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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Spring Dreams of an Era Gone By

It is a beautiful day and I was just thinking about how much fun I used to have on my visits to Brandywine Raceway as I would hang around the track enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of the track.  The sounds of hoofs hitting the track as the horses worked out; the sulky wheels making that swishing sound against the track; even the sound of the water spraying from the water truck.  As it got closer to race time, the sun would lower in the backstretch, shimmering over the pond in the middle of the infield.  It wasn't just a night at the races, it was nirvana...

Anyway, I mentioned this on Facebook this morning how I missed those days of Brandywine and one of my Facebook friends Maria Ringler directed me to a note she had on her website which was originally written by a Jay Leimbach. Being assured Jay wouldn't mind, I want to share it with all of you.  Maybe you have similar memories.  Certainly very few from today's generation do.

My love affair with harness racing began in 1962. I was in the eighth grade, when I chanced to see a television show about harness racing's leading driver, Billy Haughton. The spectacle of the horse drawn sulkies dancing around the track really captured my fancy, and soon I began to research the history of the sport in my parent’s library of Encyclopedia Americana yearbooks. I made detailed tables of the season's champions and their fastest miles: horses like ADIOS, TAR HEEL, GOOD TIME, BYE BYE BYRD and BULLET HANOVER. Even their names had a magical ring.

A year later, Pennsylvania's first racetrack opened, Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia. After centuries of Quaker blue Laws prohibiting any form of gambling in the state, the legislature finally legalized harness racing, paving the way for Liberty Bell and two other tracks to open. Liberty Bell was on the far side of Philadelphia from my home, but the entries and results appeared daily in the newspaper and I began making imaginary bets each day in study hall, which I usually spent in the school library.

In the summer, the harness racing shifted to Brandywine Raceway, just across the Delaware border and about 12 miles from my home. In 1964, when my friends and I turned 16, we began to make regular pilgrimages to Brandywine whenever one of us could borrow a car from our parents. In my first outing at the track I shared bets with 2 friends, each of us contributing $.67 toward a $2.00 ticket. Betting only place and show, we won five of six wagers, for a profit of $3.30 apiece. We were on our way.

There was magic in the air at Brandywine, A kind of Never Never land where the hustle of the Modern world vanished, and where every once in awhile fairy tales still came true. I loved the sights and sounds and smells of the track. Harness racing was truly poetry in motion. The clip clop rhythms of the horses warming up was a comforting, pacifying sound, in contrast to an outside world that seemed to be accelerating out of control. There was a sense of innocence and order at the racetrack. It was a little bit like traveling through a time warp, To a time and place where people still had their feet on the ground, and decisions were clear and simple. Whoever got to the finish line first was the winner.

I also loved the detective work involved in picking winners- putting together all the clues of the puzzle- the horses past performances, their appearance on the track, their post positions, the drivers strategies....It was a curious blend o...f mathematics and fortune telling, and if you chose wisely you were rewarded not years later but 2 minutes later. Providence seemed to smile on me at the racetrack. More than a few times I bet my last $2.00 in the world on a horse race, and more often than not I won. When my back was against the wall I did my best handicapping, sometimes with the help of miraculous photo finishes. In 1965 I drove to Liberty Bell Park for the first time, to see the great BRET HANOVER race, only to be turned away at the gate. No one under 21 was admitted to the race in Pennsylvania. Undaunted, I returned to the friendly confines of Brandywine where a young French-Canadian driver named Herve Filion was becoming a legend for his audacity and cunning in the sulky. In the summer of '67 I saw my first 2 minute mile, when ROMULUS HANOVER and driver Billy Haughton won the BATTLE OF THE BRANDYWINE, for 3 year old pacers. It was the same Billy Haughton who had inspired my interest in the sport.

During my summer vacations from college I usually went to Brandywine once or twice a week, and in time I developed favorites among the horses who raced there regularly: SIR CHARLES, GAMBLING GREENIE, DEXTER HANOVER, AND MISS CONNA ADIOS. When the Grand Circuit came to town I saw the nations fastest horses: OVERCALL, RUM CUSTOMER, FRESH YANKEE, SUPER BOWL, ALBATROSS, AND NANSEMOND. In 1970, Brandywine expanded from a 1/2 to a 5/8th mile track, and that summer MOST HAPPY FELLA electrified the crowd with a new track record of 1:56 4/5. His sons and grandsons went on to become the finest pacing sires in the sport.

It was in July of '70 that I first saw Judge run. Judge was a lightly raced 3 year old from Jim Crane's stable who had run a mile in 1:58 4/5 at Lexington the year before unusually fast for a 2 year old in those days. In this race, only his... second start of the year, he broke stride immediately and fell twenty lengths behind the field. Midway through the race he had caught the pack, showing blistering speed, and at the finish he was only 7 lengths behind the winner. I collected a nice payoff on him the next time I saw him race, and I continued to bet on him through the years, although he proved to be an unruly and unpredictable horse. I last saw Judge run late in the '74 season, when he was 7 years old and still going strong. He was the second choice in the betting that night, but I felt confident he was best. He raced fourth until the top of the stretch. Accompanied by track announcer Roy Shudt's call of, "Here come the Judge", he roared home to win by 3 lengths, and I cashed 11 exacta tickets worth $17 a piece. In Roy Shudt, Brandywine had one of the smoothest and most colorful track announcers in the business. His trademark came just before the start of the race when he softly whispered, "Heeeere they come", as the horses approached the starting gate, followed swiftly by, "There they goooo....!" as the horses flashed across the starting line. There will never be another one like him.

