05/09/2012 8:27AM

Pandolfo: Book tells of history of New England harness racing

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This book on the history of harness racing in New England is one of three books on horse racing written by Robert Temple.

Have you ever heard of Readville Trotting Park? The Boston track was the top harness track in the country in the early 1900s. The track is immortalized by author Robert Temple in his well-researched book "The History of Harness Racing in New England." Temple was a sports writer for the Boston Herald Traveler in the 1960s and early 70s and worked for various racetracks in his career.

Temple has actually written three books about the history of racing in New England. In addition to the book on Harness racing, Temple has two other books, "The Pilgrims Would Be Shocked: the History of Thoroughbred Racing in New England," and "The History of Greyhound Racing in New England." All three books are available at popular online bookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

We all know about the immortal pacer Dan Patch, who, incidentally, raced in New England 9 times at three tracks. I don’t know much about Greyhound racing, so I asked Bob Temple, “Who was the Dan Patch of dog racing?”

His name was Rural Rube. He raced from 1938 through 1940, won 51 races in 83 starts and finished in the money 77 times.  Rural Rube set two world records including 5/16 in 31 seconds. At a dinner in his honor, he sat at the head table with a napkin tied around his neck, posed for newsreels and cameras, bowed to the crowd, and was given a solid gold collar designed by a famous jeweler.

Greyhound racing in New England came to an end in 2010. Although the sport was losing popularity, its demise was not all financial. Several states banned greyhound racing after animal rights groups claimed that dog racing was inhumane. Greyhound racing was conducted in New England for over six decades and at one time there were 12 greyhound tracks. There are still 13 greyhound tracks in Florida but only 22 nationwide that are still operating. In the 1940s, over 40 million people attended dog tracks each year.

I also spoke to Bob Temple about his Thoroughbred book. I was surprised to hear that at one time in New England there were 16 active Thoroughbred racetracks in five states. And four of the tracks outdrew the Red Sox, Celtics, and Boston Bruins combined. Now Suffolk Downs is the only Thoroughbred track left. Suffolk will open for its 76th season on June 2 this year. The meet has been cut to 80 days from 100 last year. Suffolk is competing for casino licenses in Massachusetts.

Harness racing is still alive in New England but there are only three harness tracks left. When I started following the sport in the 1970s, I visited harness tracks in Vermont (Green Mountain) and New Hampshire (Hinsdale), but they are gone. According to Temple, throughout the history of New England there have been over 100 harness tracks (including fairs).
Rhode Island had harness racing at Narragansett Trotting Park in Cranston, a track owned by the Sprague family, who made a fortune in the textile industry. But tragedy hit when a family member, Amasa Sprague, was bludgeoned to death near his mansion. A man named Robert Johnson was found guilty and hanged. But evidence was later uncovered that proved his innocence. This blunder led to the abolition of the death penalty in Rhode Island.

Connecticut is the only New England state that never had parimutuel horse racing (it had jai-alai and greyhound racing), but it had numerous fairs and tracks including the most famous, Charter Oak Park in West Hartford, which opened in 1873.

There are two active harness track racinos in Maine, Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs. The only other harness track in New England is Plainridge in Massachusetts. Rockingham Park, which opened 106 years ago, has hosted both harness and Thoroughbred racing in its great history. In 2003 Rockingham installed a new track surface and switched to harness racing exclusively. But Rockingham stopped racing after the 2009 season and is now only used for simulcasting. The great trotter Greyhound, the “Grey Ghost,” won his first career start at Rockingham in 1933.

You may remember some of the horsemen who started their careers and excelled in New England: Jim Doherty, Jim Hogan, Billy Faucher, Bert Bechwith, Billy O’Donnell, Bucky Day, Ted Wing, Bruce Ranger, Leigh Fitch, David Ingraham, Gary Mosher, Arthur Nason, and Walter Case Jr. Some of the horses in the New England Harness Racing Hall of Fame include Billy Direct, Meadow Skipper, Mountain Skipper, No No Yankee, and Yankee Bambino. I recall betting the classy Mountain Skipper quite a few times when he ventured south to Roosevelt Raceway for Arthur Nason. Mountain Skipper was the New England Pacer of the Year for three straight years and also won aged pacer of the year.

New England had the honor of hosting the greatest horses, drivers, owners and trainers at its numerous tracks and was the birthplace of Justin Morgan, one of the foundation sires of the Standardbred breed.

Temple’s book "The History of Harness Racing" is loaded with historical facts and anecdotes, and has several pages of photos and illustrations. Temple writes about the tracks, the horses, the horsemen, the men who owned and operated the tracks, and the people who fought against legalized gambling.

Several people, including John “Bet A Million” Gates, lost a lot of money trying to open racetracks in New England. Author Robert Temple credits entrepreneur Lou Smith with saving racing in New England. Smith was one of six children of a poor Russian Jewish immigrant family from Passaic, N.J. He fought to overturn three hundred years of puritanical resistance to wagering, finally getting a law passed in 1933 to allow parimutuel betting in New Hampshire. Smith ran Rockingham Park, which opened in 1933. Rockingham became the leading tourist attraction in New Hampshire, employed thousands of people, and was a top revenue generator. Other New England states that had rejected gambling legislation came aboard when they saw Rockingham’s success.

Smith, a charitable man who was known as “Uncle Lou,” had a simple philosophy for success: “Give people good entertainment at a fair price and they will come.” When he opened Rockingham in 1933, admission was $1 and parking was free, and it stayed that way until he died in 1969.

Readville Trotting Park hosted harness racing for over 30 years from the late 1890s until the end of the 1920s when auto racing had taken over the track, although the two coexisted for many years. The track closed during World War II. What I find amazing is that parimutuel racing wasn’t approved in New England until the 1930s but harness racing was still very popular.

In 1895, the New England Trotting Horse Breeders’ Association began construction of Readville, a mile track, with grandstands, bleachers, stables and a hotel. When the track was officially opened on Aug. 25, 1896, it was immediately recognized as one of the premier venues for harness racing in the United States. In 1903, history was made at Readville when a five-year-old mare named Lou Dillon became the first trotter to go a two-minute mile.

The site of the track is now a Stop & Shop supermarket. A chain link fence at the end of Hyde Park Avenue marks the old entrance to the Readville Trotting Park. A small strip of land along the fence were all that remained of the original racing grounds. But Robert Temple made sure to it that no one forgot about the historic races that once took place on that property.

Temple lobbied for four and a half years until he finally got the approval to place a marker at Readville Trotting Park. On Oct. 10, 2007, there was a ceremony attended by the Boston mayor Thomas Menino, former Massachusetts governor and ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, other dignitaries, historians, track executives and fans of the sport. Bob Temple placed a marker at the entrance to the famous track where the sport's first two minute trot, first two minute pace and first $50,000 race took place and where Dan Patch himself was undefeated in three starts. Temple referred to Readville as the "Fenway Park of Harness Racing."