2013-10-09 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets
Belmont Park. The Belmont Stakes. Man O’War. Most folks associate the August Belmonts of North Babylon with horses and racing. However, the Belmont clan was quite influential in the dog world too. In fact, the first Japanese Chins to come to America belonged to this prominent family.
Horse Sense: August Belmont, Sr. (1813-1890), the wealthy 19th century banker, decided in 1864 to locate his horse stud farm on 1,100 acres just north of Babylon Village. His 24-room mansion was finished in 1868, complete with more than 30 buildings and hundreds of acres set aside to breed horses. To the west of the stables was a mile-long training track.
Following his father’s death, August Belmont, Jr. (1853-1924) assumed leadership of the family’s banking and railroad concerns. He was instrumental in the building of the NYC subway system and Belmont Park. The Belmont Stakes, the third race in the Triple Crown, is named for his father. Besides many other successful thoroughbreds, he bred a young colt in 1917 that his wife named “My Man O’War” because her 64-year-old husband went off to serve in Europe during World War I. The Belmonts regretfully sold him (minus the “My”) as a yearling.
In 1885 Belmont, Jr. purchased a farm near Lexington, KY and most of the race horses were raised there. The Babylon Nursery Farm became a place for wintering adult horses and for caring for ailing equines. During World War I the same property became an air field called Camp Dam used by the Army Air Corps. After Belmont, Jr.’s death, the family sold most of the estate for real estate development, while 250 acres became Belmont State Park. The original mansion was razed in 1935 (except for the cannons and a significant dog grave). The present building is NYS Park Department headquarters. No one from the Belmont family ever lived in that building.
The Dog Grave: As discussed in past “Pets,” I believe that the lone tombstone on the Belmont property inscribed “In Memory of My Faithful Dog Robin Mar. 25, 1879” belongs to a dog that Belmont, Jr. entered twice in the first Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) show in 1877. I matched up Robin’s name and age in a facsimile copy of the first WKC catalogue to a listing as a Gordon Setter; and with a slightly different description, as an English Setter. Such a show stunt would not pass muster nowadays but back then there were no registration numbers and the distinction between the two Setter breeds was fuzzy. Belmont also entered Robin’s son and mate as Gordon Setters as well as several Smooth Fox Terriers, his signature breed. Years later he moved his Blemton kennels to Hempstead where he continued to breed champion Fox Terriers. Note that “Blemton” is an anagram of “Belmont.”
Why a grave for just Robin? A July 1938 Long Island Forum article mentions that the Belmonts had an enclosure with a family pet plot on the side of the mansion behind one cannon. The rest of the headstones may have been removed when the mansion was razed and the new circular driveway put in. Several years ago the park maintenance workers checked sheds at my request but no other pet tombstones were stored away. Although he judged at WKC shows, August Belmont, Jr. was never a member of the WKC but his brothers Oliver Hazard and Major Perry were. Except for one reference in an old journal, saying that the WKC superintendent’s home on Livingston Ave. in Babylon was on the path to the Belmont estate, I can find no reference that any of the Belmonts attended celebrations or pigeon shoots at the WKC clubhouse two miles south near Southards Pond.
The American Kennel Club: Belmont., Jr. was the fourth president of the American Kennel Club (AKC), which formed in 1884, after WKC. During the financier’s term from 1888 to 1916, Belmont’s acumen brought the young AKC stability, prestige, and fiscal strength. The AKC needed an editorial forum and a record of kennel activity. In 1889 he created the AKC Gazette and guaranteed it against loss for five years at a rate of $5,000 per year. None of Belmont’s money was ever used, and this magazine showcasing the purebred dog continued to publish until two years ago.
The First Chins in America: This connection to “dogdom” pre-dates the family’s move to North Babylon. The name Japanese Chin is actually a misnomer because this Toy breed traces to China rather than Japan. Many believe that at one time Chins and Pekingese were the same breed. Some of these imperial dogs became pets of Buddhist monks and others were given as gifts to traveling dignitaries or traded with visiting merchants. Eventually Chins could be found in various parts of the Far East including Japan.
Japan closed its doors in 1636 to the outside world to keep foreigners from influencing their culture. It wasn’t until Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened trade with the closed Empire in the mid-1850s that Westerners set foot in Japan again. When Perry arrived offering the good will of President Franklin Pierce and Queen Victoria, he sailed home laden with imperial gifts including three pairs of Chins- one for him, another for the President and the last for Queen Victoria. Only Perry’s pair survived the voyage. Perry gave his canine gifts to his daughter Caroline Perry Belmont who was married to Belmont, Sr. The male and female never bred but remained cherished house pets. I would love to know if they lived long enough to be laid to rest in the pet plot prior to Robin.
As for the cannons still pointing at Belmont Lake- Mrs. Belmont’s uncle was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry who defeated the British on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Two cannons from one of the British ships were found in a Pittsburgh junkyard by Mrs. Belmont and moved to “guard” her now vanished N. Babylon mansion.
For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 92700 Lamar St. W. Babylon: No Japanese Chins, but a sweet stray Pekingese now called “Garth,” and “Cindy,” a senior female Chihuahua mix #13-598 with vision loss from dry eye. “Shady” #3-516 is an outgoing longhaired black cat with a silver undercoat.