Off and Running

“And they’re off!”

by Dory D’Angelo
A century ago, Kansas Citians came to Westport’s horse track to enjoy a day at the races. And it was all perfectly legal.

Kansas Citians who have been observing the recent controversy surrounding the issue of pari-mutuel betting in Missouri may be surprised to learn that legalized horse racing was a popular entertainment in the Westport area a little more than a century ago.

In fact, it was a large scale operation that drew well-known horses, riders and trainers from all over the country. Enthusiastic crowds, aided by friendly bookmakers, wagered on the equine talents of Daisy D, King Lyon and Gold Dust.

In what is now the Roanoke district of Westport, the race track was part of the Kansas City Interstate Fairgrounds which covered the area between 38th Street and Valentine Road, Pennsylvania and Roanoke Road. And the heart of the fairgrounds was the race-track at 38th Street and Summit.

On August 22nd, 1883, a two-column advertisement in the Kansas City Times read: “Go to the Greatest of them all…The Kansas City Interstate Fair…an aggregation of Fleet Footed Horses…and the Most Interesting Races Over THE BEST RACE TRACK IN THE WORLD AND FROM THE FINEST GRANDSTAND IN AMERICA!”

This kind of hype worked, even in 1883, and thousands came to the fair. But the ad also contained elements of truth. All through the summer, construction crews had labored to complete the buildings and grounds. First, there was the grading and filling of the track.

Then, 50 feet back, a three-deck grandstand, surmounted by a cupola, was built. So carefully was it engineered that the lowest seats, elevated 15 feet above ground level, permitted spectators on the ground to watch the races without obscuring the view from the grandstand.

On opening day, September 17th, 1883, a variety of conveyances carried the public to the fairgrounds. Residents of Westport were lucky. They lived close enough to walk. However, those from Kansas City and visitors who had come into town by boat or rail had to cover the four miles by various means. Some rode on the Kansas City and Westport Horse Railroad that traveled between the two points on a regular basis. Others paid fare on the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad special excursion trains that ran from downtown depots to the fairgrounds every half hour. Still, others came by wagons, carriages, mule and horse trains.

At post time that September day, all seats in the grandstand were filled. Judges and timers were in their respective places, and bookmakers fingered stacks of bills. Jockeys, wearing bright colors, rode their nervous mounts in the exercise area while drivers in the trotting and pacing events harnessed their horses to buggies. Then, the cry of, “They’re off!” brought the crowd to its feet. By day’s end, Daisy D, the favorite, had not disappointed her fans. She took all the pacing heats while Vallet won the $400 purse in the mile dash and a local boy claimed a $5 prize in a pony race.

Business boomed during the six-day fair. Westport’s Harris House Hotel as well as Kansas City hotels were full. A large delegation from Joplin, Mo., came to the races as well as people from Leavenworth and Lawrence, Kan. Even folks who lived as far away as Arkansas were visitors.

The Kansas City Times noted that the fairgrounds had “no flies, no mosquitoes” and were an excellent place to spend a holiday. “The exposition grounds are covered with the fine trees of the Roanoke Woods which are excellent shade for picnic luncheons, and the lemonade sold is kept in the shade and under the grandstand beer is available.” The newspaper also proclaimed that the grandstand and field “have no superior in the country.”

The following year, more than 200 horses were brought to the Westport fairgrounds to compete. A downpour on opening day turned the track to mud, and the races were cancelled. The second day was bright and sunny, and 10,000 fans packed the grandstand to capacity to see the Ladies Riding Race. In this event, ladies riding side saddle jumped over gates placed at intervals on the mile-and-a-quarter course. Betting among the female spectators also was at a fast pace. According to The Kansas City Times, “The betting among the fair ones in the grandstand made the demand for small change very great. The popular escort was the gentleman with a pocketful of nickels.”

That same year, Matt Calvin, a veteran rider, had two of his fingers bitten off by his mount, but that didn’t prevent him from racing. Later, Calvin acknowledged that the accident might have affected his performance. He came in last.

Not satisfied with the scheduled races, a man named Butler who ran a saloon at Mill Street and Westport Road, imported chariots and drivers to race in Roman fashion. The chariots rumbled and kicked up a lot of dust. As an oddity, they attracted attention, but folks really were interested more in the traditional races.

Attendance continued to build at the fair each year. By 1886, it was drawing crowds of 25,000.

In the fall of 1886, a military parade, the forerunner of the Priests of Pallas Parade, was held downtown. Complete with bands and fireworks, it was a huge success. Visitors came and money was spent.

Then came the announcement that “The land at 38th and Penn was too valuable for development to remain a fairground.” The fair relocated to the area of 15th Street and Prospect where the Kansas City Exposition Building, modeled after London’s famous Crystal Palace, was built. To match the grand scale of this fairground, stakes went as high as $10,000 for one race. By the 1890’s, however, the races were not well attended.

The Interstate Fair was neither the first nor the last fair in the Kansas City area. A predecessor of this event was a fair in 1871 at the McGee farm at 15th Street and Campbell which featured “slow mule and fast horse racing.” An estimated 20,000 persons, more than half of the city’s population, flocked to that fair. They came to view exhibits, including the first sewing machine in these parts that made buttonholes, as well as to watch races and wager on horses.

That fair was such a success that city fathers, including Col. Kersey Coates, decided to make it an annual autumn event. The fair moved to 97 acres between 12th and 17th streets, Charlotte and Campbell. By 1874, this track was nationally known and attracted some of the big names in speed horse racing. There was big money in winning, too. In 1877, Goldsmith Maid, a trotting mare, took the $2000 grand prize. Kansas City now was a member of the Great Western Fair Racing Circuit.

In August 1881, a lighted cigarette dropped into the hay and straw under the grandstand started a fire that destroyed the fair. Afterwards, the organizers moved the fairgrounds south to the Westport location.

There were other racetracks in the area after the turn of the century. One was located on the Paseo between 59th and 63rd streets and was known as Elm Ridge Race Course. Later, the Riverside Race Track, just across the Missouri River flourished during the Pendergast era.

But for a time, the place to go to the races was Westport. There, a person could see colorful jockeys, watch fashionably-dressed spectators, here the excited cries of book-makers and listen for the announcement, “There off and running at Westport!”