Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where Have All the Racetracks Gone?

Washington Park, Chicago, c. 1900

When Bay Meadows closed for good last summer, leaving Northern California with only one major Thoroughbred racing venue -- Golden Gate Fields -- many wondered how such a thing could happen. Bay Meadows, after all, had been a fixture in California horse racing for more than 70 years and was the longest continually operating Thoroughbred track in California.

In Southern California, there is a real possibility that Hollywood Park will shutter its doors for good in the near future, and once again California race fans are wondering what this all means for the future of Thoroughbred racing.

A broad historical perspective reveals that these are certainly not the first great Thoroughbred racetracks to disappear and suggests that they are not likely to be the last.

Some of the first Thoroughbred racetracks in the country flourished in New York before the turn of the 20th century; yet few people even remember their names today: Jerome Park, Morris Park, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay. Even earlier in the 19th century, breeding and racing were showcased in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky at tracks such as the Kentucky Association.

Many other racing centers in the United States, including Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island, Nebraska and California, saw the rise and decline of important racetracks during the last two centuries. Here is a list of a few of them that are gone but hopefully not completely forgotten:

Aksarben (1920 - 1995), Omaha, NE
Aksarben (Nebraska spelled backwards) was an indoor arena and horse racing complex. In the mid-1980's, Aksarben was 10th in the nation in racetrack attendance. Triple Crown winner Omaha was buried at the track's Circle of Champions following his death in 1959. After the closure of the racetrack, Horsemen's Park, a simulcast facility, was opened in Omaha in 1998.

Bowie Race Track (1914 - 1985), Bowie, MD
At one time the flourishing track was served by the now defunct WB & A Railroad, which brought race fans from New York and Philadelphia. The track still exists as a Thoroughbred training center.

Cumberland Race Track (1924 - 1961), Cumberland, MD
Also known as the Fairgo Racetrack, it was located at what is now the Allegany County Fairgrounds. Cumberland was the first half-mile track in the state of Maryland and was regarded as one of the most beautiful racetracks in the state. It formed part of the Maryland horse racing circuit that included Timonium and Marlboro racetracks. Today the track is used for automobile racing.

Garden State Park (1942 - 2001), Delaware Township, NJ
Known as "the Garden," in its heyday, Garden State hosted some of the finest Thoroughbred racing in the nation, and legendary horses who competed there included Whirlaway, Citation and Secretariat. With Atlantic City Race Course and Monmouth Park, it was an integral part of what was called the "Golden Triangle" of New Jersey racing. The original grandstand, destroyed by fire in 1977, was rebuilt and the track reopened in 1985, just in time for Spend A Buck to win the Jersey Derby. The grandstand was demolished in 2003 to make room for a mixed-use town center development.

1904 Brooklyn Handicap, Gravesend Race Track

Gravesend Race Track (1887 - 1910), Coney Island, NY
Gravesend was built by the Brooklyn Jockey Club with the backing of wealthy horse owners the Dwyer brothers. Among the major stakes launched at the track were the Astoria Stakes, Brooklyn Handicap, and Gazelle Handicap. From 1894 through 1908, the track hosted the Preakness Stakes. When New York outlawed racetrack betting in 1910, the facility was closed, and the land was sold to real estate developers in 1920.

Havre de Grace Racetrack (1912 - 1950), Havre de Grace, MD
Nicknamed "The Graw," it was host to one of the most important races in the Northeast, the Havre de Grace Handicap. In 1920, Man o' War won the Potomac Handicap at Havre de Grace. In 1936, his son War Admiral won his first race there. Faced with competition from nearby Garden State Park and Delaware Park, Havre de Grace was sold in 1951 to Alfred G. Vanderbilt II, owner of Pimlico Race Course, and Morris Schapiro of Laurel Park, who closed the facility and transferred its racing dates to their own tracks.

Hialeah Park (1921 - 2001), Hialeah, FL
Hileah Park in Hialeah, Florida, is currently at the center of a battle for historical preservation, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its original grandstand was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1926 and subsequently rebuilt in 1930, at which time the famous infield lake was installed and stocked with flamingos. Among its famous races were the Flamingo Stakes and Widener Handicap. In 1987, the horseracing movie Let It Ride with Richard Dreyfuss was filmed at Hialeah Park.

