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History Challenge: Shuttered tracks offer look into racing's roots
An old German proverb goes: “To change and to change for the better are two different things.”
The first recognized racecourse in America opened in Long Island, N.Y., 350 years ago. It would be impossible to recount the tracks that have come and gone since that time.
This fall, two tracks that had been icons since the 1930s are gone. Hollywood Park, home of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984, went under the wrecking ball this year. The Inglewood, Calif., course opened in 1938 and added a regular fall meeting in 1981.
Fairplex, the Los Angeles County Fair – known for its first 50 years as Pomona – closed its doors this year. Since 1933, Pomona had ushered in the fall with a mixed-breed meeting. It may have been a county fair but only in name. In its heyday, attendance on Saturdays often neared or surpassed 25,000, and daily average handle put it on par with many of the nation’s biggest tracks.
Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1964, the richest race of the year was run at Garden State Park in New Jersey – the Garden State Stakes. And Tanforan, California’s oldest operating racetrack (opened in 1899), was running its annual fall meet at Bay Meadows after a fire destroyed the fabled track a few months earlier. Garden State ceased racing in 2001, Bay Meadows in 2008. Tanforan never reopened.
Also that fall, the Florida season was ending with the Tropical Park meeting near Coral Gables. Tropical closed in 1972.
One hundred years ago in 1914, racing was beginning a slow recovery following the closure of more than 300 tracks during the first decade of the century.
Test your knowledge of racetracks that were making headlines in the fall of 1914.
1. In late October 1914, general manager Matt Winn announced that 800 to 900 horses were expected to be on the grounds for the Thanksgiving Day opening of the Jockey Club Juarez, just across the international border from El Paso, Texas.
This marked the sixth season at the Mexican track that was built in 1909 by Winn (Mr. Kentucky Derby), James Butler Sr. (owner of Empire City in New York), and several other prominent horsemen.
With betting on horses outlawed in Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, and Tennessee, that left no winter racing in the United States.
“Unless there is winter racing, the sport can hardly survive,” Winn wrote in his 1945 autobiography, “Down the Stretch.”
Racing on Juarez’s 1 1/8-mile oval was an immediate success, and despite a series of revolutions that went on in that country from the time of construction until Winn and his partners abandoned the track in 1917, many of the nation’s top trainers and jockeys made their winter homes in El Paso.
While it was generally referred to by the city name, the track at Juarez had a name. What was it?
2. Chairman August Belmont announced Oct. 10, 1914, that the stewards of The Jockey Club had approved dates for the fourth winter meeting at Charleston, S.C.
Matt Winn was not the only one to recognize the desperate need horsemen had for racing in the winter. A group of businessmen convened in the historic South Carolina city in late 1911 and came up with an ambitious plan to build a racetrack four miles from the town center.
While construction was ongoing, legislators in the capital, Columbia, were busy drafting bills to outlaw gambling on horses. They eventually lost in the state Supreme Court, and the inaugural meeting of the new track began Jan. 24, 1912.
The 1914-15 meeting was conducted from Dec. 2 to Jan. 2. Little did anyone know that it would be the last ever held. Name the racetrack. What happened in 1915?
3. In the fall of 1914, horsemen were anxiously awaiting the grand opening of what was billed as a fabulous new track in one of America’s favorite foreign tourist destinations – Havana, Cuba.
A huge steel grandstand – 400 feet in length with seating for 10,000 – was nearing completion and expected to be ready for the opening-day card Dec. 24.
Rain and mud twice delayed completion, but the track finally opened to rave reviews Jan. 14, 1915.
Havana, with its glamorous hotels, casinos, and racetrack, was a favorite winter vacation destination for high society from both America and Europe and remained so until the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. Name the racetrack.
4. On Nov. 4, 1914, this track was closing the Kentucky racing season with the signature event of its fall meeting – a 2 1/4-mile handicap offering a purse of $2,500 added.
Located just outside the city of Covington, Ky., only a few miles from downtown Cincinnati, this course opened in 1883 on 109 acres. Success in later years resulted in an expansion of the facilities to cover 173 acres.
In 1914, this racetrack led the nation in total purse distribution ($215,505), as it had for the previous three years and as it would do every year through 1927. This was due in large part to the fact that it raced roughly 45 days a year during two meetings – one in the summer and the other in the fall. Name the racetrack.
5. When racing shut down in New York in 1910, the only major tracks to continue racing in America were in Maryland and Kentucky. Those two states were successful in repelling anti-gambling zealots, but not without legal battles.
Maryland rushed to build three new tracks: Laurel Park (opened 1911), Havre de Grace (1912), and Bowie (1914).
New York was the first state to return to racing (in 1913), but three important tracks in the Empire State (Brighton Beach, Gravesend, and Sheepshead Bay) never reopened.
Excitement was brewing in the fall of 1914, when it was announced that racing would return to a second state Jan. 1, 1915, and one of the nation’s oldest racetracks would reopen. Name the state and track.
