The Dwyer Stakes: Who were the Dwyers?

This Saturday is the 126th running of the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park. It has been run almost every year since 1887, with a pause in 1911 and 1912. Originally called the Brooklyn Derby, it was run at Gravesend Racetrack on Coney Island which was primarily funded by Philip and Michael Dwyer. The track was built in 1886 and hosted many races that are still run today–the Astonia Stakes, the Brooklyn Handicap, the Tremont Stakes, the Gazelle Handicap and what is now called the Dwyer Stakes. Between 1894 and 1908, Gravesend even hosted the Preakness Stakes. In 1908, a bill was passed that banned betting in New York State, and within a few years Gravesend was forced to close in 1911. They attempted to reopen in 1913 but was never able to.

1893 Brooklyn Handicap at Gravesend Racetrack, won by Rainbow
1893 Brooklyn Handicap at Gravesend Racetrack, won by Rainbow

After the closure of Gravesend, the Brooklyn Derby was hosted by Aqueduct and Jamaica racetracks between 1913 and 1976, and has been at Belmont Park every year since. The race has been run at many distances throughout the years, today it is 1 1/16 miles and is a Grade Three stakes. The race has drawn in many notable horses throughout the years including inaugural winner Hanover, Fair Play, Man O’ War, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Whirlaway, Assault, Native Dancer, Nashua, Damascus, and Holy Bull among others. In 1918, officials decided to rename the race from the Brooklyn Derby to the Dwyer Stakes in honor of the Dwyer Brothers, Mike and Phil.

Now, who were Mike and Phil? Phil was a prominent business man in Brooklyn, and along with his younger brother Michael they founded a meat packing business that supplied many butcher shops and hotels in New York. In 1874 the brothers founded Dwyer Brothers Stable which was only active for 14 years but saw tremendous success winning the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness once, the Belmont Stakes five times in six years as well as the Travers Stakes five times. All together they would have nine individual champion horses with four inducted into the Hall of Fame with Hanover, Hindoo, Ben Brush and Miss Woodford.

The racing silks of the Dwyer brothers, red with a blue sash.
The racing silks of the Dwyer brothers, red with a blue sash.
Hall of Famer Miss Woodford, regarded by many as one of the best fillies of all time.
Hall of Famer Miss Woodford, regarded by many as one of the best fillies of all time.

Phil Dwyer was the one who was much more into the sport for the fun of it, whereas Michael was much more into the gambling side. While Phil rarely would bet more than $20, Mike was not satisfied until he put down thousands a day, sometimes totally $100,000 a day. After dissolving Dwyer Brothers Stable, Phil acquired Aqueduct Racetrack in 1904 after the death of the Queens County Jockey Club’s president Thomas Riley. After he took control of the track he expanded the oval, purchased more land, and rebuilt the grandstand which pushed Aqueduct to become one of the more prominent racetracks in New York. In 1913 along with James Butler, Phil purchased Laurel Park in Maryland and hired Matt Winn to manage the operation. Winn, who was also President of Churchill Downs almost single handedly made the Kentucky Derby the most important race in the country.

In the late 1800s racing was run by the Racing Trust, or as many people called it the Board of Control. Both Phil and Mike were in control along with John Morris. Soon many trainers noticed the Dwyers were acting in their own self interested and tried to deter competition. It didn’t take long for prominent owners John Keene and August Belmont II to side with the trainers and in 1894 the Jockey Club was formed. Surprisingly, many members of the Board of Control including the Dwyers were allowed membership in the Jockey Club.

Michael was a notorious gambler. So much so that the New York Times reported that Mike “paralyzed the betting ring with the magnitude of his wagers” and died in “poor circumstances” as a result of his heavy gambling. After his death in 1906 at the age of 59, it was estimated that he lost more than $1.5 million betting on favorites. In todays money, thats about $36 million. Towards the end of his life, Mike was paralyzed and had to be driven to the races every day and could only watch from a carriage seat in the infield.

In 1917 at the age of 72, Philip Dwyer passed away and the following year the Brooklyn Derby was named the Dwyer Stakes.

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