named August, would lead the financing and development of Belmont Park in Elmont, NY, opening in the spring of 1905. The race known as the Belmont Stakes predated the Belmont track. The impetus for the Wall Street meeting in the spring of 1866 was to take the Saratoga model and create a racing location outside of New York. Earlier that year, Jerome had purchased the Bronx mansion and its surrounding 230 acres from James Bathgate with the financial backing of Belmont Senior. A deliberate acquisition, as these three men aimed to create a socially acceptable arena for the sport where women would be comfortable in fashion and let their men play and negotiate. Money begets money, they thought. Their aim was to introduce European pari-mutuel betting, handicapping in the form of live ‘all-in’ and clubhouse memberships for men. To encourage female attendance, each member of the clubhouse was allowed to escort two women for free, with any additions to be charged one dollar. Dress codes encouraged ladies and gents to dress their best, which created satellite companies eager to wear their racing clothes. As the three Belmonts, Jérôme and Travers were breeders, Jérôme’s racecourse was also the first to feature two-year-old races. It was also during this meeting that the three discussed the need for a more organized approach to the registration of stallions and mares (classicnyhistory.com).

In true American entrepreneurial fashion, there was first an idea, then a meeting of three unique and powerful visionaries, all committed to ideas and successful prototypes, and conniving enough, rich enough to bring those concepts to life. The rascal, the wit and the master of all he saw. Jerome, Travers and Belmont. And so it was in April 1866 in the cigar-smoke-filled Wall Street office of Leonard Jerome that the goals of organizing city races, an English-style venue, pari-mutuel betting and later, the American Jockey Club formed a plan for what became known as Belmont. Challenges.

Photo: Library of Congress

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