Woodhaven’s forgotten historical figures: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

Dan Rice, the famed circus clown, lived here in Woodhaven and learned how to ride horses while standing on their backs at the Union Course Racetrack. Rice would later run for President and inspire the term “jump on the bandwagon” while campaigning for Zachary Taylor.
Photo courtesy of The Old Timer

The Union Course Racetrack in Woodhaven was active for just over 50 years, and during that time, many interesting names were associated with its history, such as American Eclipse, Dexter and Fashion. Those are just three of the many famous racehorses that graced the turf of the legendary track.

The Union Course also attracted its share of famous human beings, such as Andrew Jackson, who, as the Senator of Tennessee, attended the famous match race between American Eclipse and Sir Henry in May 1823. Six years later, Jackson would be elected President. The Vice President at that time, Daniel Tompkins, also attended that famous race, as did Aaron Burr, the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

But apart from these famous names, there are many people whose names were known far and wide at the time, but their fame has all but disappeared in the 152 years since the last race was run here in Woodhaven.

One interesting character is William Shaw, a horseman who ran a roadhouse on the south side of Jamaica Avenue at Eldert Lane. His property consisted of more than 7 acres and fans used to cut through it to reach the racetrack.

The footpath was a straight line from John Snedecker’s hotel on Jamaica Avenue to the entrance of the Union Course and was eventually converted into a public street named Snedeker Avenue, which would eventually be renamed 78th Street, where Neir’s Tavern sits today.

During the Union Course’s heyday, the equipage of wealthy horsemen and gamblers could be found outside Shaw’s roadhouse, while tales of the racetrack would be swapped inside before a roaring fire amidst mugs of ale and brandy.

Among the men you might find inside Shaw’s roadhouse was Dan Rice, who was an entertainer and political commentator. But his true calling was as a circus clown and for many years he was the most famous of them all.

Dan Rice was the first circus performer to be credited with presenting “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and he was famous for riding horseback while standing, a skill he learned at the Union Course race track while living at Shaw’s roadhouse.

One other skill he learned very well was speaking to crowds, and that served him well in a few forays into politics. Though he was unsuccessful each time, Rice ran for the Senate, Congress and even President.

But Dan Rice found that he was much more successful campaigning for others. While supporting Zachary Taylor (who would go on to win the election and become our 12th President), Rice invited others to “join him on the circus bandwagon” to campaign for Taylor. From there, the expression “jump on the bandwagon” was born.

His fame was such that he was paid homage by Mark Twain (who saw Rice perform when he was a child) in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” But over time, Rice’s popularity began to fade and he passed away penniless and in obscurity. In fact, his fame slipped away so much that his biographer called him “the most famous man you’ve never heard of.”

Many of these names were very famous in their day, such as Tom Hyer, who was considered the first heavyweight champion in American sports history after walking away victorious after a brutal 101-round battle. One of his most famous opponents, Yankee Sullivan, also lived at the Shaw roadhouse while preparing to do battle with Hyer, a fight Hyer would win in just 16 rounds.

Hyer and Sullivan were both involved in the enforcement end of politics in those days, as were Lew Baker and Isaiah Rynders, both of whom were much feared enforcers of Tammany Hall, and both visited the Union Course frequently.

Baker was a disgraced member of the NYPD who shot and killed a man named Bill Poole in front of witnesses at a tavern in Manhattan. Poole, who led both a gang and a political movement (“The Know Nothings”), was a man of violent temper whose nickname was Bill the Butcher (and was semi-fictionalized in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and played by Daniel Day Lewis.

A racetrack is bound to attract its fair share of characters and the Union Course in Woodhaven was certainly no exception!