Oct. 15, 2021, will mark the 200th anniversary of the very first race at the legendary Union Course Racetrack. The Union Course was one of the major contributing factors to the early development of Woodhaven and the surrounding area.
This story begins in 1821 when the New York state Legislature legalized “trials of speed” between the months of May and October in Queens County. The Union Course, a mile-long dirt track which was laid out that very same year, opened on Oct. 15, 1821.
Several 4-mile-long races, or heats, were held to determine a winner and horses from the North and the South were commonly squared off against each other to maximize interest. On that opening day, the famed Lady Lightfoot (from North Carolina) suffered her only recorded loss to the legendary American Eclipse (born and bred on Long Island), who was victorious in all heats that day.
Union Course’s fame exploded in 1823 when American Eclipse faced off against Sir Henry (representing the South). More than 60,000 people flocked to the area to watch this race, including the current Vice President Daniel Tompkins, Florida Governor Andrew Jackson (a few years away from becoming our seventh president) and Aaron Burr (who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel).
American Eclipse was bested by Sir Henry in the first heat, much to the disappointment of the locals. The owner blamed the jockey and went into the stands looking for the famous jockey Samuel Purdy. Purdy was retired and legend has it that he showed up just to watch the race but when called upon, he removed his coat and had his jockey’s outfit on underneath!
Purdy and Eclipse narrowly beat Sir Henry in that second match and both horses, by now completely exhausted, fought each other to the finish in the tiebreaker. And in the end, it was Eclipse and the North who came away triumphant.
These North-South races would continue to be popular and even feed on the growing animus between the two regions that would develop into war within a few decades.
The popularity of these races led to rapid development in the area, with roads being paved, houses built and hotels, general stores and saloons popping up along the outer rim of the track.
With the rise of racing in Woodhaven came a real need to transport people to and from the track and as a result, the Long Island Rail Road built a track along Atlantic Avenue, with a stop near Rockaway that was constructed so that you could walk directly into the Union Course race track from the station.
The line and the station opened in April 1836 and just two weeks later, history happened here in Woodhaven, outside the Union Course, when a train hit a cow and a second train slammed into the back of the first. It was the first accident in the history of the Long Island Rail Road.
Union Course was the site of an even more famous race, between Fashion and Peytona (representing the North and South, respectively). An estimated 100,000 people came out to see Peytona beat the horse from New Jersey in two straight heats.
As the decades passed and other tracks opened nearby, the Union Course’s popularity faded, but during the 1860s, the land was temporarily used as an encampment for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
A turn to trotting breathed new life into the track and it experienced a burst of renewed energy, but it faded as quickly as it blossomed and by the 1870s it began to keep an irregular schedule and show signs of disrepair.
For the next 15 years or so, it became a community eyesore. The once beautiful fencing around the track was torn apart by locals for firewood, and many of the buildings and businesses that depended on the track’s customers began to close their doors and disappear.
Today, there are very few signs that a racetrack ever existed in this part of Woodhaven. The one significant remnant of the Union Course racetrack is Neir’s Tavern, at the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue.
Founded in 1829, just a few years after the Union Course opened, Neir’s sat directly across the street from the Union Course, making it a prime gathering spot for bettors and spectators at the racetrack.
Two hundred years after it opened, the Union Course Racetrack may be gone but it is not forgotten and later this year, it will be honored with a street sign at the corner of 78th Street and Jamaica Avenue.