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One Final Flutter at Benning — the End of Horse Race Gambling in the District of Columbia

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 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

On April 14, 1908 the last horse racing circuit was run at the Benning race track. The season had opened several weeks earlier, on March 23rd, under a cloud. Legislation to abolish pari-mutuel betting (pools and bookmaking) at Benning had been introduced the preceding December and was progressing through Congress. Benning was running on borrowed time (and indeed had been since its opening almost 20 years earlier). Betting on horse racing had been under fire in Congress since the 1880s. But over this season hung much more of a sense of foreboding.

Betting shed at Benning Race track (undated). photo--courtesy Keeneland Library Cook Collection.

Betting shed at Benning Race track (undated). photo–courtesy Keeneland Library Cook Collection.

The myth persists that the legislation ending pari-mutuel betting was snuck through Congress while opponents were attending the races. Congressman Thetus Sims, the bill’s sponsor, had resorted to some unusual legislative maneuvers (the language was included in an unrelated bill to widen Benning Road) but it seemed clear that passage was inevitable — if the bill got out of committee.

Benning clubhouse and grandstand, 1905. .

Benning clubhouse and grandstand, 1905. <em?photo–courtesy Keeneland Library Cook Collection.

Washington — a Racing Mecca?

Georgetown and Washington society (up to the highest echelons) appreciated horse racing since before the founding of Washington — even presidents were involved in the racing scene, and John Quincy Adams was known to attend the races. President Andrew Jackson entered his horses under the name of his nephew A.J. Donelson when he raced them in Washington. Wendy Kail’s “On the Track — Thomas Peter, Henry Clay, and the Duchess of Marlborough” recounts early Georgetown horse racing, starting in 1769. The first steeplechase in the United States took place in Washington in 1834, hosted by the Washington Jockey Club on October 19th.

Benning spectators (undated). photo--courtesy Keeneland Library Cook Collection.

Benning spectators (undated). photo–courtesy Keeneland Library Cook Collection.

Benning track was preceded by (and coincided with) several other tracks in the District’s Washington County – then the hinterlands of Washington City. Most long-lived of racing locations was the Crystal Springs race course, later known as Brightwood Trotting Park track, in 1859 and ceased in 1908. Two and a half miles north of Washington City, Brightwood, or Piney Branch Race Course, was located where Colorado Avenue and Kennedy Street, NW meet, immediately north of Crystal Springs resort on the banks of Rock Creek. Today 16th Street, NW runs directly through the site.

Washington’s central location has always added an extra political dimension to many aspects of the city, including horse racing. In the 1850s as the United States was being increasingly riven by sectionalism, racing enthusiasts suggested creation of a national jockey club, headquartered in Washington, as an impartial meeting place for people from all sections could meet and mingle and see each other in the common context of sport and gambling. [1]

Far to the south of Washington City was the National Race Course, on the Holmead farm, adjacent to St. Elizabeths Hospital. Dating back to the 1860s, on May 13, 1870 the Alexandria Gazette reported the National Race Course had been re-designated as the National Driving Park and Fair Ground.

National Fair Association and Ivy City

In 1878, a number of very prominent Washingtonians came together to create the National Fair Association to put on an agricultural fair, including horse racing. The initial location suggested was the National Race Course at Benning’s (Post, June 21, 1879; Star, June 26, July 22, 1879). After protracted negotiations, Frank P. Hill, owner of the course, and the association fell out and the fair site was moved to a spot just north and east of the new subdivision of Ivy City, a site bounded today by West Virginia Avenue, NE on the southeast and W Street, NE on the northwest. A final decision was reached August 14, 1879. The long wrangling over, the Benning left little time for construction at the new site. President Rutherford B. Hayes participated in both the September 2nd groundbreaking and the October 28th opening of the fair.

The primary purpose of the fair was agricultural — much like any county fair, but athletic events, such as horse racing, were popular. The fair itself was a popular, but not a financial, success; the race track was the most long-lived element of the fair.

