Sidewalks of Elmont

By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence

With American Pharaoh winning the Triple Crown this year for the first time since 1978, it is now time to forget the talk about any curse that may have been placed on the Triple Crown. One of the major theories for the curse (one in which the writer had wished to be true) was the curse of Mamie O’Rourke.[1] The point was that ever since the New York Racing Association (NYRA) in 1997 had replaced “Sidewalks of New York” (which featured Ms. O’Rourke tripping “the light fantastic” on New York’s sidewalks) as the official song of the Belmont Stakes with “The Theme from New York, New York,”[2] the Triple Crown had not been won. In fact, on eight occasions, from Silver Crown in 1997 through California Chrome in 2014, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness went down to defeat in the Belmont.[3] In 2015, with the Frank Sinatra version of “The Theme from New York, New York” played over the track’s public address system, the curse was reversed. Without the specter of a curse hanging over the Belmont, the decision on the official song should be made on the merits, and on the merits the ‟Sidewalks of New York” needs to be restored.

The Tradition of Racing

First of all, the sport of horse racing – and the Triple Crown in particular – is all about tradition. No sport in America has a longer history than thoroughbred racing. Tradition separates horse racing from the other Johnny-come-lately sports. American racing began in New York 350 years ago. The Belmont Stakes dates from 1867 and is run approximately five miles from where the first horse race in America was run. The first college football game was not played until 1869. James Naismith, who invented the sport of basketball, was five years old when the Belmont Stakes was first run. The Belmont Stakes is not about American history. It is history. If we are serious about preserving history in racing, then we should be restoring the “Sidewalks of New York.”

Comparing the Songs

Secondly, the worst that can be said about “Sidewalks of New York” is that it is antiquated. It is about a simpler time when children played games all around New York City. When the song ‒without any prearrangement ‒ was played at the 1920 National Democratic Convention when New York Governor Al Smith’s name was placed in nomination, “the crowd caught the significance of the words as embodying perfectly the Smith nomination and caught the lilt of the music and the demonstration began.”[4] “As the band finally dropped into a repetition of “On the Sidewalks of New York,” milling crowds on the convention floor would not let it stop and the strains were taken up and repeated over and over again.”[5] The song became an indelible part of Al Smith’s legendary career and became associated with the immigrant’s rise from the shanties and tenements to a position of the highest honors.[6] It is a story of urban mobility accompanied by the personal humility garnered from honoring one’s roots in the mosaic of New York City. It is a New York song.

Compare that to the other anthems sung at the Triple Crown events. The world is supposed to well up in tears when “My Old Kentucky Home” is played before the Kentucky Derby. Yet the lyrics had to be bowdlerized. In order not to constitute a racial slur, the words “the darkies are gay” were changed to “the people are gay” in the early 1970’s. Nor was this a recent example of political correctness. Broadcast networks in the 1950’s started taking out the racially offensive language from songs like “My Old Kentucky Home.”[7]

The Preakness’ “Maryland, My Maryland” may be even more offensive. It was written in 1861 as a poem in support of Maryland’s secession from the Union and to support rioters who protested the presence of Union troops in Baltimore.[8] James R. Randall wrote the poem in “one night in response to a specific event, when the 6th Massachusetts Regiment fired on civilians while marching through Baltimore. The poem did not just record what happened; it gave voice to the state’s secessionists when it called on them to ‘Avenge the patriotic gore / That flecked the streets of Baltimore.’” [9]

“The song . . .  contains a plea for Maryland, a border state, to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. In some verses rarely performed these days, President Abraham Lincoln is referred to as ‘the despot’ and ‘the tyrant,’ while the Union is called ‘Northern scum.’” Are the lyrics to this anthem any less racially offensive or insensitive than unfurling the Confederate flag?

