While the idea of a racetrack was originally formulated by the Washington Jockey Club in the late 1880s, it was not until the Benning Race Track opened on Tuesday, April 1, 1890, that the club was able to fulfill this goal.
Opening day attendance consisted of about 2,000 racing fans. In general, the opening did not prove to be very successful owing largely to competition from other venues such as Anacostia, Brightwood, and Ivy City. Dispite this discouraging beginning, by 1896 things had turned around at the Benning track as Washington society began to take the place by storm.
The downfall of Benning was rooted in shady betting practices. Even though most congressmen were said to be regular track goers — on free passes — racing foes ultimately prevailed. Congress banished horse racing in the District in 1908 and the last race day at Benning was April 12 of that year.
Though betting on the ponies ceased at Benning, racing in general still continued. Spectators frequented the track to watch motorcycle and auto racing through the 1910s.
The stables were also still used as training and exercising horses continued until the early 1940s.
There were even attempts to bring horse racing back to Benning, with major attempts occurring in 1934, 1938, and 1940. During each attempt, these efforts failed due to the opposition of ministers and temperance women.
The 150-acre site of the race track was sold in 1928 to Eastland Gardens, Inc. for $500,000 with the goal of subdividing the land. Even so, it was not until September, 1942, that ground was broken for what became Mayfair Mansions.
Site of Benning Race Track — Image from Baist's real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: complete in three volumes (1903), plate 30.
Benning Races: August Belmont, Mrs. Donald Cameron, Sec. Meyer. ca. 1912 (from Library of Congress)
Auto races, Benning, Md., (i.e., Washington, D.C.), c. 1916 (from Library of Congress)