1880 Programme of the National Fair Association Spring Running meeting listing the improved “Paris Mutual and Auction Plan” for betting. photo–Library of Congress.

1880 Programme of the National Fair Association Spring Running meeting listing the improved “Paris Mutual and Auction Plan” for betting. photo–Library of Congress.

1880 Programme of the National Fair Association Spring Running meeting -- first day races. Someone has checked one horse per race, either what they betted on or the winning horse. photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div. .

1880 Programme of the National Fair Association Spring Running meeting — first day races. Someone has checked one horse per race, either what they betted on or the winning horse. photo–Library of Congress.

Grandstand from National Fair Buildings Illustrated, 1879. photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div. .

Grandstand from National Fair Buildings Illustrated, 1879. photo–Library of Congress.

In 1883 the Evening Critic advertised the “Great Trotting Meeting” at Ivy City, to be held over four days, between July 3rd and the 6th, a rather grand-sounding occasion which included daily concerts by the entire Marine Band. Racing continued until 1889 but one final season was attempted in 1893.

By 1889 the Association was putting their property up for sale, and wrapping up entirely in 1892.

1883 Evening Critic advertising the “Great Trotting Meeting” at Ivy City, to be held July 3, 4, 5, and 6. photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div. .

1883 Evening Critic advertising the “Great Trotting Meeting” at Ivy City, to be held July 3, 4, 5, and 6. photo–Library of Congress.

Racing at Benning’s

Frank P. Hill was a prime mover in Washington racing. Hill built the first track at Benning in 1876 and had offered to host (or sell to) the National Fair Association, which instead built Ivy City. Benning track was often called “Benning’s” or “Bennings” — named after the bridge and adjacent neighborhood. Benning’s Bridge was built in the early 1800s by William Benning and he (and later his widow) maintained the bridge under contract for the next several decades. It was indeed Benning’s bridge and the name as possessive carried to the postal district and the track.

The Washington Jockey Club left Ivy City and opened its first season at Benning in 1890 (as anti-gambling legislation threatened). The newspaper advertisement carefully noted “Improper characters will be excluded” — perhaps a swipe at the race-goers at Ivy City and Brightwood tracks.

Evening Star March 26, 1890.

Evening Star March 26, 1890.

In 1894 Benning saw short-lived (additional) new competition in Alexandria (now Arlington) County’s St. Asaph’s and Alexander Island race tracks. In 1897 horse-race betting was banned in Virginia. The Star reported bright prospects for the Spring 1898 racing at Bennings, with the introduction of associate memberships in the Washington Jockey Club, available for a single race or the whole season.

As reported by the Star on November 19, 1898, illegal gambling charges were brought against those responsible for Bennings track. Defendants included the Washington Jockey Club’s president, Samuel S. Howland. But in March 1899 Justice Andrew C. Bradley instructed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. “Bookmaking is legal” ran the headline in the Washington Post’s March 7th edition.

Samuel S. Howland, circa 1905. photo--courtesy Keeneland Library Hemment Collection

Samuel S. Howland, circa 1905. photo–courtesy Keeneland Library Hemment Collection

1900 saw some physical improvements at Benning, including the asphalting of the ground in front of the grandstand, an enlarged betting pavilion, and a restaurant for the ladies (Post November 17th).

By 1901 the Star was almost giddy in its preview to the opening of the horse racing season in Washington — “Fine sport assured.” Benning, which opened and closed the eastern racing circuit, had new stands and other new improvements costing $100,000. Bad actors had been squeezed out of the racing business, now run on the up-and-up by men like New Yorker August Belmont, Jr. and his brother-in-law Samuel S. Howland. [2] Howland may also have been responsible for the introduction of another equine sport to Washington — the Dumblane Hunt. The Hunt took place on the Dumblane (or Dunblane) estate in northwest Washington. It later merged with the Chevy Chase Club.

