Today, Moncrief is an area that most Jaxsons avoid or know little about outside of the local media's crime coverage. However, a century ago it was the site of one of the nation's most popular horse racing tracks.
The track was also known for its Ladies Day events where admission for women was free when accompanied by an escort. Six of these events were planned for the 1909-10 season. For March 15, 1910's Ladies Day, six races were held for four-year olds and upward with winning purses ranging between $300 and $500. Joseph A. Murphey of New Orleans was the Presiding Judge. Murphy had agreed to serve as judge at Moncrief Park until racing had resumed at Hot Springs, Arkansas. P.A. Brady served as the associate judge.
During its operation, the track proved to be an economic asset for Jacksonville. It's promoters estimated that the economic benefit for Jacksonville merchants was over $4 million in trade during the 110 day racing seasons. By 1910, New Yorkers were calling Moncrief the "Belmont of the South" and Jacksonville was being sold as the place to go on vacation. For comparison's sake, a horse racing track opened in Tampa the same season as Moncrief Park. However, by the second season, the horses that had little or no chance to win in Jacksonville were being shipped to Tampa in hopes of winning feed money at that track.
After the closure of Moncrief Park, Harry D. "Curly" Brown went on to establish Arlington Park in suburban Chicago in 1927. That park operates today as the Arlington International Racecourse and is owned by Churchill Downs, Inc. The American Derby, once held at Moncrief Park, remains one of the Arlington's major events.
In addition, the historic American Derby, now held annually at Arlington Park near Chicago, was held at Moncrief Park. The American Derby of 1911 was won by a horse named Governor Gray and ridden by Roscoe Goose, one of the outstanding Jockies of the era. The purse for the American Derby was about $5,000 while daily program purses ranged from $300 to $500.
The last race was held on April 1, 1911, just a few years after Cashen, and a man named Jere Smith, had founded the Gentlemen's Driving Club, a state-chartered organization that was the nucleus for the race track which was developed in 1909. Thirteen days after the last race, newspaper editorials denounced horseracing as events that only attracted one class of people who lived off the residents as parasites. They also claimed the races did not support the local economy.
Moncrief Park Band. Image courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
Shortly after the track opened in 1909, an anti-racing group had been established to abolish gambling and the wrong types of people from coming to Jacksonville. According to Historian T. Frederick Davis, the races had a bad effect on the city by attracting the wrong element and shipping profits out of town. However, this position was flawed considering the Jax Brewing Company was one of the economic spinoffs of the track at Moncrief. One of the track's spectators was William Ostner of St. Louis. From a family with breweries in St. Louis, New Orleans, Memphis, Louisville, Illinois and Wisconsin, Ostner returned to open the last American brewery before Prohibition adjacent to Moncrief Park. By Prohibition, the brewery, which overlooked Moncrief Park, employed over 240 Jacksonville residents.
Nevertheless, in Spring 1911, the Florida State Senate passed a bill prohibiting all racetrack gambling by an overwhelming vote of 62 to 1. It was said that many legislators had been pressured by their constituents to prove their moral values. Signed by Governor Albert Waller Gilchrist, the bill became effective May 1, 1911. After the race track closed, Thomas V. Cashen sold the property and a few years later, the site was redeveloped into the Moncrief neighborhood that remains today.
Baker, Charlie. "Moncrief Park Has Historic Place on Horse Racing Scene." Florida Times Union. 3 November 1957.
Brumley, Jayne. "Briton's Letter, Old Program Recall Race Track Here Half Century Ago." Florida Times Union. 17 August 1958.
Hamburger, Susan. "And They're Off!: Horse Racing in the Sunshine State Jacksonville and Tampa in the Early 1900s." Florida Historical Society annual meeting. 25 May 2001.
Article by Ennis Davis and Stephen Dare