01/27/2016 1:16PM

Marks: Where did all the people go?

Lisa Photo
Large crowds used to be the norm at harness tracks back in the 1970s.

The other day I just happened on a September 19, 1979 Horseman and Fair World magazine and it brought to mind some famous Barbra Streisand lyrics: “Mem’ries, Light the corners of my mind . . . Scattered pictures, of the smiles we left behind.”

I did more than a little perusing just to see exactly where the sport of harness racing actually was long before casinos or racinos became the norm rather than the exception.  

While I clearly remembered the great horses and horsemen that adorned the 190 glossy pages of what was a weekly edition, I found myself most curious to revisit each of the covered racetracks in terms of listed attendance and handle figures, which I’ll just round off to the nearest zero for comprehension purposes. The date utilized will be the closest Saturday or weekend date to the issue’s publication date. 

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With the Meadowlands closed in September, I would have assumed that Yonkers might have had the largest attendance and handle for that weekend but that was incorrect. On a Friday no less, nearly 16,000 fans attended Sportsman’s Park in Chicago and wagered very close to $2 million. The Saturday figures for Sportsman’s were not available, but one could imagine they were similar to the Friday numbers. 

Conversely, for that Saturday Yonkers hosted nearly 13,000 fans who wagered close to $1,900,000 while OTB chipped in slightly over $900,000 in additional monies.

There were two other five figure attendances that weekend, as Hollywood Park’s Friday card attracted 11,500 fans that wagered slightly over $150 a head for a total in excess of $1.6 million. Then the Saturday card at Montreal’s Blue Bonnets Raceway handled $946,000 from an attendance of 10,500.

Then I got really curious and checked all the tracks in each of the reporting States.

In the Delaware Valley region, Brandywine closed on a Saturday with 7,700 spectators betting nearly $530,000. The following Sunday, Liberty Bell lured 9,600 fans who bet over $922,000.

Nearby Freehold Raceway hosted 6,500 Saturday players pouring $813,000 into the mutuel windows.

Northwest of Yonkers at Monticello Raceway, the Sunday card lured 3,400 folks who bet over $362,000 for the daytime card. Another $137,000 came in via New York’s OTB.

The night before, Saratoga’s Saturday program hosted 4,000 fans and handled $292,000. The Spa also gleaned an additional $68,000 via OTB.  Vernon Downs had almost 5,000 on hand and took in $362,000. There was also an additional $26,000 from New York’s OTB. Continuing westward, over 5,100 attended Batavia on Saturday betting $426,000 for the night. Batavia was not carried by OTB at that time.

Thus in the State of New York alone, some 27,400 attended live harness racing collectively betting well over $3 million in addition to what was funneled in via OTB.

In Pennsylvania, Pocono Downs had 2,600 fans handling $267,000. The Meadows that Friday hosted 3,200 fans who bet $290,000. These added to the Liberty Bell figures, gave the Keystone State totals of 15,000 plus attendees and a cumulative handle approaching $1,500,000.

Moving West to Ohio, the following four tracks were open: Scioto Downs, Northfield Park, Raceway Park and Lebanon Raceway.  Scioto in Columbus attracted 6,700 fans who bet $627,000. Northfield south of Cleveland added 4,500 fans and a handle of $458,000. Some 2,800 visited Raceway Park in Toledo and they bet $214,000, while Lebanon piped in with 2,300 and $261,000 in handle.

North of Ohio in Michigan, Detroit’s Hazel Park drew 8,300 to watch the Geers and they bet almost $1.1 million. To the West, Jackson Raceway added 2,500 fans and $201,000 to its coffers.

Back East, 5,600 attended Maryland’s Laurel Raceway wagering $567,000, while New England’s Foxboro Raceway did $356,000 via its 4,700 attendees.

In Louisville it was Kentucky Pacing Derby night at Louisville Downs and some 6,700 fans saw Niatross whip Whamo while sending over $504,000 into the windows.

West of Toronto off highway 401, Mohawk had 3,300 fans and a handle of $473,000 for its non stakes Tuesday card. That was the only card reported but one could imagine the weekend cards especially were more heavily attended.