The Post’s November 8, 1906 anticipated a good season that year at Benning. The following year the Post reported good, even record, crowds in the spring of 1907 as the season drew to a close — despite some restrictions on betting (April 15th).

Twisting the tiger’s tail — End of Gambling in Washington

Efforts to restrict gambling of all kinds in Washington date back to at least 1830 when on January 12th the city approved “AN ACT to suppress gambling in the City of Washington”:

“Be it enacted by the Board of Aldermen and Board of Common Council of the City of Washington, That from and after the passage of this act, any act of this Corporation to the contrary notwithstanding, no E O, A B C, L S D, faro, rolly-bolly, shuffle-board, equality-table, or other device, to be used with cards, balls, dice, coin or money, or any other game of hazard, (except the game of billiards, upon licensed billiard tables,) for the purpose of playing or gaming for money, or any thing in lieu thereof, shall be set up, kept, or exhibited in any part of this city, under a penalty of fifty dollars, for every day, or less time, that each E O, A B C, L S D, ſaro, rolly-bolly, shuffle-board, equality-table, or other device or game of hazard, shall be so kept or exhibited, to be recovered before any single magistrate, of the person so setting up, keeping or exhibiting the same.”

Billiards seems to have had a special place and was exempted (when licensed). Congress passed additional legislation the following year (Act of March 2, 1831, chap. 37, sec. 12, 4 Stat. 449). Lotteries, encouraged in the city’s earliest years to generate the needed financial resources to develop the capital, were made illegal in 1842 (Act of Aug. 31, 1842, chap. 282, 5 Stat. 578). [3]

On February 10, 1881 the Star reported on a successful raid on the gambling establishments and in its follow-up article the next day reported that the very expensive gaming equipment had been broken up. The writ called for its return, which was then satisfied by return of the broken pieces.

A few days later, on February 15th, the Star reprinted an article from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, headlined “Gaming at the Capital — a practice not so much in vogue among Congressmen as it once was,” which attributed the reduction not to an increase in virtue but rather because “[m]any Congressmen of to-day are too cowardly, and most are too prudent, to take risks that would lead to ruin. They may not be virtuous but they are cautious and the effect on their conduct . . . is much the same.”

But ordinary folk did continue to gamble; numerous raids and prosecutions were reported in 1881 and 1882. On April 2, 1882 the Star reported on a police raid on a faro game – the slang term used for playing the game was “bucking the tiger.” A few days later the Star reported the names of those arrested. By September the case had been dismissed, despite going before two grand juries. The article reporting on a pending trial noted that in the previous 18 years only one gambling conviction, that of one Martin La Truttle, had been obtained. On December 10th there was a raid on a gambling house in the 1000 block of F Street NW.

In 1883 legislation was passed “to more effectively suppress gambling.” In February, the District Commissioners issued police orders enjoining “full discharge of their duty” enforcing the anti-gambling law (curious that the police needed a reminder).

Annual report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 1882-1883.

Greater energy in enforcement seems to have been gradually accomplished. The 1884 Commissioners’ report shows 49 “keeping gambling house” offenses, up from 13 (and 14 in 1885). Reducing some forms of gambling succeeded but new forms quickly emerged.

The 1885 annual report mentioned the innovation of “pool-selling,” introduced only a few months earlier. “The worse forms of gambling had disappeared from our midst when ‘pool-selling’ began a few months ago in the city. The ‘tiger’ is respectable in comparison with this new phase of ‘sport,’ with its element of fraud unknown upon the race track. . . .”

The 1886 annual report cautioned further against pool rooms — places to wager — and suggested introducing legislation modeled on that of New York.

Annual report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 1885-1886.

Annual report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 1885-1886.

In 1886 H.R. 5044 prohibiting bookmaking and pool selling was brought up for consideration. Congressman Barnes Compton opposed the bill on the grounds that it was legislating morality — “legislation which seeks to make men moral by force.” (Congressional Record, May 10, 1886). Barnes was the great grandson of Philip Barton Key, who, among other distinctions, served three terms as a Maryland Congressman from 1807 and 1813 and during the 10th Congress served as chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia .

