11/04/2003 12:00AM

Once grand Garden State is gone

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TUCSON, Ariz. - For those who knew it in its halcyon days under Gene Mori following World War II, for those who watched it burn to the ground in 1977, and for those who saw it rise again as a temple of glitz under Robert Brennan in 1985, Garden State Park, whose destruction began last week, is a painful reminder of racing truths.

Like Dick Duchossois in Chicago with Arlington Park, Brennan rebuilt Garden State after the disaster of fire, partly out of love of racing and partly as a magnificent monument to himself. Convinced that he was unassailable, and flying high on the strength of his handsome blond, blue-eyed image, Brennan poured $140 million into Garden State - his own money and the money of the many people who invested their savings in his penny stocks.

Garden State was rebuilt with a majesty out of step with the times, rising just as simulcasting roared into full life and located just a short ride away from Atlantic City - even glitzier and with slots.

Brennan liked to call it "the racetrack of the 21st century," but in reality it was the last of the 20th. None will be built like it again, for a palace like Garden State no longer is needed.

The vast spaces of Santa Anita and its natural beauty are ideal for gala events like the Breeders' Cup but depressing on days when 5,000 are there. Del Mar, like Monmouth Park, is an outing and an event, with the soothing shore at its beck and call. Churchill Downs is sacrosanct as the home of the Derby, and the huge rebuilding there will glamorize its one huge day even more.

But elsewhere, tracks such as Remington Park and Canterbury Downs and Birmingham Turf Club and Prairie Meadows are architectural remnants and relics of the age of Bill Killingsworth, the MIT wiz who preached the gospel of grandeur just as the television screen was dictating that showy spaciousness no longer was needed for racing prosperity. They were overbuilt not through shortsightedness, but from an inability to see or a misreading of where racing was headed.

The Philadelphia area now has seen the demise of three physically great racetracks. Garden State and the beautiful harness tracks at Liberty Bell Park in northeast Philadelphia and Brandywine Raceway in nearby Wilmington, Del., all are gone.

Garden State is being transformed into a huge complex of 1,659 condominiums, townhomes, and apartments. Liberty Bell and Brandywine are shopping centers.

The economics of racing involve two separate curves, one the rising value of real estate and the other the declining fortunes of ontrack attendance. When those two intersect, the responsibility of management to its shareholders becomes something of a Hobson's Choice: Take what you can get or get nothing.

Even the derivation of that expression has equine connotations. It arose in the 17th century, when the stablekeeper Thomas Hobson in Cambridge, England, would offer his customers only one mount: the horse nearest the stable door.

That dilemma is compounded by a change over the years in the nature of management itself. Racetracks in an earlier era were built largely by sportsmen who loved racing. But the big business of racing today relies far more on lawyers and accountants than it did when horse racing had the legal gambling field to itself and the luxury of operating as a profitable sport with a captive audience.

Despite all those realities, the dissonance of the huge claws and the other monster tools of demolition that began smashing Garden State Park to smithereens last week made a rending sound. To Bob Brennan, locked away from it all for fraud, it had to be the terrible conclusion of a nightmare, the brutal end of what started as a lofty dream.