Instead of the lyrics for the Derby and the Preakness, the “Sidewalks of New York” gives us a London Bridge, Casey’s stoop and the light fantastic. “Sidewalks” offers simple pleasures which the other anthems do not. It is no surprise that numerous artists as diverse as Duke Ellington, Mel Tormé and the Grateful Dead have covered it.[11]

Silence at the Belmont

By the late 1930’s the playing of “Maryland, My Maryland,” and “My Old Kentucky Home” were established rituals at the Preakness and Kentucky Derby.[12] The Kentucky Derby media guide claims that it dates back to 1921, but it may actually have been earlier.[13]

The Preakness media guide gives a date of 1909 as the date when “Maryland, My Maryland” was first heard on Preakness Day. It may not have been until the late 1920’s when it was actually played by a band before the race.[14]

But at the Belmont Stakes, there was silence. Belmont Park was run by the patrician Westchester Racing Association, the same group that had run the track since it had been constructed – and replaced Morris Park in the Bronx – in 1905. The Westchester Racing Association was headed by George Widener, and his idea was that there was no need to add any show of ostentation before a horse race. The Belmont Stakes was the sixth race on the card – no more, no less.

The Legacy of Joe Palmer

In 1948, the year that Citation won the Triple Crown, the sportswriter Joe Palmer, who was the racing columnist at the New York Herald Tribune, decided that the Belmont Stakes should not just be the sixth race on Saturday. Palmer, generally acknowledged as the preeminent American columnist on racing,[15] was determined to bring some pomp to the Belmont Stakes.

He wrote a column decrying the Westchester Racing Association’s attitude towards the Belmont Stakes. Palmer wrote, “So it is diffidently moved in this corner that Belmont Park recognize the twentieth century. To be sure, it will not be accomplished fact for fifty-two more years, but let’s get in ahead of this one.”[16]

Palmer’s suggestion was for the Westchester Racing Association to emulate the Derby and the Preakness. Palmer wrote, “Well, curse it, the Belmont’s a better race than either of them. . . . So while I’m probably not going to get it, I want a band. I don’t want a bunch of bums with horns, either. I want a band that can spell out ‘Citation’ on the steeplechase course and I want a guy dressed like an apostrophe in case it has to spell ‘Vulcan’s .’

I don’t care if it plays ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ or ‘Camptown Races’ when the Belmont field comes out, but I want it to play something to the assembled multitude holding the return half of L.I.R.R. tickets, ‘Look, chums, this isn’t the sixth race. This is the Belmont.’”[17]

New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley added his voice in support of Palmer. Just before the Belmont, he wrote that the Belmont had “everything but promotion.”[18] His suggestion was a theme song. “The austere and unbending folks who conduct the Belmont have no theme song. They could use ‘The Sidewalks of New York;’ or they could even use ‘Nature Boy.’ But for heaven’s sake, they should use something. This is much more than the sixth race. This is the Belmont!”[19]

At the 1948 Belmont, the Westchester Racing Association relented slightly. There was a band, but it was placed by the walking ring at the back of the track. The band played “Sidewalks of New York” as the horses entered the walking ring. The song was not played as the horses went on the track. It was not on the public address system and could only be heard by those few fans by the walking ring.

Joe Palmer considered it a victory. He wrote, “Belmont broke down and got a band. It didn’t get on the track, but was stationed modestly in the big paddock behind the stand, where it attracted considerable crowds between races and got an encouraging reception. And when the Belmont field came into the ring, it played ‘The Sidewalks of New York.’ An era had ended.”[20]

All the plaudits for the appearance of the band at the Belmont went to Palmer. Herald Tribune sportswriter Bill Lauder noted that in the walking ring “the band struck up ‘The Sidewalks of New York,’ (thanks to Joe Palmer’s insistence) and the horses went out to the track.”[21]

Red Smith wrote, “Due to what must, reluctantly, be described as nagging by a horse author whose initials are Joe H. Palmer, the Westchester Racing Association loosened one button of its checkered waistcoat and going hog-wild, produced a band to class up America’s greatest horse race. It had, naturally a band redolent of austere dignity, being composed mostly of white-haired gentlemen bowed down by braid and epaulettes. Still somewhat shame-faced about this concession to the vulgar taste, the management tucked the musicians away behind an administration building under the trees beyond the walking ring.”[22]

In the years after 1948 – and even after Joe Palmer’s death in 1952 – the writers continued the drumbeat for the band to play “Sidewalks” in front of the crowd as the horses entered the track. This was to make “Sidewalks” the equivalent of “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Maryland, My Maryland.”

