Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist is jogging and eating his hay in Baltimore. He’s training for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in the Triple Crown. To see the Preakness or any other live thoroughbred racing, Washingtonians must leave the District. But that wasn’t always the case. For some years, we had our own racetrack: Benning.
Benning — also known as Benning’s in its early days — was installed in 1876 and opened as a public track in 1890. One early race was the Willard’s Hotel Handicap. Washington railbirds got to Benning via Anacostia Road (now Minnesota Avenue), on Columbia Railway electric streetcars or special trains from the Sixth Street station. One 1900 advertisement said the races started at 3:20 p.m., and reminded readers: “Disreputable characters excluded.” You can still see the shape of the track oval echoed in the modern-day streets.
The racetrack was a society center. It was carefully tended, “a well-groomed green panorama,” according to a 1902 Washington Post article. President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, an expert rider, loved to go to the races. One day she thrilled onlookers by perching on the railing surrounding the track instead of sitting in the stands. A crowd gathered; the starter doffed his hat, and Alice clapped. In 1904, a rumor went around that she had been banned from the track when her father saw photos of her placing bets. “It was said that the photographs were offered for sale to newspapers, but were suppressed by friends of the President, and that Miss Roosevelt was sent to New York after a serious talk with her father,” reported the New York Times.
Benning was important for racing reasons, too. Big races included the Grand Consolation, the Dixie and the Vestal Stakes. Belmont horses raced there, sometimes using Washington as a midway point between training in South Carolina and the races in New York. John Madden, “the Wizard of the Turf,” liked Benning, and brought as many as 36 horses at a time. “The meetings at Bennings race track are increasing in importance annually and the stakes here offered are well worth the attention of any owner,” said the Daily Racing Form in 1903.
Benning also showcased the seedier side of racing: A night raid in 1903 yielded arrests of an illegal craps organizer and a liquor dealer. Citing these elements, antigambling legislation began affecting New York tracks, and in 1908, Benning went down, too. Tennessee congressman Thetus W. Sims carried a bill through Congress to prohibit racetrack gambling in Washington, “which put the big iron grandstand at Benning on the scrap heap,” testified one expert. A Kentuckian lectured Sims in a different hearing on moral reforms: “Your innocent little amendment to a road bill destroyed the Benning race track.” Other tracks reopened once the laws lightened, but Sims had won: Benning never did. Trainers used the facility to school horses, racecars sped around the track, and aviators used it as a runway, but there were no more thoroughbred races in Washington once it closed. The grandstand burned down in 1915.
In 1928, Benning was sold to a developer. “The track provided the National Capital with many a romance of thoroughbred racing,” wrote a Washington Post reporter. The same article noted that the sale price was $500,000, a big increase from the reported $8,000 paid for it in 1889.
According to Cathy Bouck of Laurel Park, another racing link to Washington will return in the fall of 2017. The Washington, D.C. International Stakes was a race run on the turf instead of dirt at Laurel. Five-time Horse of the Year Kelso was probably its most famous competitor — he won it in 1964 — but many impressive horses ran in the International from 1952 to 1994.
Benning may be gone, but with revival of the International, the District will have come back to the races, at least in name.
Eliza McGraw is the author of “Here Comes Exterminator!” about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner.