by Teresa Genaro
By the eve of the last century, the Suburban Handicap had already been run 15 times, a fixture at the old Sheepshead Bay track in Brooklyn, already established, according to The New York Times, as “one of the great Spring handicaps.”
That last 19th century renewal of the race was held on June 17, the cusp of summertime, attracting a field of 13 horses and an estimated 25,000+ spectators, none of whom could possibly have had any idea of what was in store for them that day.
Numerous newspaper accounts emphasized the “violence” of the betting, but it was nothing compared to the literal violence during the Suburban itself, as the crowd in the infield broke through the rail as the horses ran in the stretch.
“For a space of a sixteenth of a mile that rail was a ruin,” reported The New York Times, “with a mob that had defied the police behind it and the flying horses not five feet away on the other side of it. Women in the grand stand screamed and turned away, for it seemed certain that there must be an awful accident, in which dead horses and jockeys and spectators would be mixed up, as a horrible finish for a day of sport…But there was some common impulse, some potent thing, that kept the mob in check just long enough for all the horses to pass in safety to themselves and to the crowd.”
This, after a 45-minute delay to the start of the race and 12—12!—attempts to get the fractious field off properly, the first 11 having to be called back because of horses dwelling or acting up.
Yet what racing historians recall most about that afternoon in Brooklyn is not the bad start, nor the near tragedy, but the winner: Imp, a five-year-old mare who was the first female to win the Suburban, and set a stakes record as she did it.
Imp was bred in Ohio by Daniel R. Harness, the man who owned her throughout her life; in fact, Imp outlived Harness by seven years. Her win in the Suburban brought a “deluge” of offers to Harness; according to Eliza McGraw in Women of the Year: Ten Fillies Who Achieved Horse Racing’s Highest Honor, the Thoroughbred Record quoted Harness’s response to those offers: “I am an old man and there is no pocket in a shroud. Imp is all I want.”
Imp raced in the Mid-West from 1896–1897. As a three-year-old, she raced 50 times, with a record of 14-10-9 and earnings of $4,934. When she was four, her owner brought her East, and it was in June of 1898 at Sheepshead Bay that she made her first attempt at the Suburban, finishing sixth.
She came back to New York the following summer, running in the Met Mile (fourth) and Toboggan Handicap (eighth) at Morris Park, and in the Brooklyn Handicap at Gravesend, finishing 15th of 16. She nonetheless collected checks in a number of other handicap races, including one for a win at Gravesend three days before the Suburban, in which, according to the race recap, Imp sat just off pace through the early going and then took the “overland route.” It was, said the reporter, “a daring thing to do.”
But (jockey Nash Turner) had a fast and a game mare under him, as he happened to know, and so it turned out to be the very best thing he could have done…Once Imp was in the lead the race for the Suburban of 1899 was practically at an end…(She) seemed to have the wings of the wind to help her busy feet along…
Imp held a three-length lead through the stretch, and while Bannockburn cut into her margin as they neared the wire, the chart indicates that Imp was “never extended,” winning by two.
Three days later, Imp finished second in the Coney Island Handicap, and her record as a five-year-old was 13-3-5 in 31 starts. In October of that year, her hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio, arranged a parade and holiday for her; the mare described by William H.P. Robertson in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America as solid black except for a white diamond between her eyes was accompanied by her jockey, groom, trainer, owner and exercise rider. Harness’ silks were orange and black, and a horseshoe of orange and black flowers with “Imp, Suburban Handicap” and her record-setting time in red flowers traveled with her in the parade. Her theme song, often played after victories, was “The Coal-Black Lady.”
Imp raced until she was seven, her last win coming in a handicap at Morris Park on October 25, 1901. Her lifetime record? 171-62-35-29, her earnings a paltry $70,119.
Daniel Harness died in 1902, and in September of that year, his horses were dispersed in an estate sale. The nine-year-old Imp was not a popular offering and was sold when one of the auction owners, Ed Tipton, paid $4,100 for her. According to McGraw, Imp was then sold to John Madden of Kentucky for $6,000 and had six foals for him. She died in 1909, apparently from complications from foaling, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1965. She was buried on Madden’s Hamburg Farm in Lexington:
…he maintained a cemetery for the horses, with their names and histories engraved on tombstones, and monuments. Also on the vast acreage was a shelter for horses whose racing days were over, but for whom he held great affection.
In 2005, as Madden’s farm gave way to suburban sprawl and a strip mall, a number of the farm’s equine graves and monuments were moved, to a quiet spot at the bottom of a hill abutting a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Imp’s heart, personality, and gameness apparently made her a beloved mare in her time, even if her accomplishments are not well-known to the contemporary race fan. McGraw writes:
With her talent and perseverance, Imp kept the hearts of fans she had won along with the 1899 Suburban. Her handlers saw to it that she was constantly tried and retried by the intense schedule they set her whole racing life. Instead of shrinking from such a challenge, Imp met it head-on…(and) people could not help but respond with adoration…
For some tasty reading and more than a whiff of 19th century racing writing, check out the articles below on Imp’s Suburban from the Times and the New York Tribune. They are worth a read, particularly for their authors’ comments on the starter and descriptions of the betting.
“Imp.” National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
“‘Imp Day’ in Chillicothe.” New York Times. Oct. 6, 1899.
“Imp’s Great Race For the Suburban.” June 18, 1899
“Imp the Suburban Winner.” New York Tribune. June 18, 1899.
“Imp The Winner of the Suburban.” San Francisco Call. June 18, 1899.
“Old Favorite Imp Sold.” New York Times, September 6, 1902.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964.
Women of the Year: Ten Fillies Who Achieved Horse Racing’s Highest Honor. Lexington, Kentucky: Eclipse Press, 2004.