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Saturday, April 28, 2001
A sad end for historic Garden State

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

They attendance was 717 the other day at Garden State Park, racing fans, gamblers and mourners. It was a poor showing for the funeral of an old friend, but what else would you expect? Garden State has been, for al practical purposes, dead for several years. It will be put out of its misery May 3 and then the wrecking ball will come in and wipe out everything but the memories.

On the surface, the passing of Garden State Park isn't that big of a deal for the sport. There hasn't been a good horse to run there in years and the daily cards are held in front of an eerily empty grandstand. With business worse than ever, Pennwood Racing, which leases the track, announced that it would not renew its contract when it expires May 29. Meanwhile, the property has been sold to a developer, who will undoubtedly build a shopping center or an office park or something else that society can surely do without. But beforehand, Garden State will go out with barely a ripple, a sorry 15-day meet that ends Thursday.

But let us not forget what a wonderful place it was in its day and all the potential it seemed to have after Bob Brennan threw his ill-begotten millions into rebuilding what was supposed to be the track of the 21st century. There is indeed something sad, tragic even, about seeing it come to an end, even if it is a rather pathetic end.

I saw Secretariat run at the old Garden State in the 1972 Garden State Stakes as a young boy, simultaneously falling in love with the horse, the sport and that track. Take a look at what Garden State has become today and it seems preposterous that the greatest horse of the modern era could have ever run there before a packed, excited house and that was nothing out of the ordinary. That was before the entire sport was turned upside down, during an era that seems impossibly distant. Back then, no one had ever heard of simulcasting or year-round racing or casinos in states not named Nevada, and you might get 35,000 out at the track on a nice Saturday afternoon.

The old Garden State, opened in 1942, was as pleasant a racetrack as there was. It ran on sparkling spring afternoons and crisp fall days. From all over the Philadelphia, South Jersey area, fans came to enjoy an afternoon spent in a beautiful grandstand watching the finest horse racing found in this country outside of New York and California.

"The old Garden State was a very nice track," said veteran trainer Willard Thompson, who settled in at the South Jersey track in 1969. "It had a nice, wooden grandstand. It was like Saratoga in that it had a lot of class and ambiance."

Two months into the track's first year, Triple Crown winner Whirlaway competed there in the inaugural running of the Trenton Handicap. He would be the first of many superstars to race at Garden State. Actually running in between the Preakness and the Belmont, Citation stopped in to win the 1948 Jersey Derby by 11 lengths. They just kept coming: Nashua in the 1956 Camden Handicap; Bold Ruler in the 1957 Trenton; Kelso in the 1962 Governor's Plate; Dr. Fager in the 1967 Jersey Derby; Riva Ridge in the 1971 Garden State Stakes; Secretariat in the 1972 Garden State Stakes.

"You couldn't have a better race meeting," said Sam Boulmetis currently a Garden State steward and a retired Hall of Fame jockey. "You had huge races like the Garden State and the Gardenia and a lot horses became the 2-year-old champion by winning those races. Other than New York, racing there was probably as good as any place in the country."

Garden State was destroyed by fire April 14, 1977, leaving a huge void on the New Jersey racing circuit. A few years later, the Meadowlands was born and it became an instant success, which attracted the attention of financier Robert Brennan. He hoped to build a Meadowlands South, only he was determined to make his track bigger, better and glitzier than his neighbor to the north. Brennan poured a reported $150 million into the track, which re-opened for business April 1, 1985, and vowed that it would be the track of the 21st century. The expectation level was huge. Garden State was supposed to be on its way to being the next great racetrack in this country.

Brennan, recently convicted of bankruptcy fraud and money laundering, the latest chapter in his long battle with authorities who allege he was a stock swindler, was intent on putting his track on the map from the start. He shook up the Triple Crown by wooing Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck away from the Preakness with the enticement of a $2 million bonus offered up in the Jersey Derby.

But once the Spend A Buck hype started to fade away reality set in. The new Garden State was operating in a different world than the old one. Area gamblers were flocking in droves to the bustling casinos in Atlantic City and the remaining horseplayers were being divided up among a glut of racetracks in the area, from Philadelphia Park to the west and Delaware Park to the south. Meanwhile, the track's fan base was aging and there wasn't any new blood coming in to replace them. Brennan had spent far too much money and was unable to recoup his investment with the meager crowds that were showing up.

"There was just too much damn racing in the area," said Russ Harris, who covered Garden State for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1970 to 1977. "You had all those tracks in close proximity to one another. Say New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania had all gotten together and put together a circuit, then it would have been a very successful circuit. Instead, they wound up with nothing. But you can't get the politicians in one state to agree on anything when it comes to racing, let alone three."

There were a few more bright spots along the way, many of them coming with a moderately successful harness meet, but it's been obvious now for several years that Garden State was never going to make it. In a few short days they will pull the plug. Garden State will best be remembered as a massive white elephant, the last injustice to a track that deserved so much better.