In 1951, there was a rumor that “Sidewalks” would be played by a band in front of the crowds. The rumor was false. The New York Times’ James Roach in his account of the Belmont noted, “A startling report was received in the press box early in the afternoon. It was to the effect that the band was going to come out in front of the stands before the running of the Belmont Stakes and play ‘Sidewalks of New York.’ The report was untrue. The band stayed in the paddock. Let Churchill Downs and Pimlico have their infield bands. Not Belmont.”[23]

Red Smith similarly reported “that early in the day a rumor swept the grounds causing wider excitement than a $2,500 daily double or the disqualification of a favorite. The report was that Miss Adelaide Lander’s band which Belmont ordinarily conceals in the shrubbery beyond the paddock, would be permitted to appear in public and play ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ as the horses paraded for the main event.”[24]

This report, of course, proved to be false, but Smith added, “It is difficult to describe the sensation this rumor created in informed circles, where it is unthinkable that the Westchester Racing Association would offend its patrons with anything smacking of a circus parade. In the Turf and Field Club, strong men blanched and women swooned when the ugly whisper was heard.”[25]

Before the 1952 Belmont, Newsday’s turf columnist Art Kennedy complained about the lack of pomp at the Belmont. He stated, “The Belmont is completely lacking in the ‘schmaltz’ department. It’s only a horse race about which no rhymes have been written or songs been sung. . . . But no brass band gives out with a ‘dolce con expresso’ rendition of Sidewalks of New York or even Take Me Back to Old Broadway (and not a bad idea if it did) as the field comes on the track for post parade.”[26]

In 1955, Red Smith wrote, “It is a deeply moving moment when the band plays ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ at the Derby. At the Preakness, red-jacketed tuba toters blast away at ‘Dixie’ and ‘Maryland, My Maryland!’ According to rumor, ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ is played at the Belmont Stakes, but this is strictly hearsay, for Belmont hides its musicians away off the paddock area, out of sight and out of earshot, like a maiden aunt who has brought shame to the family name.”[27]

Success in 1956

But this all changed with the running of the 1956 Belmont. Key to the change was that the Westchester Racing Association had gone out of existence. With legislation passed in New York in 1955 to modernize the tracks, all the State’s thoroughbred tracks were now under the control of the newly formed non-profit Greater New York Association (now the New York Racing Association).

Days before the Belmont Stakes was to be run, the Greater New York Association agreed to Joe Palmer’s wishes. “Sidewalks of New York” would be played in front of the crowd and on the public address system as the horses for the race entered the track. This was a major news story. The Associated Press noted that the leading horses in the Belmont would have company “when the band swings out with the ‘Sidewalks of New York.’”[28]  The Associated Press in a separate article focused on the musical change and wondered how the past proprietors of the track would have reacted. “Shades of old August Belmont, and his Jockey Club companions. They opposed such carnival atmosphere so strenuously that bands at Belmont were not to be seen or heard, unless one forsook his seat and strolled into the gardens near the Turf and Field Club.”[29]

Credit was given to the Greater New York Association “for this contribution to music loving horseplayers at Belmont.”[30] The article added that “Tin Pan Alley, and Petrillo will be pleased. Sutherland’s Band always has been well camouflaged in the trees and deep shrubbery behind the grandstand on other Belmont Stakes days. This time they’ll be smack dab out in front, for all to see and hear. What’s more, when Needles, Fabius and others, in the probable field of eight parade postward for the $100,000-added gallop, the strains of ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ will be heard.”[31]

