Let’s take a look at the Widener’s, two men of distinction who had a profound effect on the betterment of thoroughbred horse racing in America during the glory years of the sport. They were born into one of the most wealthy and influential families of the early twentieth century. Descendants of German immigrants, their fortune was derived from transportation, specifically the trolley cars of their hometown of Philadelphia. They would add railroads and the manufacture of steel and tobacco products to their core holdings that rivaled any business model of that era. George D. Widener Sr. would oversee this massive financial empire.
In the spring of 1912 he, his wife Eleanor and son Harry embarked on the newly christened steamship Titanic. They were returning to America after a business trip abroad. As fate would have it the elder Widener along with Harry perished with 1500 others as Titanic’s short life ended after a collision with an ice burg shortly after midnight on April 15,1912. His wife Eleanor was one of the 800 survivors of the maritime disaster. With the death of the Widener patriarch the family business was turned over to his brother Joseph. He had two passions in his life. The collecting of art, including some of the most important works painted by the European masters and the love of thoroughbred horse racing. He bred and then raced his stock here and in Europe with much success. More importantly was his plan to build a racetrack to rival any in the world. And he did just that in 1930 with a grand plan carried out by architect Lester Geisler. It would be named Hialeah located not far from Miami. No expense was spared in creating his masterpiece. The entrance way leading into the grounds was lined with majestic royal palms. The clubhouse and grandstand were built with a Mediterranean style. The paddock area was defined by beautiful palm trees and landscaping that gave it a breathtaking view. The track itself was no less inviting. A flock of Flamingo’s called the infield lake home. On racing days, the fans could get a view of these tropical birds in flight. Hialeah became the place to be for the rich, the famous, the gamblers and the sightseers. Every winter it would put Miami on the horse racing map for forty days in the prime of the vacation season. The main events raced there were the Flamingo, a stakes race for three-year-old colts that most always produced a Kentucky Derby contender. No less than ten winners of this event went on to win the “Run for the Roses”. For older horses, it was the Widener. This became one of the premier events on the American racing
calendar. Well known champions the likes of War Admiral, Nashua and the great Forego were all winners of this venerable race. As he is known as the visionary of high caliber horse racing in south Florida, he most certainly must also be commended for his time as principal owner of Belmont park. For nearly 20 years he called the shots at America’s most important racetrack. A little-known fact: For many years, a 6-furlong straight course ran right down Belmont Park’s infield, fittingly named the Widener chute. An old tale has it that when German war plans were found for an attack on Long Island, Erwin Rommel had planned on leading a Panzer Division right down the chute. Joseph Widener would leave the scene in 1943 at the age of 72. Not surprisingly his entire art collection was left to the National Gallery of Art, a grand gesture from a gentleman of the highest order.
Let’s now spend the rest of our time taking a look at the life of Joe’s nephew George D Widener Jr. It is no surprise that Joseph’s love of horse racing would be shared by his nephew. It was a common thread that they both
relished. This Widener would make his uncle proud. He Bought Old Kenney farm in horse country outside of Lexington Kentucky. There he bred thoroughbreds of the highest quality. His stable went on to race one hundred stakes winning horses. One might ask why is Widener lacking a Kentucky Derby winner. The answer is simple enough. He firmly believed that a mile and a quarter was too much to expect from a thoroughbred in that early stage of his three-year-old campaign. As we know Hialeah Park was the Widener’s oasis and George spent the entire meet there during the winter months. Then every August of his adult life his residence became Saratoga Springs. Mr. Widener was at home in Saratoga. He could be seen each day of the meet at his clubhouse box seat, impeccably dressed conducting himself with the class that came so naturally to this titan of the American turf. When one mentions Saratoga the next natural thought is the Travers Stakes. Following that Travers Stakes. Following that logic, the next thought has to be George D. Widener. His then famous silks of light and dark blue were worn by five that is correct five Travers Stakes winners. The first was Eight -Thirty in 1939. Than in the successive years of 1950 and 51 he prevailed with Lights Up and Battlefield. A dozen years later it was Jaipur. We will get back to him. Then in 1963 Saratoga’s centennial year he pulled off his fifth Travers with long shot Crewman. The 1962 Version is the one that will be forever remembered in racing lore. Mr. Widener sent out his lone winner of a triple crown event Jaipur, who had won the Belmont Stakes that June. Also entered was the very capable Ridan nosed out in the Preakness Stakes and considered by jockey Bill Hartack to be the best two-year-old he had ever ridden. Bill Shoemaker had the mount on Jaipur. This would be a race to remember. Jaipur and Ridan along with Shoemaker and Hartack... And then the bell rang. The premier race caller of his time Fred Caposella had the mic and his call of this race was one for the ages. They broke from the gate as one. Using all their great skills neither jockey could get a clear advantage. They raced this way for the entire mile and a quarter. It is to this day breathtaking to watch. For the entire running of the race these words flowed from the voice of the great Caposella.”It’s Ridan and Jaipur” and then “It’s Jaipur and Ridan” over and over. Jaipur was able to get the win by just a hair. Add to that a new track record time of 2:01.3. The Travers day crowd had witnessed one of the greatest duels in the history of the sport.
After his last Travers win in 1963 Mr. Widener continued to race quality horses into his eighties. George Denton Widener Jr. former Chairman of the Jockey Club and Honorary Chairman of the National Museum of Racing
passed away in 1971 at the age of 82. He has since been named as an Exemplar of the Turf by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He is one of only five recipients of this honor...An uncommon award for this uncommon man.
The Widener legacy lives on in so many ways. Their contributions whether it be in the form of libraries as George’s brother Harry was a world-renowned collector of rare books or their bequests to the Arts, the Widener’s
were philanthropists to the core. It was the Widener’s along with their contemporaries, names like Vanderbilt, Whitney, Woodward, Phipps and a few others who left their indelible mark on American horse racing for a generation... A time when thoroughbred horse racing truly was “The Sport of Kings”.