Streetwise: The Great Race


More by Woody LaBounty

The Great Race

Ad for 1873 Race

by Woody LaBounty
December 2000

Just north of Lake Merced, the Gellert-built homes in Lakeshore Park sit on sleepy streets with pastoral names: Forest View, Sylvan, Meadowbrook. Beach and zoo traffic runs on Sloat Boulevard on the north side while students and shoppers head for San Francisco State and Stonestown Galleria on the west and south. The heart of the neighborhood is remarkably silent.

Hard to believe that 20,000 people once yelled their lungs out in this spot.

On November 15, 1873, when a racetrack stood here, four horses ran in the "Great International Running Race." The match-up of a California favorite with prized horses from the East sparked enormous excitement in the city. Interest wasn't limited to a simple appreciation of horseflesh. $20,000 in gold coin was offered in purse money, and the San Francisco Chronicle estimated that betting pools collected $150,000 in the week before the race.

Ocean Avenue was essentially the one road to the track in 1873. Then the "Ocean House Beach Road," it wiggled its way from the old Mission road to terminate between the track and the famed Ocean House roadhouse. The San Francisco Bulletin described the scenery:

The [Ocean View Riding] Park is in the bed of a narrow valley, about five miles west of the city, terminating at the base of bare, brown hills on three sides and on the fourth gradually merging into sand dunes, and affords a clear view of the Pacific, even to the Farallones. [...] The grounds have been arranged with artistic taste. The Ocean View House on the western border of the premises, is an edifice of cheerful appearance, containing suits of rooms, parlors, billiard saloon, and a bowling alley.

On the day of the race, thousands of wagons, carts, horses, and pedestrians (many trekking from the San Jose train line that stopped near today's City College) clogged the dirt path. Coachmen charged as high as $40 for one-way transportation to the track, with passengers having to find their way home on their own.

Dignitaries of every kind attended. Governors, generals, mayors, and some of the richest men in the country watched alongside the "sporting men" and peasantry. The newspapers had couriers at the ready to gallop the results of each heat back downtown to those who didn't make the journey.

Thad Stevens, the California-raised thoroughbred, was the favorite, but many had a good feeling about Joe Daniels, a nag from Michigan. True Blue, a blood bay, came in with a great record. The race consisted of four heats of four miles a piece, with about a half-hour rest in between.

Joe Daniels took the first heat and True Blue the second, In the third heat, tragedy stuck for True Blue. In the third mile he broke a fetlock and Thad Stevens held off Daniels to win. Tied up, "the pride and hope of California" grabbed the last heat to take the top prize, and win national bragging rights for the state.

The true racing spectacle occurred after the horses returned to the stables. Thousands of people and their conveyances headed back for the city at the same time. The Chronicle summed up the challenge:

In a large assemblage such as that which gathered at the Ocean House yesterday, very many would pay homage to the shrine of Bacchus, and these people were more or less at the mercy of their horses. It was believed that many smash-ups would occur on the homestretch and this belief was thoroughly realized by the event.

Something to keep in mind in your holiday travels.

Bibliography: San Francisco Bulletin, and San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 16, 1873; The Story Behind St. Francis Wood,, Grover O'Connor, 1937; The Locality of the Broderick-Terry Duel, Hermann Schussler, 1916.

Page launched 20 December 2000