Red Smith was delighted. In a column focusing on old time jockeys and trainers attending the Belmont, he wrote, “They have seen the elephant and heard the owl, and tomorrow, they’ll hear something else – a band playing ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ over loudspeakers.”[32]

The actual appearance of the band playing “Sidewalks of New York” in front of the crowd went off without a hitch. The Blood-Horse reported that the horses were “accompanied by an introduction over the public address system and a band played ‘Sidewalks of New York.’ The concession was a reversal for management which before had run the Belmont as the sixth race of an 8-race card.”[33]

The New York Times was complimentary. “Belmont used some showmanship in introducing its great race for 3-year-olds. The announcer Jack O’Hara introduced the horses and their riders during the post parade, and Major Francis W. Sutherland’s band played ‘Sidewalks of New York.’”[34]

So in 1956 Joe Palmer got his wish. “Sidewalks of New York” was played by a band in front of the track as the horses entered the track for the Belmont Stakes. His wish would be honored for over 40 years until 1997 when “Sidewalks” was replaced by “The Theme to New York, New York.” After Palmer’s death, a stakes race, the Joe H. Palmer Handicap, was named in his honor. Its first running at Belmont Park in 1953 was won by the great Tom Fool. The Joe H. Palmer Handicap was ended in 1962. It was resurrected by NYRA as the Joe Palmer Stakes in 1979 only to be discontinued by NYRA after its 1993 running, only three and a half years before the discontinuation of “Sidewalks of New York.” So while a stakes race has been named after his close friend Red Smith, Joe Palmer’s race and song have been removed from Belmont.

The arguments in support of restoring “Sidewalks of New York” are obvious and deserving. It represents tradition, which is what horse racing represents. It is a true New York song that is much to be preferred to the theme songs of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. It is also a song that honors the memory and work of the great Joe Palmer and his fellow sportswriters and racing fans that supported him.

Finally, by restoring “Sidewalks,” the current leadership of NYRA can pay tribute to the founders of NYRA who were sufficiently wise to make “Sidewalks” the official song of the Belmont Stakes. NYRA management can honor its past and racing’s past and future by acting thoughtfully in support of the restoration of “Sidewalks.”[35]

[1] The premier article on this curse is Henry D. Fetter, “The Curse of the Belmont Stakes,” Atlantic Online, June 7, 2014.

[2] This song has been played at Yankee Stadium after every Yankee game since 1980. This makes the Racing Association’s use of the song seem akin to a secondhand rental from the Yankees. There clearly is no reason to borrow a song that had already been thoroughly appropriated by another New York franchise, especially a song whose embrace dates from the Oscar Gamble, Rupert Jones, Jim Spencer-era Yankees.

[3] In 2010, when the Triple Crown was not at stake, NYRA replaced “The Theme from New York, New York” with Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Fan reaction to the replacement song was extremely negative, and “The Theme from New York, New York” returned in 2011. In 2010, NYRA’s marketing director had stated that “Empire State of Mind” was “the quintessential 21st century theme song for New York City.” Ed Fountaine, “Jay-Z’s ‘Empire’ Vanquishes Old Blue Eyes,” New York Post, June 5, 2010.

[4] Harold Phelps Stokes, “Cheer Al Smith to ‘Sidewalks of New York,’” New York Post, July 1, 1920.

[5] “Ten Candidates Are Named In Day Of Demonstration,” Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1920.

[6] When Smith learned in 1933 that James W. Blake who wrote the lyrics for “Sidewalks of New York” was destitute, he took action to insure that the man responsible for his campaign song “would never be in want.” “’Al’ Smith Rose From Slums to Win Worldwide Esteem,” Washington Post, October 5, 1944.

[7] “Folk Song Censors Stir a Kentuckian’s Wrath,” Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1957.

[8] Jamie Malanowski, “Maryland, My Maryland,” New York Times Opinionator, May 1, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/maryland-my-maryland/.

[9] Colleen Glenney Boggs, “A War of Words,” New York Times Blogs, October 2, 2012.