Postcard of Jamaica Racetrack, 1907.

Jamaica Racetrack (1903 - 1959), Jamaica, Queens, NY
Built by the Metropolitan Jockey Club, one of the track's founders was Eugene D. Wood, for whom the Wood Memorial Stakes is named. Some of the other important stakes races hosted there were the Frizette Stakes, Remsen Handicap and Jamaica Handicap. Hall of Fame trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons once trained at Jamaica, and the great Native Dancer made his winning debut there in 1952. Today, it is the site of the Rochdale Village housing development.

Jerome Park (1866 - 1894), Fordham (now The Bronx), NY
Operated by the American Jockey Club, its founders included Leonard W. Jerome and August Belmont. The first Belmont Stakes was held at Jerome Park and continued to be run there until 1890. It was also home to the Champagne Stakes and the Ladies Handicap. The track was closed to make way for the Jerome Park Reservoir.

The Kentucky Association (1826 - 1933), Lexington, KY
The Kentucky Association was formed to promote the breeding and racing of Thoroughbreds in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. The Phoenix Stakes, the oldest stakes race in the United States, was first run there in 1831 as the Phoenix Hotel Handicap. Other important stakes races inaugurated there include the Ashland Stakes, Blue Grass Stakes and Ben Ali Stakes. The facility was torn down in 1935, the same year the new Keeneland Association racecourse opened.

Latonia Race Track (1883 - 1939), Latonia (Covington), KY
Once considered one of the top racetracks in the United States, Latonia was where jockey Eddie Arcaro got his start. It was the home of the 1-1/2 mile Latonia Derby, inaugurated in 1883. Financial difficulties during the Great Depression forced the closure of Latonia. The facility was dismantled during World War II, and today is the site of a shopping center.

Longacres (1933 - 1992), Renton, WA
Founded by Seattle real estate magnates Joseph Gottstein and William Edris and later overseen by Gottstein's son-in-law, Morris Alhadefff, Longacres was the longest continually operated track on the west coast by the time it closed. It was noted for its beauty, fast track surface, and the signature Longacres Mile. The property was sold to the Boeing Company, who demolished the track in 1994.

Morris Park Racecourse (1889 - 1902), The Bronx, NY
Morris Park, built as a result of the closure of the Jerome Park Racetrack, was described by the New York Times as "the most beautiful racetrack in the world." For several years, it was host to the Belmont Stakes, Champagne Stakes and Ladies Handicap. The Metropolitan Handicap was inaugurated there in 1891. Declines in attendance resulted in the closure of Morris Park Racecourse in 1902; however, it was subsequently used for automobile racing and public air shows.

Narragansett Park (1934 - 1978), Pawtucket, RI
Known for its mention in the movie The Sting, Narragansett Park once hosted races in which some of Thoroughbred racing's greats competed. Its important races included the Rhode Island Handicap, Governors Handicap and the Narragansett Special. War Admiral, Seabiscuit, and Gun Bow were among the horses that ran at Narragansett. After the track's closure, the city of Pawtucket bought the facility for commercial and residential development. The old grandstand still remains and is in use as discount retail outlet.

Raceland (1924-1928), Chinnville, KY
Known as the "million dollar oval" because of its ornate appearance, Raceland featured a 1-1/2 mile track circled by a white fence of wood and iron adorned with rambling roses, and an infield lake with several sunken gardens. Not surprisingly, financial difficulties forced its closure after only four years. The track was sold and torn down in 1937.

Sheepshead Bay Race Track (1884 - 1910), Sheepshead Bay, NY
The racetrack was built by a group of wealthy businessmen from New York City, including August Belmont Jr., Leonard Jerome and William K. Vanderbilt, who formed the Coney Island Jockey Club. The track's premier events were the Suburban Handicap and the Futurity Stakes, both run at Belmont Park today. Like the other racetracks in New York, Sheepshead Bay closed its doors when racetrack betting was banned in 1910. For several years the track was used for automobile racing, but eventually the property was sold for residential real estate development.

