01/27/2016 12:16PM

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?   

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