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Monday, September 22, 2014

Johnson Park Memories

by Peter Lawrence, Contributor to VFTRG
For everyone's pleasure, here are a few shots of the Johnson Park racetrack in nearby Piscataway, N.J.
I've driven by the site, located on River Road, near Rutgers University, the city of New Brunswick, the giant Rutgers football stadium, and the Raritan River (hence, River Road) many times, most recently last Wednesday, when I stopped to snap these photos.
Harness racing veterans will probably remember when the New Jersey Sire Stakes used to race every summer on a "fair" circuit decades ago, which also included Herve Filion's Capitol (Capital?) Hill Farms, Stanley Dancer's Egyptian Acres, plus Flemington, Cowtown, the big-time Showplace and Gaitway training facilities, and five or six other places.
The late Bruce Stearns ran the sire stakes program back then - the story of me, Bruce and Liberty Bell Park is one I'll go into some other time - and if I recall correctly, his staff included Alice DiNolfi and Mary Pat Sulllivan (now Rhodes), both of whom are also here on Facebook.
Herve, Cat Manzi, Jack Moiseyev, Joe Schwind and others - plus two fresh-faced Swedish youths named Per Eriksson and Jimmy Takter (maybe you've heard of that Takter fella) - were regulars on the circuit.
Few of those locations hosted real fairs with the racing, which was generally conducted on Saturdays and Sundays, as I recall (Fridays, too?), with the exception of Stanley Dancer, who decreed no racing on Sundays at his place, if I remember correctly.
I think I covered the fair racing for *Harness Horse* magazine for a few years, and I know I co-owned a nice B.G.'s Bunny filly named Tri State's Baby, who won six or eight fair stakes, while trained by Fred Grant, and then by Bonnie Butler.
(Baby also won a few NJSS races at the big track, the Meadowlands, in rein to Bill O'Donnell, my biggest-ever thrills as an owner. Our syndicate leader was Rob Goldstein, a LONG-time friend. But I digress. )
Johnson Park isn't really the name of the racetrack pictured here. It's the name of the sprawling park in which the track is located. It also includes a little zoo, tennis courts and ballfields, most notably cricket courts, used mostly by the large nearby Indian population, Indians from India, that is. Namaste, y'all.
For the record, the Johnson Park overall track record,1:59-2/5, was set in 1982 by the doubly well-remembered Caramore and Catello Manzi.
The track surface still looks good at Johnson Park, and the grounds appear well-maintained. There's one horse barn standing, and you can see horses jogging by on the track if you happen along at the right time, which sometimes is in the middle of the afternoon.
It appears that the, presumably empty, shell of a teletiming sign is stilll standing near one turn.
Those were fun days. Fair racing in the afternoon, then off to Meadowlands, Yonkers (or Roosevelt? My timeline's cloudy here) at night.
Oh, for the simpler times of our collective youth.

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