Tanforan Racetrack (1899 - 1964), San Bruno, CA
Tanforan was named for Torribio Tanforan, the grandson-in-law of Jose Antonio Sanchez, owner of El Rancho Buri Buri, a large Mexican land grant in the area. The track closed in 1911, when California passed legislation banning gambling. It reopened, without betting, for the 1923 and 1924 seasons, subsidized by Northern California sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels. It opened again in 1934, when pari-mutuel wagering was legalized in California. Like Santa Anita in the south, Tanforan was used as an assembly center for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Among the notable trainers stabled at Tanforan was Noble Threewitt, who set a record with 9 consecutive wins in April 1954. Tanforan burned down in 1964, and today in its place is a shopping mall.

Washington Park Race Track (1884 - 1977), Chicago, IL
Washington Park had two locations during its existence -- first in the Woodlawn community area of Chicago, and later in Homewood, IL. Numerous notable horses and jockeys competed at Washington Park, including Thoroughbreds Emperor of Norfolk, Domino, Citation, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, and Swaps, and jockey Eddie Arcaro. It was home to the American Derby, one of the richest races in America at the time. It was closed in 1905 when the state of Illinois banned gambling, then reopened in Homewood in 1926. On August 31, 1955, Washington Park hosted a match race between Nashua and Swaps at a mile and a quarter. Nashua won by several lengths, and went on to be named Horse of the Year. The grandstand burned down in 1977, putting the track out of business.

Washington Park photo source - University of Chicago Library


Colins Ghost said...

Wow Mary this is outstanding! I was thumbing through ads in old Racing Manuals recently and had similar thoughts about how many tracks have disappeared in the second half of the 20th century. Thank you for the research here...great stuff!

Anonymous said...

This is indeed an outstanding history. Thanks. Just to add a footnote to Latonia: In 1959, about 10 miles or so from the original site, Latonia reopened. In the 1980s it became Turfway. As a youngster, a very little boy really, I vaguely remember going to Miles Park in Kentucky. It, too, is not longer around.

Sally said...

Thanks for this fascinating post.

Anonymous said...

I miss Greenwood in Toronto.

Anonymous said...

You don't make it clear that Tanforan(N. Calif) was operating into 50s.
Kentucky has added a venue - Kentucky Downs (formerly Duelling Grounds), but is not used often because owners do only what is required to qualify as a legal simulcast site.
Miles Park was closed years ago, however the barns from there are still in full use. They now comprise the largest part of the stabling at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington. It is owned and operated by Keeneland Association.

Anonymous said...


Mary Forney's Blog said...

Here's an interesting link to a last memory of Shenandoah Downs...

Anonymous said...

This is a great perspective, Mary. As someone in the industry helping to market great tracks like Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields, it saddens me to think that more closings might be in our future. I'm hopeful the sport will see a resurgence of interest because of blogs like yours. Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

You can add Cahokia Downs, Centennial, Detroit Racecourse, Hagerstown, Lincoln Downs, Raceway Park, Randall Park, Sportsmans Park and Tropical Park to the list.

Anonymous said...

Love the article. Thanks for all the research. Just one little thing. Shouldn’t this line have the word ‘in’ in front of 1910? Under Gravesend Racetrack.

When New York outlawed racetrack betting 1910,

See you at Clocker's Corner.
Your faithful proofer!

Mary Forney's Blog said...

Done! :) Thanks for reading! Mary

Anonymous said...

Great retrospective! Just for the record, it must have been Native Dancer which broke his maiden at Jamaica in 1952. The great gelding, Native Diver, broke his maiden in 1962.

Anonymous said...

How could they leave out Centennial in Denver and Miles Park in Louisville? Storm Cat's grandmother raced at Centennial. I know because I groomed her...Bolero Rose, and she was a top mare, but probably not as good as her stablemate, Spicy.

Anonymous said...

what about empire city race track,yonkers new york.

Anonymous said...

There was a track in Texas , called Arlington Park. I came close to owning an original panoramic photo of it (long story) and the old finish line post stood in a field near Dallas for years after. Texas parimutel ban in the 30's did it in. Nice article. But you will have to update the list of closures quarterly for the next few years

Mary Forney's Blog said...

Thanks, Anon... good catch! It was, indeed, Native Dancer who made his winning debut at Jamaica Racetrack in 1952, April 19 to be exact. I will correct the typo. Best, Mary.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if these tracks would have survived if their owners had installed synthetic tracks???