1. The track at Juarez was named Terrazas Park, after Don Luis Terrazas, one of the richest men in Mexico. Terrazas’s ranch encompassed an incredible 8 million acres, with 1 million head of cattle, 300,000 sheep, and 100,000 wild horses.
Terrazas was happy to give Winn and his partners a piece of land near Juarez upon which to build the track.
The original designs called for a wooden grandstand, but there were so many rocks available from nearby silver-mining operations that the grandstands, roads, and walkways were eventually made with rock and concrete.
The racetrack was problematic. In wet weather, it was unbelievably slow. When the weather was dry, it was very hard. At one time or another during the decade, world records were set for numerous distances, including five furlongs, six furlongs, and one mile.
Likely the most famous horse to race at Terrazas Park was Hall of Famer Pan Zareta, whose grave resides in the infield at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, next to that of the legendary Black Gold, the winner of the 50th Kentucky Derby.
Pan Zareta raced 34 times at Juarez, setting a track, North American, or world time record on five occasions.
Despite the revolutions that went on in Mexico during the eight years in which Winn and his colleagues operated Terrazas Park, Winn’s charm, warm personality, and political savvy always managed to keep the Juarez track out of the battlegrounds.
With winter racing back in the States and the Mexican revolution growing more dangerous, Winn and company abandoned the track in 1917.
2. The Charleston Fair and Racing Association operated Palmetto Park in Charleston, S.C. The track was built during 1911 at a cost of about $150,000. It featured an infield of grass, flowers, and a lagoon. The grandstand was 250 feet in length, with seating for 6,000.
The original meeting in 1912 encompassed 75 days with 20 stakes, highlighted by the $3,000 Palmetto Derby, which rewarded the winner $2,500.
As new opportunities opened up for American horsemen, Palmetto reduced its racing dates to fewer than 30 by the 1914-15 season.
In late September 1915, an early-morning fire destroyed the grandstand and 200 stalls. The fire was believed to have been the result of defective electrical wiring. Ill-equipped firefighters made no attempt to save the grandstand.
With 600 barns unharmed by the fire, Palmetto was reopened for winter stabling and training. For years thereafter, Palmetto became “probably the best winter training grounds in the country,” according to a Daily Racing Form writer. “Many of the big racing establishments that do not race horses during the winter have taken up quarters,” he added.
3. Oriental Park, in Marianao, Cuba, about 10 miles from the center of Havana, was a popular racetrack for more than 40 years after its delayed start in 1915.
At the time of its opening, it was a five-hour trip for horses by ferry and train from the Florida coast directly to a train stop near the track stables.
Oriental Park was the brainchild of Harry D. “Curly” Brown, a prominent racetrack executive, steward, starter, and bettor. Brown was involved in the building of City Park in New Orleans, Laurel Park in Maryland, and Moncrief Park in Jacksonville, Fla. He would later build and preside over Arlington Park near Chicago.
Over the years, many prominent horsemen began their careers at Oriental Park, including Hall of Fame trainers Laz Barrera and Frank “Pancho” Martin and Hall of Fame jockey Avelino Gomez.
In 1950, jockeys Bill Shoemaker and Joe Culmone were locked in a battle for leading rider of the year. There was no racing in America on Dec. 31 because it was a Sunday, so Shoemaker went to Agua Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico, to ride, and Culmone went to Oriental Park. The two riders ended up tied with 388 winners each, equaling a record set in 1906 by Walter Miller.
4. The long-distance Latonia Cup was a popular feature of each fall meeting at Latonia Racecourse, on par with the Latonia Derby, run during the summer meeting.
Until the track was marginalized by being forced into the Western Turf Association (headed by Matt Winn, whose main goal was to support and build up Churchill Downs) in the late 1920s, Latonia was rated among the major tracks in the country.
Many of the nation’s leading horses and jockeys competed at Latonia. The high-water mark in the track’s history came Oct. 11, 1924 – the International Special No. 3 – a race that attracted the best horse in Europe, Epinard, and the top stars in America, including two future Hall of Famers, Princess Doreen and Sarazen (who won the race by 1 1/2 lengths over Epinard and collected $55,500).
Latonia closed in 1939. Twenty years later, New Latonia opened 10 miles away in Florence, Ky. It was renamed Turfway Park in 1987.
5. In November 1914, work was feverishly under way to refurbish Fair Grounds in New Orleans for the return of racing to the state of Louisiana on New Year’s Day 1915. Reporters taken on a tour of the plant were “astonished” by the progress and improvements.
Like New York, the laws against bookmaking remained in place, but as in the Empire State, the new leadership of Fair Grounds felt it could get around them by having only oral betting between individuals.
The track opened to a record crowd with well-dressed “bonded stakeholders” positioned in the Palm Garden and paddock area to collect envelopes containing money on bets made between two individuals. One of the two would return after the race to collect the envelope. The track charged an additional admission fee for the Palm Garden and paddock area.
During the meeting, the district attorney and state attorney general said they found no violation of the law with the oral betting between individual fans in place at Fair Grounds.
Hollywood Park is still standing and has not met the wrecking ball.