Belmont, August, II
- Steven A. Riess
Belmont, August, II (18 February 1853–10 December 1924), financier and sportsman, was born in New York City, the son of August Belmont, a banker, and Caroline Slidell Perry. Belmont graduated from Harvard in 1874 (A.B.) and joined the international banking house of August Belmont & Co. in 1875. Within eight years he was running its daily affairs and had modernized operations. He became head of the firm in 1890, following his father’s death. His biggest projects included a $63 million loan floated with financier J. P. Morgan for the second administration of President Grover Cleveland and the financing of New York City’s first subway. In November 1881 he married Elizabeth Hamilton Morgan, with whom he had three children.
In 1890 Belmont chaired a transit planning commission that recommended building a subway for New York, but the concept made little headway against surface and elevated streetcar line opposition until 1900, when the Rapid Transit Commission approved a publicly financed $36 million West Side subway line. When contractor John B. McDonald could not guarantee the required $6 million in security bonds and $1 million in cash to begin the project, Belmont established the Interborough Rapid Transit Construction Company to finance it. In 1907 Belmont’s firm constructed a tunnel connecting Manhattan to Queens, and in 1914 he was responsible for the building of the thirteen-mile Cape Cod Canal that reduced shipping routes between Massachusetts Bay and Long Island Sound by seventy miles.
Belmont was vice president of the reform-minded National Civic Federation, but he also was deeply involved in Democratic party politics. On the local scene he supported a cross-class coalition to protect his traction interests and to safeguard horse racing from antigambling reformers. In 1904 he was titular head of the New York State delegation to the national Democratic convention, and he played a prominent role in securing the presidential nomination for Judge Alton B. Parker. He left politics after serving as a Champ Clark delegate at the 1912 convention when William Jennings Bryan attacked him and other financiers as privileged men representing special interests.
Belmont gained great renown in Thoroughbred horse racing, following in the footsteps of his father, who had founded the American Jockey Club and whose horses twice led the nation in purse winnings. The senior Belmont was considered the leading breeder of his day, and in 1882 Belmont took over his father’s breeding farm, the Nursery, which when disposed of in 1890 was the largest of its era, with 131 horses being sold at auction for $639,500. The imported stallion, St. Blaise, winner of the English Derby, went for $100,000.
In 1892 Belmont reestablished the Nursery Stud, sparing little expense. His finest stallions were Hastings, a Belmont Stakes winner purchased in 1895 for $37,000, and Henry of Navarre, bought for $35,000, which subsequently won the Suburban Handicap. In 1898 Belmont dropped out of racing under his own name because of the death of his wife, ill health, and growing business commitments. His horses raced in the name of his trainer, J. J. Hyland, for two years, after which Belmont resumed full participation. In 1906, for $125,000, he purchased the English Thoroughbred Rock Sand, who became one of the greatest sires of all time. Rock Sand was later sold to a French syndicate for $250,000. Belmont, who bred hundreds of Thoroughbreds, was among the first to produce eight $100,000 winners, six by Fair Play, most notably Man o’War. However, Man o’War had not shown any great potential as a yearling and was sold in 1918 to S. D. Riddle for $5,000.
Belmont played a vital role in the governance of the turf, serving as second chairman of The Jockey Club (1895–1924), which had been organized in 1894 to protect the breeding industry and to elevate the sport. It established, interpreted, and enforced the rules of Thoroughbred racing, licensed jockeys and trainers, appointed officials, allotted racing dates, and operated the American Stud Book. In 1895 racing was almost banned in New York, and Belmont played an important role in passing legislation that saved the sport; the new law established a state racing commission, with Belmont as chairman, to regulate racing under Jockey Club rules.
Belmont was president of the Westchester Racing Association (WRA) that operated Morris Park from 1895 through 1904, when the club relocated to rustic Long Island. In 1905 the WRA opened the $2.4 million Belmont Park, named for his father. It was the outstanding American track, with a 1.5-mile oval raceway, a grandstand 650 feet in length, and an opulent clubhouse.
In 1908, with the future of New York racing again in doubt, Belmont shipped some horses to England, where he won the 2,000 Guineas classic. In 1910 he married Eleanor Robson, an actress. They had no children. Belmont failed to prevent Governor Charles Evans Hughes from halting racetrack gambling in 1911, but he successfully led the effort to restore the sport in 1913 under the oral system of betting.
In 1917 Belmont was commissioned a major in the U.S. Army and served in Spain, exporting supplies to France and purchasing lifestock for the military. In the following year, after the death of his son, August III, and in the face of growing business problems and concerns with the war, Belmont lost interest in the turf and sold most of his stable to his trainer, Samuel C. Hildreth. In 1920 he resumed an active role in breeding, and he returned to racing two years later. In 1924 two of the nation’s leading three year olds, Ladkin and Ordinance, raced under his colors. That year his stable won twenty-four races and earned $112,735, the most of his career. In all, Belmont saw his horses win six Belmont Stakes. After his death, the entire stock was sold for about $1,175,000 to W. Averell Harriman, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and Joseph E. Widener.
Belmont was an all-around sportsman who was an active polo player, vice commodore of the New York Yacht Club, president of the Westminster Kennel Club, and a supporter of the sport of aviation. His elite economic and social status was further reflected by a Newport summer home, a Long Island country estate, and New York’s only private subway car. Belmont died in New York City.
On Belmont’s youth, see David Black, The King of Fifth Avenue: The Fortunes of August Belmont (1981), which is heavily based on family papers, particularly those held by August Belmont IV. Other papers are in the Belmont Family Papers, Special Collections, Columbia University. For Belmont’s racing contributions, see William H. P. Robertson, A History of Thoroughbred Racing (1960); Dan M. Bowmar III, Giants of the Turf: The Alexanders, the Belmonts, James R. Keene, the Whitneys (1960); Edward C. Devereux, Jr., Gambling and the Social Structure: A Social Study of Lotteries and Horse Racing in Contemporary America (1980), pp. 351–52, which describes Fair Play’s prowess as a sire. Valuable for Belmont’s later years is Eleanor Robson Belmont, The Fabric of Memory (1957). For Belmont’s obituary, see the New York Times, 11 Dec. 1924.
- Belmont, August (1813-1890), financier, politician, and sportsman
- Morgan, John Pierpont (1837-1913), investment banker
- Cleveland, Grover (1837-1908), twenty-second and twenty-fourth president of the United States
- Clark, Champ (1850-1921), Speaker of the House of Representatives
- Bryan, William Jennings (19 March 1860–26 July 1925), Democratic party leader
- Hughes, Charles Evans (1862-1948), governor of New York, secretary of state, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
- Harriman, W. Averell (1891-1986), businessman and government official
- Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875-1942), sculptor and patron of the arts