Great story...would have loved some recognition of Agua Caliente and the old Las Vegas racetrack.

Are there any other photo links for these tracks?

Anonymous said...

Great work. The two photos reflect a sort of gentility as an aura surrounding the tracks. If one were to attend a present day track in this state, Michigan, one who observed the patrons would believe that they were only recently evolved to an upright stage.

Anonymous said...

Tropical Park in Miami is now a park. A aerial on google shows a wonder "park" there. Can still see what was once the track.

Sportsmans Park. Demolished this month.

Detroit Racecourse.

Atlantic City. Do we count or not?

Sure your sticking to USA but Aqu Caliente, Oriental Park, old Woodbine and soon Fort Eirie.

Some Podunks with some history in a different league of course that did draw big fans in their own right (in the hey day).

Cahokia Downs Illinois.

Santa Fe Downs track still standing barns and all.

Birmingham Turf Club (fans didn't bite)


Too many to list

Anonymous said...

I grew up at Ak-sar-ben in Omaha. Not just a great racetrack but a community of people who all knew each other. Wonder if Omaha is still buried there.

Anonymous said...

. Failures or struggling facilities include: Atlantic City (reduced to 5 days of racing), Ak-Sar-Ben (closed ‘95) and Atokad (closed ‘98), Arlington Park (closed ‘95, reopened last year), Arapahoe Park (failed, brought out of bankruptcy), Bandera (closed ‘98), Birmingham (re-opened after bankruptcy as a greyhound facility), Blue Ribbon Downs (out of bankruptcy in ’99), Canterbury Park (closed several times and decimated the Minnesota Thoroughbred breeding industry, sold for pennies on the dollar, now marginally profitable with a card club), Charles Town (’95 closed, but reopened with slots), Colonial Downs (doubled its loses in 2000), Detroit Race Course (closed ’98, Hazel Park in serious trouble), Fairmount Park (harness racing closed), Garden State Park (built for $170 million, sold for $30 million, closing May 2001), Green Mountain (closed early 90’s), Greenwood (closed ’95), Hialeah (closed and re-opened), Jefferson Downs (closed ’92), Longacres (closed '92), Los Alamitos (ends harness racing), Muskegon Race Course (closed ’97), New York harness racing industry (several closed tracks and several in serious trouble), Northlands (plans to end harness racing), Prairie Meadows (bankrupt, re-opened with slots), Raton (closed early 90’s), Remington Park (sold for $0.1 on the $1.00), Retama Park (returned out of bankruptcy), Sam Houston (bankrupt '95, re-opened under re-organization), San Juan Downs (closed ’92, re-opened with slots, but still struggling), Santa Fe Downs (closed ’96), Trinity Meadows (closed ‘96), Valley Greyhound (closed ’94), Will Rogers Downs, Woodlands (bought out of bankruptcy), and Yakima (closed ’98).

Anonymous said...

Maryland had one more track on the half mile circuit.....Bel Air

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I miss Hialeah Race Track in Florida :( It is not too still can be saved. PLEASE

Anonymous said...

Hey Mary - Great post, but sad. we are fighting our battle here in Arizona, stop by our new blog. I added you to the blogroll and added this post to the "Worth the Read" section with credit to you! Hope that was okay!

Anonymous said...

Detroit Race Course was bulldozed in 1999 and replaced with retail stores (Costco, Meijer, Home Depot, etc . . .) and a corporate office building.

Anonymous said...

Here is one that no one has mentioned....Audubon Park in Henderson, Ky. It raced Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds in the '50's. It later became Midwest Harness and finally Riverside Downs. The last racing there was Quarter Horse racing in the late '80's. It is a training center now and just last Dec. they had another fire in which over 20 Thoroughbreds died. It should be shut down as there have been four deadly fires, but because Ellis Park refuses to let local horsemen train there throughout the year, Riverside stays open.

ballyfager said...

Enjoyed your list. Some observations:

There was, briefly, a track in Las Vegas called Thunderbird Downs.

There was a track in Alabama (can't recall the name).

Liberty Bell Park in Philly which ran both TBs & trotters.

Bing Crosby, who built Del Mar, also I think owned Tanforan at one time.

zraces said...