[10] John Wagner, “O’Malley, Who’s Pushed For Retiring the Confederate Flag In S.C., Governed a State With Its Own Civil War Controversy,” Washington Post Blogs, June 23, 2015.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sidewalks_of_New_York.

[12] Frank Graham in 1939 could write of the Kentucky Derby, “There is something about it that clutches at the emotions as no other race does. Maybe it is the setting. Maybe it is the moment when the horses come out and the band plays ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’” Frank Graham, “Setting the Pace,” New York Sun, March 18, 1939.

[13] Turf writer Peter Burnaugh reporting on the Derby of 1922 noted the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” and added, “The faithful, battered cornet which has led the Louisville Brass Band in the strains of ‘The Sun Shines Bright on My Old Kentucky Home’ on many a Derby Day when the rain was descending in torrents outside, is blaring out the old familiar tune from the top of the grand stand, “Peter Burnaugh, “Morvich Ready for Big Test,” New York Evening Telegram, May 13, 1922.

[14] The acerbic Westbrook Pegler described the playing of the song as follows in 1929, “Just before the horses went to the post for the Preakness, half a dozen beefy red-faced characters who looked as though they had not been born but written by Charles Dickens, got up on a little platform under the judges’ stand and unsheathed six of the deadliest silver cornets that ever punished any set of acoustics. After a few premonitory grunts, the boys gathered their bugles in a most disheartening rendition of “Maryland, My Maryland” the anthem of the Free State.” Westbrook Pegler, “Dr. Freeland — Wins The Hike — Home To Oats,” Washington Post, May 11, 1929.

[15] At the time of Palmer’s death in the fall of 1952, Arthur Daley of the New York Times said, “As a writer, he was in a class by himself.” Red Smith wrote, “Joe Palmer wrote better than anybody else in the world whose stuff appeared in newspapers.” See the condolences collected by the Blood-Horse in its edition of November 15, 1952 at page 1052.

[16] Joe. H. Palmer, “Views of the Turf,” New York Herald Tribune, May 31, 1948.

[17] Id.

[18] Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, June 10, 1948.

[19] Id.

[20] Joe H. Palmer, “Citation Wins Belmont Stakes and Triple Turf Crown, New York Herald Tribune, June 13, 1948.

[21] Bill Lauder Jr., “‘We’ll Never Boo You, Eddie,’ Happy Fans Promise Arcaro,” New York Herald Tribune, June 13, 1948.

[22] Red Smith, “Views of Sport,” New York Herald Tribune, June 13, 1948.

[23] James Roach, “Counterpoint, 5-1, Defeats Battlefield by 4 Lengths,” New York Times, June 17, 1951.

[24] Red Smith, “Views of Sports,” New York Herald Tribune, June 17, 1951.

[25] Id.

[26] Art Kennedy, “Turf Talk,” Newsday, June 7, 1952.

[27] Red Smith, “Views of Sport,” New York Herald Tribune, June 12, 1955.

[28] “Jazz Age, Career Boy Entered,” Associated Press, Washington Post, June 10, 1956.

[29] “Musical Trimmings Added for Saturday’s Belmont,” Associated Press, Troy Times Record, June 14, 1956.

[30] Id.

[31] Id. James Caesar Petrillo was the prominent leader of the American Federation of Musicians.

[32] Red Smith, “Defend Yourself at All Times,” New York Herald Tribune, June 13, 1956. To the same effect, see also Lou O’Neill, “Beat Needles and Take the $,” Long Island Star-Journal, June 14, 1956. “The only preparation we know of is that the band will play ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ and it will be piped over the loud-speakers.”

[33] “This Week’s Races,” Blood-Horse, June 23, 1956, Page 1329.

[34] James Roach, “Favorite Nips Career Boy by Neck in $119,650 Test,” New York Times, June 17, 1956.

[35] I would be remiss if I did not add a dissenting vote from one of my children. She believes that since the race is run outside of New York City in Elmont in Nassau County, that the race merits a New York State rather than a New York City song.

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