Approximately 123,000 people attended LIVE harness racing throughout North America on a given September night in 1979 and wagered in the vicinity of $12,600,000.  Adjusted for inflation, that would equate to approximately $42 million today.

That’s the way we were back then.

Where did it all go?  More importantly, where do we go from here?   

[DRF HARNESS LIVE: Real-time insights from the DRF Harness team this Saturday at 6:35 p.m.]


brooklynrichied More than 1 year ago
Simple, really. Too much chalk, an overwhelming number of non-competitive races and too many drivers conceding each race early on. Easy fix there. Only pay out purse money to the top three finishers. I recall one night at Northfield Park about a month or so ago when 7 or 8 winners paid less than $3.00 to win. Not many gamblers will stick around for long if that's how things play out. Nothing like the good old days when any horses routinely made moves on the rim. For an example of what's missing today, pull up the 1970 Cane Pace on youtube and have a look. The race featured Truluck, Columbia George and Most Happy Fella.
Stu Brooks More than 1 year ago
The game has become incredibly boring, is not well marketed and nobody has interest. Its far too late to be fixed. All tracks will simply wind up as brainless casinos. the harness racing industry will die quickly and many, many jobs will be lost. But this is what happens all over our country when businesses operate in a failed manner and they vanish, The game will never see 2020. It has become an unattractive event playing to empty houses. What would happen to a Broadway show if it was a failure. Same thing here. This is nit the 60's or 70;s. Its a different world and those who fail to recognize it are blind. Give all the excuses you lie---the simple fact is corruption and greed wiped out a once beautiful way to spend a day or night. Its over folks
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
Simulcasting..online wagering
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What really killed attendance was simulcasting and adw. I lived in Nebraska and watched attendance at Aksarben fall to 4000 a day once simulcasting started. However, if you included everyone sitting in Grand Island, Lincoln, Columbus, and Sioux City, you had about another 2000 - 2500 (when simulcasting started, these places were packed). However, all that was reported was the 4000 live attendance and doom & gloom, which became a self fulfilling prophecy. In many ways, the doom and gloom was welcomed by the industry as the tracks lobbied to get tax cuts (they were successful) and casino gambling (never happened). They never tried to explain that simulcasting was the primary culprit---sure there was additional competition, but simulcasting was equally responsible. Even today we still want to use only live attendance numbers, even though there are a large number of people (like myself) sitting in my house betting on the horses as well as at simulcast outlets. It seems that many in the industry are obtuse to the fact that the primary appeal of horse racing is gambling and with adw wagering, doesn't have to be done at the track. The focus on live attendance is stressed way to much. Sure, it is nice to have good attendance numbers, but not necessary for a track to find success. If the industry/horseman really want to do better, they should get rid of the adw companies and invest in creating their own, removing the middle player, and quit whining about attendance numbers. This would provide much purse revenue and maybe (long shot) encourage them to reduce takeout. I understand about longing for the days of large live attendance, but I also remember getting shut out at the windows, paying way too much for crappy food, having to pay for good seating, being distracted while handicapping,...
Jeff Biever More than 1 year ago
Great column, Bob, though, as a regular visitor at Liberty Bell, and occasionally at Lebanon (in addition to all the other tracks mentioned), I find those figures a bit high. The old Lebanon would have burst at the seams with 2300 people, and while Sunday night cards at Liberty Bell featured some of the week's best racing, and were well attended, a crowd of almost 10000 seems inflated. Still, casinos, the growth of lotteries, the disappearance from TV, fantasy betting, online poker, and the like, just make these crowds and handles a very distant memory.
Dante Sindori More than 1 year ago
They were once celebrated and treated as celebrities. Who remembers the horse that God loves? Merv Griffin Show booked him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtjE7I9zmJs
Dante Sindori More than 1 year ago
Back then horse racing rivaled baseball for the most attended sport, some years even finishing first. Where have they all gone? Is this a rhetorical question? Insiders have been in denial for some time. They know what happened, but much like Siberia, everyone knows where it is, but nobody wants to go there.