HORSE RACING in New Jersey
The definitive history.
Horse racing in New Jersey was a popular but informal affair during the 1700s and early 1800s. With so many horse farms in the state, it was only natural that the country’s first racetrack—Freehold Raceway—was in New Jersey. It began operation in the 1830s and beginning in the 1850s, harness racing was the centerpiece of the Monmouth County Fair. Freehold Raceway is still active today, and has been home to the prestigious Cane Pace since the mid-1950s. It is one of two harness tracks in New Jersey, along with the Meadowlands.
During the 1860s and 1870s, several tracks were active in New Jersey, including large ones in Ho-Ho-Kus, Clifton, North Bergen and Paterson in the north, Vernon in the west, and Long Branch in the South. With the growth of the Jersey Shore as a summer resort for the wealthy, Long Branch Racetrack (aka Monmouth Park) became the state’s first grand racing venue when it opened in 1870. The Monmouth Cup, Champion Stakes and Freehold Stakes were held at Long Branch Racetrack in the 1800s. Among the famous jockeys who raced there were Jim McLaughlin, winner of the Belmont Stakes six times during the 1880s, and Isaac Murphy, the legendary African American star who won three Kentucky Derbies. In 1886, the legendary sprinter Tremont won the 11th of his 13 victories in an undefeated career.
Long Branch Racetrack and its owners ranked among the most influential figures in the thoroughbred racing world, and helped form the Jockey Club in 1894. Ironically, New Jersey outlawed gambling on horse racing that same year. It continued on in a handful of venues, including Weequahic Park in Newark, purely as entertainment, although there is no doubt that illegal wagering continued. The Weequahic Park track had been one of the state’s most popular in the 1870s and 1880s. President Ulysses Grant had once taken in the races there.
Horse Racing—or, more accurately, betting on horse racing—remained illegal in New Jersey until the 1940s. Racehorses were bred and trained in the Garden State beginning in the 1800s, but they plied their trade in other states and, occasionally, in other countries.
This took a lot of jobs and revenue out of the state and, ultimately, put wagering on the ponies in the hands of organized crime. This put a burden on law enforcement budgets and generated no tax revenues. In 1939, New Jerseyans went to the polls to vote on a state amendment to allow pari-mutuel betting at state racetracks. The result was three new race tracks that formed New Jersey’s Golden Triangle of thoroughbred racing.
The first track to get up and running was in Cherry Hill. Garden State Park opened in the summer of 1942. The Garden, as it was known, played host to the Jersey Derby, one of the nation’s premier races in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the Garden State Stakes and Gardenia Stakes—a pair of high-stakes races for two-year-olds. During its heyday, Garden State Park saw the likes of Citation and Secretariat. In 1972, Secretariat (at the time a two-year-old) scored a thrilling victory at the Garden State Stakes. He trailed by 15 lengths on the backstretch but closed in the final half-mile to win by 3 ½ lengths over Angle Light. The victory helped Secretariat win Horse of the Year honors.
The Garden actually spurred a wave of development that transformed Cherry Hill into something of a hot spot in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The owners of a Philadelphia hot spot called the Latin Casino moved it across the street from The Garden and it featured the top performers of the day, from Harry Belafonte to Milton Berle. In the late 1950s, the Philadelphia Phillies briefly considered building a new ballpark next to area. At the time, beer sales were illegal at sporting events in Philadelphia an Connie Mack Stadium was a half-century old. Racing also took place at the nearby Mount Holly Fairgrounds, which featured one of the first double-decked grandstands in the country.
A fire in 1977 destroyed the grandstand, and the park was closed to racing for eight years, finally reopening with a new glass and steel grandstand in 1985. Competition from Atlantic City casinos prevented The Garden from recapturing its past glory, and closed for good in 2001.
Monmouth Park opened in Long Branch in 1946 as a one-mile dirt oval. It was actually built on the site of an auto racing track that was part of the country fairgrounds in the early 1900s. Since 1968, Monmouth Park’s marquee event has been the Haskell Invitational, the major race between the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup series. The event was named after Amory Haskell, who was instrumental in bringing racing back to New Jersey in the 1940s. Among the more memorable Haskell moments was the showdown between Bet Twice and Alysheba—one of nine times the horses met in 1987. Bet Twice won by less than a length. At the 2013 Haskell, Verrazano won by a record 9 ¾ lengths over a field that included Preakness winner Oxbow. Verrazano’s owners had pledged a portion of his Haskell winnings to the Hurricane Sandy relief organization Save the Jersey Shore.
Another track that opened in 1946 was the Atlantic City Race Track in Mays Landing. The 1 1/8-mile track was backed by a consortium that included Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Harry James and Xavier Cugat. During the 1940s and 1950s, Atlantic City was regarded as one of the nation’s top tracks. However after gambling came to Atlantic City, it dramatically reduced attendance and revenues, and the track scaled back its live racing days to just a handful each year.
The Meadowlands became a venue for both harness and thoroughbred racing in the late 197s with the opening of the Meadowlands Racetrack. Thoroughbred racing takes place in the fall, with the trotters run the rest of the year. The meadowlands host the Hambletonian, the second leg of the Trotting Triple Crown. At various times in the last 20 years, the Meadowlands Racetrack has been considered for a NASCAR short-track.