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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of Roosevelt Raceway: Where It All Began

Roosevelt Raceway: Where It All Began by Victoria M. Howard, Freddie Hudson and Billy Haughton is the sort of all-encompassing homage to a great racetrack we need more of. Curt Greene covered the Kentucky Futurity; Biff Lowry, Terry Todd and Tom White took a broader look at The Red Mile; Kimberly Rinker gave us a history of the tracks in and around Chicago; Bob Temple chronicled the New England tracks; and Dean Hoffman gave us a historical overview of the sport in New York State; but this is the first time we’ve been treated to a rich, unfettered look into a single Standardbred track.

Haughton and Hudson have lifelong connections to the sport via their trainer-driver fathers Billy Haughton and Billy Hudson, while Howard is a published author who has owned, trained and bred racehorses for forty years. The book is divided into two sections, with the first chronicling the trials and tribulations George Morton Levy dealt with in his quest to turn Roosevelt Raceway into the premier trotting track in North America, while the second section—labeled Book Two—offers an intimate look at the people and horses that made Roosevelt so great. It is filled with amusing anecdotes, statistics and key dates.

Levy was friends with mobster Frank Costello and served as Lucky Luciano’s lawyer. Also, Frank Erickson, one of the top bookmakers in the country, was a longtime friend. These connections, which allowed Levy to overcome obstacles placed in his way by bookmakers, politicians and labor unions, are explored in depth in the first section of the book. Developing a racetrack in Metropolitan New York during that time frame involved plenty of nasty business, and our three authors never look away from it. The serious nature of Levy’s alliances with unsavory characters is brought home to us when Alvin Weil, something of a Levy protégé, who was associated with Roosevelt Raceway for 25 years, was the victim of a mob style execution several years after resigning from his role as president of the track. He was attempting to start another racetrack at the time and was involved with the same sort of shady characters Levy had dealt with.

The narrative style in Book One is somewhat disjointed and herky-jerky, probably because Haughton and Hudson are passing on their remembrances of the track’s early days to Howard and she’s forwarding them to the reader. We seem to keep going back to the opening in September, 1940. While the information is good, the piecemeal narrative style can be disconcerting.

The introduction of Steve Phillips’ mobile starting gate in the spring of 1946 is cited as one of the paramount factors in the ever expanding popularity of Roosevelt Raceway. Plenty of space is allocated to Phillips, the first man inducted into the Hall of Fame. An emphasis on single dash racing is also cited, as it was difficult in the early days to get enough horses to fill every card. Eventually, when Roosevelt became the best place in North America to race, horses were turned away in droves.

We’re told that when the track underwent a $20 million renovation in 1958 a 14-bed hospital unit with two fully functioning operating rooms was built. I don’t know about you, but if I need surgery, the racetrack is always my first choice.

We are also treated to plenty of heretofore unknown information about the International Trot, which publicist Joey Goldstein and his crew turned into the greatest promotional event in the history of the sport. The artichoke crisis fashioned around Jamin, who won the 1959 International, is front and center, as it should be. Almost 46,000 attended the race that year. The following year the race drew almost 55,000—the largest crowd to ever view a horse race in the United States.

The sport received wide ranging media coverage during Roosevelt’s halcyon days and our trio of authors pay respect to Warren Pack, Tony Sisti and others who kept the public informed through the daily newspapers. I wish Louis Effrat, who covered the sport so well for the Times, had been mentioned. Also, I don’t understand why they went out of their way to take a shot at Henry Hecht, the must read handicapper for the Post. He always took the side of the bettors and the fans, so some of the drivers didn’t like him. Howard, Hudson and Haughton are all in with the drivers.

Another example of them going to extreme lengths to placate the drivers is the chapter on the superfecta scandal of the early 1970’s. The government charged that all but 21 of the 69 superfectas offered at New York Metropolitan tracks during the first three months of 1973 were fixed. The prosecutors are mocked mercilessly by the authors while the drivers are elevated to sainthood. They conclude that all that billowing smoke could be explained away by the fact that betting syndicate mastermind Forrest Gerry Jr was a very good handicapper. The price of a super ticket was $3 back then so an eight horse box would run one $5,080, while eliminating two horses would knock it down to $1,080. The question was, how would one determine which two horses to cross off the program. Gerry and cohort Richard Perry were ultimately convicted in Brooklyn Federal Court of conspiring with harness drivers to fix superfecta races. One is left wondering why the trio went there. Throughout the rest of the book Buddy Gilmour and Ben Webster are treated like lovable rogues. You can’t have it both ways.

There are also some basic mistakes in the book. John Chapman is described as the “proud trainer/owner of Delmonica Hanover.” Del Miller and Arnold Hanger owned Delmonica until they sold her to Dottie Hardy and Ann Ryan at Tattersalls in 1974. Boardwalk Farms and Boardwalk Enterprises owned her after that. Chapman drove Delmonica to two wins in the Roosevelt International, but he never owned her. Also, they write that Duncan MacDonald went to Harrisburg and bought Fresh Yankee for $900. He wasn’t near the place. Sanders Russell bought her for him. And Russell was the one who told Max Hempt to ship the mare to Alabama so as to avoid the $900 shipping charge to Nova Scotia. They say Adios Butler was one of the best sires in the history of the sport. One of the worst is more like it. Material like this never should have made the final cut. Any longstanding harness racing fan would pick up on it right away.

The profiles of the drivers, horses and announcers who put on the show at Roosevelt Raceway for 48 years are outstanding. Recollections and anecdotes from publicity director Barry Lefkowitz, announcer Jerry Glantz and numerous others, as well as amusing stories recounted from memory by the authors, add a unique touch to the book. The listing of significant events throughout the life of the track, pages of hard to come by statistics, and even a trivia section conceived by Freddie Hudson, make it a must read for harness racing fans everywhere. And, if that isn’t enough, a portion of the royalties will go to the Harness Racing Museum And Hall Of Fame and the Standardbred Retirement Foundation.

Joe FitzGerald





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