In 1887 the American Turf Club (ATC), published the American Racing Rules — its racing and betting rules and bylaws. The first rule, perhaps a bit obvious (or perhaps not), stated, “In all bets there must be a possibility to win when the bet is made. ‘You can not win where you can not lose’.”

The ATC consisted of the Kentucky Association of Lexington, Kentucky; the Louisville Jockey Club of Louisville, Kentucky; the new Louisiana Jockey Club of New Orleans, Louisiana; the Latonia Jockey Club of Covington, Kentucky; the St. Louis Jockey Club of St. Louis, Missouri; and the Washington Park Club of Chicago, Illinois.

In 1888 new legislation was introduced to ban bookmaking and pool selling. The District Commissioners opposed a blanket ban covering the entire District but rather wanted racing at the National Fair Grounds exempted for the short spring and fall racing season, as reported in the Star in February of 1888.

February 10, 1888 Washington Post.

February 10, 1888 Washington Post.

In 1889 legislation was introduced “to extend the ordinances of the city of Washington to the rest of the District of Columbia.” Despite its anodyne title the bill was an attempt to eliminate gambling in the District. Until 1871 the District of Columbia comprised three jurisdictions — City of Washington, Georgetown, and the County of Washington. City of Washington ordinances did not apply to the county — including those prohibiting gambling. Senator Joseph C.S. Blackburn promptly recognized what this legislation would do and offered an amendment allowing the Washington Jockey Club to continue to sell pools.

In 1890 a bill was introduced “To prohibit book-making of any kind and pool-selling in the District of Columbia for the purpose of gaming.” H.R. 10388 had one (sizable) loophole — a specific provision that exempted the Washington Jockey Club, although limiting the time period to no more than 60 days per year. Congressman George Atkinson’s bill did pass, but President Benjamin Harrison vetoed the bill because of that Washington Jockey Club exemption.

Washington bookmakers had developed a special little enclave for betting shops, nicknamed “Monte Carlo,” at Florida Avenue and 7th Street NW, just outside the City of Washington’s border. While the fate of the bill was in doubt, before Harrison’s veto, the bookies left the District for the rather louche neighborhood of Jackson City in Alexandria County — at the far end of Long Bridge. With the veto, they returned to Monte Carlo (Star September 29, December 6, 1890).

Congress tried again in 1891 with — H.R. 13148 and S. 5100, “To prevent bookmaking and pool-selling in the District of Columbia.” This included a provision extending the gambling ban to a one-mile area beyond the boundaries of Washington City and Georgetown.

This provision was specifically added to soothe the tender conscience of President Harrison’s, to meet the objections to the bill he vetoed in the previous session. That bill specifically permitted bookmaking and pool-selling (for a short duration annually and for a specific organization). Instead, the one-mile limit simply implicitly allowed gambling to go on outside the boundary without providing an exemption to any specific organization. The law was approved on March 2, 1891.

In 1894 a new bill (H.R. 6109) was introduced “To more effectually suppress gambling in the District of Columbia.” It was an attempt to amend the original 1883 legislation of the same name by adding a specific provision for the Jockey Club. The District Commissioners in reviewing the legislation, as reported by the Post on March 2, 1894, requested the special provision naming the Jockey Club be expanded to allow other clubs (“or any other racing association”).

On August 3, 1902, the Post ran an article, headlined “Tiger Under the Ban: Washington Is Remarkably Free from Gambling.” Sub-headlines related the story: “How feat was accomplished”; “Campaign for suppression was not result of emotional agitation”; “Congress finally persuaded to pass adequate laws”; “Regulations honestly and impartially enforced by police”. The curious story was clearly written by the Police Department. Previous conditions are recounted:

“There was a time, of course, when Washington was like all other American cities in the matter of gambling. This was prior to 1880, and, if anything, Washington was a trifle worse than any other Eastern city. The houses for faro, keno, and other games were located along what was then known as “Rum Row” (the north side of E street, between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets).”