In the mid 70's my interest in harness racing began to wane. I had seen a few too many suspicious races for my comfort, and the sport's superstars had retired to stud. But in 1977, a new track in New Jersey called THE MEADOWLANDS, and a wonder horse RAMBLING WILLIE, revived my interest in the sport. Willie was an inexpensive gelding from Ohio, with an equally obscure pedigree, and bad knees to boot. His owners tithed 10% of his winnings to their church, and rubbed his tender legs with homemade liniment. Miraculously his lameness disappeared, and he became known as "The Horse That God Loved". Later that summer he broke the track record at Brandywine with a time of 1:54 3/5 for the mile. The early '80's saw some hard times for harness racing. Competition from lotteries, casinos, cable TV, and home videos began to tell, as attendance and betting handles steadily declined. For years horse racing had little need for promotion or marketing, but suddenly they were faced with a generation that cared very little about horses, a generation that had found other avenues of entertainment and recreation. Despite efforts to modernize and attract a new audience, major tracks around the country began to close their doors to harness racing: Hollywood Park in California, Wolverine Raceway in Detroit, Foxboro in Boston.... In 1985 Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia went out business and became a shopping mall. Then in 1989, the unthinkable happened. Roosevelt Raceway in New York, the birthplace of modern harness racing, home of the first mobile starting gate and racing under the lights, closed due to dwindling business. In the 1960's Roosevelt averaged over 20,000 fans a night, but by 1988 they were averaging barely 4,000. Some of the decline was due to competition from The Meadowlands across the river, and from off-track betting parlors, but the handwriting was on the wall and a transfusion was needed. By 1989 rumors began to resurface that Brandywine Raceway was also on the verge of closing. In May, the BATTLE OF THE BRANDYWINE was won by AU CROMBIE, driven by Billy Haughton's son Tom. Bill died 3 years before in a racing accident, and while it seemed like a tragedy at the time, he probably picked the perfect time to depart. It would have broke his heart to see two of his favorite tracks close their doors.

In December of '89, the owners of Brandywine Raceway announced that they would indeed close if the Delaware state legislature did not override the Governor's veto and approve slot machines at the racetrack. The measure was defeated.......I had to wonder if harness racing's attempts to modernize were not misguided. All the exotic wagering, video replays, simulcasting, and off-track betting seemed to obscure its greatest charms: the peace, tranquility, and nostalgic appeal of the sport. Somehow these virtues had been lost in the shuffle.

The back roads to Brandywine are still free of traffic and stoplights. Although the suburbs of Philadelphia are spreading steadily toward the Delaware border, there are still small farms and wooded valleys along the way, but the cornfields and the pastures are now fewer and farther between. The racetrack stands on the highest piece of ground in Delaware, about 400 feet above sea level, and only a few hundred yards from the Pennsylvania border. Beyond a ridge of hills across the highway the Brandywine River flows south from Chadds Ford,Pa where artist Andrew Wyeth makes his home.

For the first time in 37 years, there is no racing at Brandywine. The parking lot is deserted and the doors are locked, but I climb a fence and make my way into the bleachers where I spent so many nights in my youth. The paint is peeling and the light bulbs are broken. Below the stands a few old programs and losing tickets lie abandoned on the ground. There are no horses training here this morning, only a flock of Canada Geese swimming in the infield pond. I climb out on the racetrack and examine the stone dust surface, looking for hoof prints. But there are none, only small gullies washed out by the recent rains. I walk halfway around the track, imagining what it must feel like to sit behind a racehorse in action.

The stables are empty, but the footsteps of MOST HAPPY FELLA AND RAMBLING WILLIE still echo faintly in the distance, and I can still see the JUDGE tipping three wide around the top of the stretch with his eyes glued fiercely to the finish line. A warm breeze blows across the racetrack, rustling the flags in the paddock area. Lately there are rumors of a harness meeting next year at Delaware Park.....

Brandywine Raceway

Brandywine Grand Circuit Flag
Photos courtesy of Maria Ringler


Pacingguy said...

Doug, can you explain? I don't understand.

Anonymous said...

I grew up going to Brandywine Raceway in the 60's with my father..we saw the greats including Bret Hanover, Albatross, etc. I even saved the was a special time..I even remember the great Roy Shud goes on....we even went back to the stables to be next to memories...

Anonymous said...

Roy Shudt was my Grandfather and I too have very fond memories of the Brandywine track. Going to the track with him in the summer was one of highlights of my youth. I also knew Jim Crane, as my grandfather got me a job working for him at the track during the day...what an education. I saw the Judge every day but would not go near him as he was a most unfriendly horse. I preferred to work with Slopes Woodrow and some others who were more mild mannered. I sincerely loved my grandfather... he has a kind and generous man who I was, and still am, intensely proud of!

Derek T. Shudt

Pacingguy said...

Derek, thanks for sharing. It is amazing how these racetracks that when tracks disappear, there is a lot more that dies with them. It is up to those who have memories from there to keep the tracks 'alive'.

When tracks close, it would be nice if someone could do a project recording the memories of people connected to these tracks.

Anonymous said...

We experienced a similar situation here at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire when live harness racing was discontinued. I saw the greats of the 60's and 70's race here. Albatross,Silk Stockings, Romeo Hanover, Dancer, Haughton, Herve, Chapman, Sanders Russell and Buddy Gilmore. Great crowds with shuttles to and from the parking lots. I even remember parking in a cornfield when the lots where full. Clayton Smith was the announcer.

Great Memories,

Gary H.

Anonymous said...

Judge was the first horse I ever placed a winning bet on. I can't recall if it was 1970 or 1971 but know that I was only 11 at the time (it was a different Era where they treated some families like "track families" and my grandfather had been a well-known handicapper at Brandywine and Delaware Park) and I won $30. Three standout favorites from those days were Albatross, Judge and Rotybus (sp?)