A cold, early January afternoon is hardly the place anyone might expect to find a race with the second-oldest history in New York racing. Yet for the Jerome Stakes, change has been a way of life.
First contested in the post-Civil War days of 1866, the Jerome has enjoyed numerous incarnations at a variety of locales.
On Monday, Jan. 2, the 147th running of the Jerome will take place at a mile and 70 yards for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct, serving as the first of New York's four stepping stone preps for the Kentucky Derby with the first four finishers getting valuable points in the race for starting spots in Churchill Downs' Run for the Roses.
Those conditions are similar to the very first Jerome, which entered the history books on October 2, 1866 at Jerome Park - a long-ago shuttered racetrack in what is now the Fordham area of the Bronx - for 3-year-olds at a mile.
But since that debut in the days of Andrew Johnson's presidency, the race that honored Jerome Park founder Leonard Walter Jerome has been contested at eight different distances, ranging up to a two-mile test from 1871-77.
It has also been staged at four different New York racetracks as it moved from Jerome Park to Morris Park to Belmont Park, then to Aqueduct during Belmont's renovation in the 1960's, and back to Belmont before finally shifting in 2011 to its current home at Aqueduct in January.
Trailing only the Travers in terms of seniority on the New York circuit, the Jerome has been a venerable stage for 3-year-olds and, while contested as a handicap for the bulk of its existence, the race's list of past winners includes some of the sport's most famous runners.
Aristides, who won the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875, also won the Jerome that year. Fair Play, the sire of the legendary Man o' War, captured the 1908 Jerome.
Hall of Famer Tom Fool joined the long list of Jerome winners in 1952. Fellow Hall of Famer Bold Ruler, the sire of another revered star of the 20th century, Secretariat, prevailed in the 1957 Jerome.
In 1960, the famed Kelso posted the first of his 23 New York stakes wins when he carried jockey Eddie Arcaro to the last of the Hall of Fame rider's record six Jerome wins.
Since then, the winner's circle after the Jerome has been graced by the victors of classics such as the Kentucky Derby (Carry Back, 1961; Chateaugay, 1963; Fusaichi Pegasus 2000) and Belmont Stakes (Chateaugay; Crème Fraiche 1985), as well as the future winner of the New York's Handicap Triple Crown (Fit to Fight, 1982).
The 1973 Jerome saw future three-time Horse of the Year Forego lose by a head to the Allen "The Giant Killer" Jerkens-trained Step Nicely.
"The Jerome has a tremendous history and some great horses have won it," said Martin Panza, the New York Racing Association's Senior Vice President of Racing Operations. "It's been difficult because racing changes and the Jerome has indeed changed over the years, but it certainly has tremendous tradition and you try to keep these traditions going."
In its current form, the Grade 3 $150,000 Jerome kicks off Aqueduct's 3-year-old stakes program that also features the Grade 3 Withers (February 4), the Grade 3 Gotham (March 4) and the Grade 2 Wood Memorial (April 8).
Since the switch, Vyjack (2013) is the lone Jerome winner to race in the Derby. He finished 18th on the first Saturday in May. Zayat Stables' 2015 Jerome victor El Kabeir was entered in the Derby, but was scratched due to a foot injury a day before stablemate American Pharoah began his march to a Triple Crown sweep.
The Jerome's recent past may not be as sparkling as it was in the 1960's or 70's, yet with each new year comes the renewed hope that Aqueduct's inner track might once again produce the victor of a Triple Crown race, just as it did in 2004 with Smarty Jones (Kentucky Derby, Preakness) and in 1993 with Prairie Bayou (Preakness).
Who knows? Perhaps in 2017 a horse from the Jerome Stakes might join that list, for old times' sake.
Source: NYRA (Bob Ehalt)