Albany was horse racing mad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the time of the Civil War racing became hugely popular (it was at the same time the Saratoga Racetrack was established) in the north and continued for decades.
There had always been racing at county and town fairs. But by the 1870s racing came into the city. Both Western and Washington Avenues, beginning about Quail St. and west were referred to as “The Speedway” for horse drawn sleigh racing on the weekends in the winter. (There was a Speedway Hotel on the corner of Manning Blvd., the Klondike Hotel on the corner of North Allen and the Western Turnpike, and Carrick’s Hotel was on the corner of Madison Ave and West Lawrence.) In the summer there were trotter and pacers.
The Hurstville Track
But there was competition. The Hurstville race track (about where Mater Christi Church and school are today) was established in the mid-1860s. It was mostly a trotting track. Around it a picnic grove called “Pleasure Park” developed (the county fair was held at the location – then town of Bethlehem – in the 1870s.) The track was leased to the Island Park Association (a racing corporation) in the 1870s and early 1880s which improved the track and provided amenities; it ran mostly matinee races and weekend races in the summer. Racing continued until about 1900.
There was also a hotel close to the Park, on the corner of Krumkill Rd. and New Scotland Ave. It dated back to at least the 1840s, known then as the Log Tavern, then Tanner’s Hotel and later Hurst’s Hotel. It became a notorious “love nest” for politician’s trysts over the city line in the 1920s.
But Island Park was the Big Daddy of all local race tracks. Island Park was established in the late 1860s in Menands (now part of Colonie – then the town of Watervliet) on Breaker Island (which puts it wee bit south Port Schuyler). The track was on the east side of the Champlain Canal and sandwiched between the Canal and the River. It had larger purses, better horses and could be reached by horsecars from Albany, but the meets were shorter – usually no more than 3-5 days in – perhaps 3-4 meets a year. Still it drew great horses – like “American Girl”, the most well-known trotter of the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Slowly the track improved. In the late 1870s a railroad bridge was installed – now horses could be shipped in from all over – they came from as far west as St. Louis and as far south as Kentucky.
In 1884 the Association came under the control of Erastus Corning, multi-millionaire local mogul and other very rich heavy hitters * who had a thing for racing – yes, but saw the corporation as a way to make money too. Or in track parlance.. an exacta.
Although pacers were raced it was primarily a trotting park. Island Park became part of the National Trotting Association and its meets became well- known as part of the national Grand Circuit for trotters. There were meets in the summer and fall with annual purses worth about $40,000. Two large hotels were built, Union Hotel and McDonald’s Hotel – the latter owned by the famed driver Alta McDonald. The stables could house as many as 300-400 horses. Island Park thrived. The Association made sure the new electric trolley ran to the track from all parts of the Capital District. Some of the best horses in the nation raced there, including “Major Delmar” said to be the fastest gelding alive in 1905. And then it all came to an end. We’re told that the racing stopped pretty much by 1909. The land was purchased by the D&H Railroad.
But never fear – Albany men DO love their horse racing. So a group of local men formed the Albany Driving Association in the early 1900s, bought a tract of land about where Albany Academy is today from a man named Wood and called the race track Woodlawn. There was racing for about 10 years, until about 1914. But the Association discovered it could make big bucks selling the land off to people who wanted to buy lots and build houses in the area that now includes Academy Rd. (then Highland Ave.) and west to about Forest Ave. (Fun Albany fact – we were told the bleachers for the original Albany Academy football field were part of the Woodlawn Park grandstand.)
By 1916 World War I was looming and thanks to Henry Ford almost anyone could own an automobile and make it up to Saratoga for the races.
*One of the shareholders in the Island Park Association was John Holland. He owned a legendary den of iniquity (bookmaking, billiards and booze) – the White House Café on the corner of James Steuben. We were told that Holland owned lots near Manning Blvd. where he stabled and exercised his jumping horses.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor