Thoroughbred Race Tracks in the U.S., 1909-2009

Mar 22nd 2009 06:48 pm |

Revised: March 23, 2009

The collapse of Magna and the looming depression have inspired talk about what it will mean for racing. Many lament the inevitable “death” of racing but here at Colin’s Ghost we like to take the long view.

If we look back and consider how much the sport has grown in the last 100 years, the rumors of its pending death are false. Even if the future brings a significant retraction in the number of tracks, racing will still be better off then it was 100 years ago when the sport was nearly legislated out of existence.

Image: Ad for Sportsman’s Park (Cicero, Illinois), one of over 100 thoroughbred racing venues established in the last century (American Racing Manual)

Consider this: In 1909, gambling on racing was illegal in most states. Tracks in New York – the very place that modernized and popularized the sport – were less than a year away from shutting their doors. If racing was going to die, it would have happened then.

When New York tracks re-opened in 1913, after being closed by anti-gambling legislation in 1910, the long term success of racing remained a question. In 1941, The Bloodhorse wrote the following about the state of American thoroughbred racing in 1916:

“In the United States there were exactly 15 major race tracks, and nearly all of them were centered in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York. In Louisville were Churchill Downs and Douglas Park. Across the Ohio from Cincinnati was Latonia. In Lexington was the ancient Kentucky Association course. Maryland offered racing at Pimlico, Havre de Grace, Bowie, and Laurel. In New York there were Saratoga, Belmont, Aqueduct, Jamaica, and Empire City.

“The Fair Grounds kept the sport alive during the winter season in New Orleans. Hawthorne was operating in Chicago, having been revived that very year by the Illinois Jockey Club for the first time since racing was suspended in 1904.

“Except for a few small scattered courses, these were all the tracks there were.”

Since 1909, according to an unscientific calculation (see below), at least 115 new tracks have been built or reestablished. Approximately 70 still host live thoroughbred racing.  Nine tracks still in operation were established before 1909. (The number of the early tracks still standing is amazing considering baseball’s propensity for building “old-time” reconstructions and tearing down places like Yankee Stadium and Comiskey Park.)  

We have built, on average, at least one thoroughbred track per year in the last one-hundred years. Compared to the fifteen or so racing venues a century ago, we are better off then we were in 1909 even if the current downturn results in the closure of over half the current tracks.

People raced horses since their domestication thousands of years ago. Colonists were racing here generations before the American Revolution. As gloomy as the outlook for racing might be in 2009 – we are not the generation that will witness its end. While it might be beneficial in some circles to preface arguments with the tired lament that “racing is a dying sport” – in taking the long view – I am happy to report that racing will survive long after we are gone.

Chronology of Thoroughbred Racing Venues 1909 to 2009

The spreadsheet below includes a list of tracks built for thoroughbred racing from 1909 to the present and the ten built before 1909 still in operation. The tracks are listed in chronological order based on the inaugural meet date. It was compiled using American Racing Manuals from 1947, 1957, 1968, 1981, and 2008. This list is not comprehensive and probably has a fair share of errors. I will gladly update it as needed so please send me an email or leave a comment if you have corrections, omissions, or contributions.  (See below spreadsheet for more on the methodology)

(If the spreadsheet does not appear, check it out here)

NOTE (3/23):  The opening date for some tracks is debatable. For example, Monmouth and some of the California fair tracks hosted racing in the 19th century but were not re-etablished as racing venues until the legalization of pari-mutal racing.  In these cases, I have listed them with their “modern” opening dates.  Also, some tracks like Las Vegas Downs and East Moline Downs were short lived as thoroughbred racing venues so I did not include them here.  A huge thanks to all who have commented — please keep them coming!

At some point, I plan to do a follow up to document the closing dates for these venues. That will require a little more leg work then flipping through Racing Manuals. Trying to juggle the NCAA Tournament and putting the above together was all I could manage this weekend.

Caveat: While I disagree with the notion that racing is dying, it has plenty of room for improvement as pointed out in some recent commentary from two of my favorite bloggers Green But Game and Equispace.

THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!

Filed in death of horseracing,Race Tracks, United States,thoroughbred racing history



24 Responses to “Thoroughbred Race Tracks in the U.S., 1909-2009”

  1. Jessica says:

    Missing: Rockingham Park, which opened for a 21-day Thoroughbred meet in 1906, was forced to close after three days because racing was illegal. It raced on and off until the 1930s, when gambling was legalized, and it then became an important track on the New England circuit. It’s harness racing now, but Thoroughbreds raced there as recently as 2004.

  2. Colins Ghost says:

    Thanks Jessica. Change has been made. Detailed time line for Rockingham available here: http://www.rockinghampark.com/history.html

  3. Sally says:

    What happened to the racetrack in Northampton, Ma?

    I went to college there.

  4. Sally says:

    ps Love that image on your header. Could you say a little about it?

  5. Pull the Pocket says:

    Boy, that is some damn good work!

  6. Colins Ghost says:

    Sally: Northampton was one of the tracks on the Massachusetts fair circuit. Bill Finley wrote and excellent piece about it in 2005: http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/horse/columns/story?columnist=finley_bill&id=2267707

    The header image is Colin with his excercise rider Marshall Lilly aboard likely taken in either 1907 or 1908. The image appeared in H.P Robertsons History of Thorughbred Racing in America.

    Pull the Pocket: Thanks!

  7. Teresa says:

    As I research the various races I write about, I find quotations from fifty, seventy-five, a hundred years ago that could be lifted verbatim and put into a publication today with utter accuracy: about gambling, about stewards, about drugs, about cheating, about horses retiring too early, about horses racing too little. It’s illuminating to realize that the “good old days” of racing were not, in fact, all that different from today, in many ways.

    Thanks, as always, for giving us the long view…this is terrific.

  8. EquiSpace says:

    Wow, excellent research…I too, find it amazing how many of these tracks are still around with the amount of upkeep required…

    PS..thanks for the kinds words and the link.

  9. Steve says:

    One track not on the list is East Moline Downs. Opened in 1973 with thoroughbreds. Promptly went bankrupt. It’s now a simulcast facility.

  10. Sally says:

    Thanks for the link to the article on Northampton racing. It reminded me a little of the goofy races that are run on a circuit in Southwest Colorado, with betting limited to win bets and calcuttas and some pretty unusual looking jockeys.

    Last summer we saw a little gray throw her rider in the parade and charge all around the track chased by cowboys. Then her rider got back on, the race commenced, and they won.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The Woodlands (Dog and Horse Track) in Kansas City, KS opened in 1989 and was closed in Aug 2008.

    “The company that operates the Woodlands announced Tuesday that it will close the dog and horse track next month, after it failed to reach a deal with the Kansas Lottery for slot machines.

    The Woodlands, owned by Grace Cos. of St. Joseph, Mo., and operated by Kansas Racing, opened in 1989 with revenues peaking in 1990 at $197 million. But the track has struggled since Missouri’s riverboat casinos opened in 1994, with wagers dropping each year.”

    http://www.kctv5.com/money/16957429/detail.html

  12. o_crunk says:

    Great post.

    Could Monmouth really be considered to be built before 1909? For over 50 years NJ had banned racing. The current Monmouth didn’t re-open until 1946 and not technically, as far as I know, on the old site.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t get that ‘old’ feeling from MTH like I do at SAR. There’s something about the non-continuity about MTH that should disqualify it.

    I’ve always wondered about racing ‘off the record’. There had to be a lot of racing done in areas where it was banned and probably no documentation left behind.

  13. dana says:

    Great post, as always… definitely refreshing to step back and realize that the sky is not falling.

    And thanks for the kind words and link!

  14. Wind Gatherer says:

    I have a hard time making coffee and a bowl of cereal. Damn fine work.

  15. Anonymous says:

    You have left out La Mesa Park that ran in Raton New Mexico for several years from the late 50’s to the early 80’s.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the site, and the work put into the list. However, there are 2 tracks not listed that I attended in the early 1970s. Pitt Park, near Pittsburgh(not sure if this is the current The Meadows harness track), and Liberty Bell Park near Philadelphia. I think Liberty Bell has been torn down. I can’t seem to find any info on them anywhere. Again, thanks for the great work.

    Sam

  17. Anonymous says:

    COULD NOT FIND BERKSHIRE DOWNS OR LAS VEGAS DOWNS ON THE LIST

  18. ed says:

    any articles on the massachusetts fair circuit

  19. Dave says:

    Nice article, hope you’re still involved with this.

    I’m not sure of the criteria for inclusion on the above lists but a few that come
    to mind are:

    Aurora Downs, IL 1920s -1930s then harness in late 50’s
    Birmingham, AL late 1980s or early 1990s. Now dogs
    Columbus, NE, still operating now
    Madison Downs, NE closed
    Agawam Park, ME closed
    Tanforan, CA 1920s then reopened in 1930s now closed
    Mt Pleasant Meadows, MI still operating

    equibase website shows all tracks currently operating. There are a lot of
    small county fairs that run a few days that you are not probably interested
    in.

  20. RW says:

    Great list. Never been there but placed a few bets with the bookie at Green Moutain, believe NH or Conn. and Lincoln Downs think that was RI. Be nice to add a column on date closed/out of biz and size of track !M, 3/4. 13/16 etc.
    Asterick fires and rebuilds.

  21. Lee R says:

    RW: Green Mountain was in Pownal, VT. The old site is still deserted, with the stalls, etc. having been torn down only a couple of years ago (I live about 10 miles away).

    Anonymous, posting on 5/31/09: Liberty Bell was in the city of Philadelphia, and breifly ran thoroughbreds while a new track was planned and built.

    Berkshire Downs was briefly open in the 1960s (Pittsfield, MA), and ended up getting Sinatra in trouble with Congress.

    Agawam Park, where Sea Biscuit won the Springfield Handicap in 1935, was in Massachusetts, just outside of Springfield.

  22. Kevin says:

    Hello Everyone and many thanks for the comments. I appreciate any and all information posted about racetracks in the comments. The original list was for tracks that were still running as of 2009. One of these days, I will revisit this and update it will all the info that has been left over the years. Thanks again for the comments and please keep them coming! Kevin

  23. gary says:

    the las vegas track asked about in one of your posts was thunderbird downs (40’s or 50’s) i think.
    also ive heard rumors of a racetrack in stuebenville, oh., back around late 1800’s or early 1900’s, i think it may have been named fort stueben park but am not sure, just heard old stories.

    great site ,great work, thanks

  24. Alan says:

    Interesting list, very good.

    For a few years there was a track somewhere in western Pennsylvania called Pitt Park. For the life of me I can’t find anything anywhere about that track.

    Also, if quarter horse tracks are included, there were two in NYS – Tioga Downs (now a harness track, Tioga Park) and Parr Meadows in Yaphank, NY (Long Island)

    Both ran as quarter horse tracks for only two or three years each.

    Someone mentioned Liberty Bell Park in Cornwells Heights, PA. Running thoroughbreds was a temporary thing in order for the developers of Keystone Park (aka Philadelphia Park aka Parx) to raise money to build Keystone. The thoroughbred meets up at Pocon Downs were also temporary, for the same purpose. Once Keystone was completed and operational, both Pocono Downs and Liberty Bell Park went back to strictly harness races.

    Also, at one time they ran thoroughbred races at Dover Downs in Delaware, that ended circa 1970 or so, not sure when that started.