Before Stephens, James Rowe dominated Belmont Stakes like no other
No trainer is more closely linked to New York’s biggest race than Woody Stephens, who famously won five consecutive Belmonts, from 1982 to 1986.
But more than a century earlier, trainer James G. Rowe began to compile a Belmont record unlikely ever to be duplicated, one that makes even Stephens’ accomplishments pale by comparison. By the time of his death in 1929, Rowe had won ten Belmont Stakes: two as a jockey and eight as a trainer.
Rowe was born near Richmond, Virginia in 1857. Multiple sources indicate that as a child of about ten years old, he was working at a newsstand when he was “discovered” by Thoroughbred owner David McDaniel. In Master of the Turf, racing historian Edward L. Bowen quotes writer Kent Hollingsworth in calling McDaniel “the most noted horseman of the East…his stable topped the owners’ list from 1870-1874.” McDaniel also trained horses.
With apparently as keen an eye for human potential as he had for equine talent, McDaniel recruited Rowe as an apprentice rider; Rowe would go on to ride two of McDaniel’s three Belmont winners, Joe Daniels and Springbok in 1872 and 1873 respectively, becoming the first jockey to win back-to-back Belmonts. As the nation’s leading rider in the country from 1871 to 1873, Rowe was the first jockey to claim that title in three consecutive years.
His career in the saddle cut short by nature, as he grew too heavy to ride, Rowe had already inscribed his name in racing’s history books. But his accomplishments as a jockey would become a mere footnote to his racing career by the time it was over.
Perhaps the only thing worse than running off to the races is running off to the circus, but that’s exactly what Rowe did following his jockey days, working for a time for P.T. Barnum’s Great Roman Hippodrome. But the lure of the track pulled him back, and by the late 1870s, Rowe had landed with the Dwyer brothers, Phil and Mike, founders of the Brooklyn Jockey Club and the Gravesend track in Brooklyn, and owners of such storied horses as Hindoo, Miss Woodford, and Ben Brush.
Rowe won the first two of his eight Belmont Stakes as a trainer for the Dwyers, in 1883 with George Kinney and in 1884 with Panique. His relationship with the brothers soured, though, according to Bowen, over a disagreement about running the magnificent filly Miss Woodford. Rowe thought she needed a rest from racing, believing that she was injured; the Dwyers disagreed, and the trainer resigned.
Starting over for the second time, Rowe once again landed in a plum spot, training for James R. Keene, one of racing’s major breeders and owners. Keene had already won one Belmont Stakes, with Spendthrift in 1879, but his relationship with Rowe would bring him five more Belmont trophies in a span of nine years: Commando (1901), Delhi (1904), Peter Pan (1907), Colin (1908), Sweep (1910).
Keene and Rowe’s most famous – or perhaps most infamous - accomplishment was Colin’s 1908 Belmont victory. Bringing a perfect 13-for-13 to the race, Colin was declared “hopelessly broken down” with two bowed tendons just days before the Belmont. Yet on the muddy, rainy morning of the race, Colin shipped from Sheepshead Bay to the big Elmont oval.
In an article called “Colin a Lively Cripple,” the Daily Racing Form quoted Keene as saying, “All I can say is that Colin is here and he is here to run. If he is to break down he might as well do it in a race as any other place.”
Colin did not break down; he won the Belmont, leading every step of the way…but the race was not uneventful. A torrential downpour led to such poor visibility that portions of the race could not be seen, nor could it be timed.
In addition, Colin’s jockey, Joe Notter, misjudged the finish line and was nearly beaten by second-place finisher Fair Play, leading the New York Times to comment that Colin “…won a gallantly run race, fighting…against a final obstacle in the stupidity of his jockey, who…all but threw away this victory by pulling up at the wrong point.”
The injury thought to be bowed tendons was later attributed to bandages that had been wrapped unevenly and too tightly, causing Colin’s legs to swell. “…Because of the prominence of the horse,” said the Daily Racing Form, “the trouble was magnified through fear and anxiety.”
The summer of 1910 saw the end of racing in New York due to anti-gambling laws, and by the time racing resumed three years later, James R. Keene had died. Rowe, however, picked up where he’d left off: training for Harry Payne Whitney, Rowe won his eighth Belmont Stakes as a trainer in 1913, with Prince Eugene.
In a career that spanned more than half a century, Rowe more than once led all trainers in purse money won; the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame credits him with winning more races than anyone else in 1907.
Rowe died at the age of 72 on August 2, 1929 at the hospital in Saratoga Springs, NY; at the time of his death, he was still training for Whitney, and as was the custom, the Whitney horses were scratched from the races the day following his death.
Inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1955, Rowe was part of the first class of horsemen so honored. He trained 34 horses that were named champions; he won the Futurity nine times; and he trained Regret, the filly that helped put the Kentucky Derby on the map.
But the Belmont Stakes is where Rowe made his indelible mark, achieving what no horsemen ever has or likely will again. In the modern era, Woody Stephens won five. All James G. Rowe did was double that.