A chapter in horse racing history in New Jersey, and in fact nationally, ended early Thursday evening when the last race was run at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill. The $180-million facility will be demolished and replaced with a residential and retail complex.
Garden State opened July 18, 1942, and was for the most part a rousing success until April 14, 1977, the day the old wooden grandstand burned to the ground. Though it reopened as a state-of-the-art concrete and glass facility April 1, 1985, Garden State really never again captured the imagination of the locals.
In its heyday, horses like Secretariat and Citation ran at Garden State.
There were some shining moments in the track's second life, such as opening night, when a packed house greeted the return of Thoroughbred racing to Cherry Hill, and Memorial Day of that year, when Spend a Buck won the Jersey Derby and fat bonus in a thriller.
Though its gaudy price tag ultimately led to its demise, there were other factors. When Garden State reopened in 1985, ownership wanted no part of cheap claimers, but ultimately ended up having to beg trainers to enter them. The first harness meet, held that fall, drew decent crowds and handle, but the inflated purse structure proved too much of a burden.
In recent years, the once-sparkling facility has crumbled from neglect. Even the crowds for simulcasting are way down from even five years ago.
The final meet began April 13, and attendance averaged less than 1,000 people. On Thursday, the official count was 4,290, about a third the average attendance for Garden State in 1977 before the fire.
For the record, the final race at the track was won by Peg Rushton, owned by Tracey Reichey, trained by Stacy McMullin, and ridden by Nick Santagata. Among those on hand for the finale were Jack Lamar, who called races at Garden State and was well-known as the longtime voice of Keystone Race Track, now Philadelphia Park.
Racing in New Jersey moved Friday to Atlantic City Race Course, also a shell of its former self, for a 10-day meet through May 15.