Roosevelt Raceway was huge as a trotting track in Long Island, N.Y. It is a huge shopping mall now. How about a list of newly opened tracks since the turn of the century? Bet it won't be a very long list.
Presque Isle...

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this great piece, and for mentioning the one I miss most: Garden State! I have lived 10 mins drive from GS my whole life. It was a fixture here. I am heartsick that this grand park could not be saved. Such history, bulldozed over for more shopping and condos! There was a large mural of Secretariat that hung there........I wonder what became of that. When I do go to the shopping complex, I feel like I'm walking over some ancient burial ground, like I'm committing a sacrilege of sorts. A sad epiloge: Recently one of the last vestiges of the park, a bronze horse statue that still stood at the old site, was stolen under cover of darkness and sold for SCRAP before the thieves were caught.

Anonymous said...


I'm from NJ- right on the river, tho. Used to pass by Liberty Bell all the time as a kid on the way to my cousin's house in the NE. Found this site:

Unknown said...

Hoosier , Indiana ,Yavapai Downs, North Dakota Horse Park , Emerald Downs , Retama , Lone Star , Sam Houston , Zia Park , Mountaineer ( old Waterford), Pinnacle are all racetracks built in the last 20 years. While the article is interesting , I don't get the point of it. BUsinesses open and close in every industry

Anonymous said...

Is it true the main gate from Jerome Park is now at Belmont?

Anonymous said...

i had ragtag circus and earl of milldale at centennial one year won every older horse stake except the rocky mountain empire was second with earl carrying 129 pounds beat a nose by high rover with 115. loved centennial raced at a lot of tracks but can't say i liked Santa Anita or CD better.
nice memories

Anonymous said...

As Eeyore said (about Havre De Grace)- Thanks for noticing. Lived there 95-01 and seems no one knew anything about it, though I had pics and many horses are still in training in Harford County. Grounds are apparently now part of the Havre De Grace High School complex.

Anonymous said...

A fantastic resource for me as I write the history of 1000 World Wide racecourses. See section 8 of my website where I am currently up to 295
If you can be of help in providing further details or old pictures then email me

Anonymous said...

Dennis Tierney said

The most beautiful infield I ever saw was at Rockingham Park in the summer of'65. It must have contained a million flowers. We also visited Scarborough Downs in Maine that year. Wooden benches and the cool August nights.
We hit Green Mountain Park as well. The announcer would close the evening's card with the reminder to drive carefully, the life you save may be a horseplayer!
Two regrets. First, I did not see Hollywood Park before they installed the turf course and did away with the goosegirl. Second I did not visit old Gulfstream Park when the aesthetic Donns ran the show.

Unknown said...

Mary great work
Have you any info about Empire Ractrack in operated in the early 1900's--probably into the 30's or 40's
My father bet there and he told me about it...
Ritch Gaiti

Anonymous said...

My dad was a jockey way way back, I have a picture of him at shenandoah handicap WV in 1939.
by any chance do you know of any records from that time?. I only have a few pictures of my father. Best Jonathan Page

Mary Forney's Blog said...

Glebe, I will go through my research materials and see if I can find anything on Empire Racetrack. Will let you know what I find! Mary

Mary Forney's Blog said...

Jonathan, I don't have any records of Shenandoah Handicap, but I'll see what I can dig up! Mary

Anonymous said...


Kudos for a great trip down memory lane.
Add one harness track: Brandywine Raceway, just outside Wilmington, Del. The state legislature failed to pass a racino bill by one vote. Brandywine, the most beautiful of harness tracks, was Stanley Dancer's favorite.

Anonymous said...

can any help me locate a jockey's agent working at waterford park wv in the 1960's. the jockey's name was george,the agent went by "butch" real name was salvatore, ithink.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Miles Parks barns aren't in use. It was in Louisville at old state fairground, not in Lexington, where Thoroughbred Training Center is located. Miles Park became Commonwealth Race Course in 1974-75, then closed. They raced some quarter horses for a couple years in late 70s until some punk neighborhood kids torched the place. Shame. Commonwealth was neat, four chutes (4 1/2f, 5 1/2f, about a mile & 1 1/16 mile chutes.

Anonymous said...

This is both interesting and sad! One correction: Sheepshead Bay opened in 1880, not 1894.

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