Suppression methods were severe: “the only way to break up the evil was to ruin them financially, to wreck their places and destroy their equipment.”

The success in suppressing gambling (perceived or real) owed much to Congressional action. Over the last quarter of the 19th century much attention was paid to, and many pieces of legislation passed, restricting gambling in the District. Some of the most significant:

■ D.C. Lottery Prohibition Act, 20 Stat. 39, Chap. 68, Apr. 29, 1878;

■ D.C. Gaming Suppression Act, 22 Stat. 411, Chap. 40, Jan. 31, 1883;

■ Prohibiting Gambling on Horse Races in the District of Columbia, 25 Stat. 94, Chap. 204, Apr. 26, 1888;

■ D.C. Prize-Fighting and Pugilism Prohibition Act, 1896, 29 Stat. 5, Chap. 12, Feb. 7, 1896;

■ D.C. Billiard and Pool Tables Licensing Act, 1897, 29 Stat. 594, Chap. 315, Feb. 25, 1897;

■ D.C. Billiard and Pool Table Age Restriction Act, PL57-120-1, May 22, 1902.

In 1907 Congressman Thetus Sims introduced further legislation to close the loophole which allowed the Benning track to operate. The ban on gambling would be extended beyond the one-mile limit to the entire District of Columbia.

At the end of March, the Washington Times had reported on the beginning of the season at Benning, noting apprehension “about future of racing game here.” The Sims bill had passed the House but not yet the Senate.

“A gentleman unusually well posted on matters in the Senate said today: ‘Benning will be allowed to run its meeting out. The committee to which the bill was referred in the Senate recognizes it would be very unfair to make the track people shut down in the middle of their meeting. That is not the way the Senate acts. Probably noting will be done until the meeting is over.” (Washington Times, March 30, 1908).

But final passage seemed assured — “I fear that this is the last meeting that will be held at the Benning track.” The Times lobbied against race track betting –- with some quirky humor. Readers were encouraged to complete the sentence “They couldn’t stop the race track betting because – – – -” and the best answer would be awarded $5.

May 12, 1908 Washington Herald.

May 12, 1908 Washington Herald.

Sims struggled to get the bill considered by his Senate colleagues. On April 19th the Post interviewed the congressman after he failed at one attempt but reported his determination to try again the next day.

On May 12, 1908 the Washington Herald proudly reported on the passage of the bill — taking credit: “directly due to the agitation started by the Washington Herald…”

March 26, 1908 Washington Times.

March 26, 1908 Washington Times.


When the legislation reached President Theodore Roosevelt’s desk he readily signed it, despite that, or perhaps because, it had been one of his daughter Alice’s favorite haunts. The end of race track gambling ended professional horse racing in the District. Without gambling horse racing was not a financially viable proposition. The Washington Jockey Club considered holding a fall season in 1908 but ultimately decided against. Betting at Brightwood Park ended. Ivy City track would soon disappear — plans to extend New York Avenue through the site were published in 1909. In 1915 the 12 stables at Benning track burned, a loss estimated at $25,400. A variety of other sporting and recreational events took place at the track, such as bicycle and automobile races. In 1943 Mayfair Mansions (originally Mayfair Gardens) and apartment complexes was built over the site of the track, bounded by the large oval shape of the track.


[1] Katherine C. Mooney, Race Horse Men, p. 112. (Harvard University Press, 2014).

[2] Evening Star, November 9, 1901.

[3] Robert G. Blakey & Harold A. Kurland, “The Development of the Federal Law of Gambling.” (Scholarly Works, Paper 421, p. 928. 1978).



 Special thanks to Becky Ryder and Roda Ferraro of the Keeneland Library, Lexington, Kentucky for their assistance.

References & Resources

 See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.