The Gilded-Age Dinner Party That Featured 7 Courses and 32 Horses

IN 1903, A NEW YORK millionaire threw one of the most unusual banquets in history. C.K.G. Billings, a horse-racing fanatic who the New York Times called “the American Horse King,” spent thousands of dollars transforming a Manhattan ballroom so he and his friends could eat on horseback.

Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings inherited a gas company, but his passion was racehorses. A famous equestrian, Billings built a $200,000 private stable next to the Harlem River Speedway, a track for horse and carriage racing that opened to cars in 1919. The luxurious stable included two exquisite suites for Billings and guests in the upper story and a training ring for show horses. Billings wanted to celebrate the finished stable with a banquet.

C.K.G Billings is photographed here with one of his most famous racehorses, Lou Dillon.
C.K.G Billings is photographed here with one of his most famous racehorses, Lou Dillon. 

Newspapers speculated about the Horse King’s banquet—journalists described the stable’s decorations and even discovered that the dinner would be on horseback. In the face of intense public interest, Billings seemingly took a more typical dinner-party route, by selecting a restaurant. But this was misdirection.

On the night of the dinner, Billings’ guests filed into the ballroom of Sherry’s, a 5th Avenue restaurant, in black and white evening wear. To their surprise, the room was decorated with fake turf, plants, and painted scenery that resembled the English countryside. The room had no tables. Instead, the guests mounted live horses, which had ridden the freight elevator up to the ballroom. Waiters in riding gear brought oats for the horses and placed dish after dish on table trays mounted on each horse’s saddle.

The menu above is from the files of restaurant owner Louis Sherry, whose name lives on as a brand of fancy chocolates.
The menu above is from the files of restaurant owner Louis Sherry, whose name lives on as a brand of fancy chocolates.

The French-style dinner that Billings and company ate was as lavish as their surroundings. The meal started with caviar and turtle soup. One course featured truite au bleu—cooking trout while it is super-fresh and dunking it in vinegar results in a blue-purple colored fish. Served with a green herb sauce, it would have been visually striking, if hard to eat on horseback.

More courses followed: rack of lamb with glazed vegetables, guinea hens with lettuce-heart salad, and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Flambéed peaches capped off the meal. On the menu, Sherry noted the parties’ drinks, including an 1898 Krug champagne, scotch and sodas, and bottled ginger ale for Billings, who probably knew better than to drink and ride.

At the end of the dinner, the guests dismounted to watch a variety show, while the horses headed for the freight elevator. Attendees also received sterling-silver horseshoes inscribed with the menu as souvenirs. While none from the dinner have surfaced, Sherry’s record of the meal gives useful clues as to the night’s happenings, including the number of attendees (32), the time, and a note that the event was photographed by the famous Byron Company, whose photographer captured the iconic image of New York’s banquet on horseback.

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