The Fallen

by Ed Meyer

posted on January 24, 2009 in Educational Articles, General Discussion | 2 Comments >>

When Bay Meadows closed for good last summer, leaving Northern California with only one major Thoroughbred racing venue (Golden Gate Fields), many wondered how such a thing could happen. Bay Meadows, after all, had been a fixture in California horse racing for more than 70 years and was the longest continually operating Thoroughbred track in California.

In Southern California, there is a real possibility that Hollywood Park will shutter its doors for good in the near future, and once again California race fans are wondering what this all means for the future of Thoroughbred racing.

A broad historical perspective reveals that these are certainly not the first great Thoroughbred racetracks to disappear and suggests that they are not likely to be the last.

Some of the first Thoroughbred racetracks in the country flourished in New York before the turn of the 20th century; yet few people even remember their names today: Jerome Park, Morris Park, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay. Even earlier in the 19th century, breeding and racing were showcased in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky at tracks such as the Kentucky Association.

Many other racing centers in the United States, including Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island, Nebraska and California, saw the rise and decline of important racetracks during the last two centuries. Here is a list of a few of them that are gone but hopefully not completely forgotten:

Aksarben (1920 – 1995), Omaha, NE
Aksarben (Nebraska spelled backwards) was an indoor arena and horse racing complex. In the mid-1980’s, Aksarben was 10th in the nation in racetrack attendance. Triple Crown winner Omaha was buried at the track’s Circle of Champions following his death in 1959. After the closure of the racetrack, Horsemen’s Park, a simulcast facility, was opened in Omaha in 1998.

Bowie Race Track (1914 – 1985), Bowie, MD
At one time, the flourishing track was served by the now defunct WB & A Railroad, which brought race fans from New York and Philadelphia. The track still exists as a Thoroughbred training center.

Cumberland Race Track (1924 – 1961), Cumberland, MD
Also known as the Fairgo Racetrack, it was located at what is now the Allegany County Fairgrounds. Cumberland was the first half-mile track in the state of Maryland and was regarded as one of the most beautiful racetracks in the state. It formed part of the Maryland horse racing circuit that included Timonium and Marlboro racetracks. Today the track is used for automobile racing.

Garden State Park (1942 – 2001), Delaware Township, NJ
Known as “the Garden,” in its heyday, Garden State hosted some of the finest Thoroughbred racing in the nation, and legendary horses who competed there included Whirlaway, Citation and Secretariat. With Atlantic City Race Course and Monmouth Park, it was an integral part of what was called the “Golden Triangle” of New Jersey racing. The original grandstand, destroyed by fire in 1977, was rebuilt and the track reopened in 1985, just in time for Spend A Buck to win the Jersey Derby. The grandstand was demolished in 2003 to make room for a mixed-use town center development.

Gravesend Race Track (1887 – 1910), Coney Island, NY
Gravesend was built by the Brooklyn Jockey Club with the backing of wealthy horse owners, the Dwyer brothers. Among the major stakes launched at the track were the Astoria Stakes, Brooklyn Handicap, and Gazelle Handicap. From 1894 through 1908, the track hosted the Preakness Stakes. When New York outlawed racetrack betting in 1910, the facility was closed, and the land was sold to real estate developers in 1920.

Havre de Grace Racetrack (1912 – 1950), Havre de Grace, MD
Nicknamed “The Graw,” it was host to one of the most important races in the Northeast, the Havre de Grace Handicap. In 1920, Man o’ War won the Potomac Handicap at Havre de Grace. In 1936, his son War Admiral won his first race there. Faced with competition from nearby Garden State Park and Delaware Park, Havre de Grace was sold in 1951 to Alfred G. Vanderbilt II, owner of Pimlico Race Course, and Morris Schapiro of Laurel Park, who closed the facility and transferred its racing dates to their own tracks.

Hialeah Park (1921 – 2001), Hialeah, FL
Hileah Park in Hialeah, Florida, is currently at the center of a battle for historical preservation, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its original grandstand was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1926 and subsequently rebuilt in 1930, at which time the famous infield lake was installed and stocked with flamingos. Among its famous races were the Flamingo Stakes and Widener Handicap. In 1987, the horse racing movie Let It Ride with Richard Dreyfuss was filmed at Hialeah Park.