Racetrack Closures Serve as a Monumental Loss to the Sport

By Jennifer Wirth-Ice, of The Saturday Post

Bernard Fontenelle once said, "It takes time to ruin a world, but time is all it takes." 

Perhaps, the time of ruin arrives when a single generation forgets why certain places are important.  Or possibly, the importance of the events that occurred on that ground fail to excite a culture with changing values.  It may take time to ruin a world, but if time is all it takes, the way we spend our time has an ever-increasing value toward determining what the future beholds.

In the case of racetrack closures, I wish I had spent time at those lost tracks prior to the final "Call to the Post." And, in our tracks that continue to exist today, I do.  Because, if it takes time to ruin a world, there is time to prevent the fall of it in the first place.

The question lies in how we can contribute to racing while we spend our time enjoying the sport.  I imagine the last day at Bay Meadows race track in California, where, prior to its closure, it was the longest continually-operating track in the state.  It was on this ground that Seabiscuit fought to become the two-time winner of the Bay Meadows Handicap, John Henry finished second in the same race years later, and Triple Crown Winner Citation graced the now-demolished oval near the end of his illustrious career.

In 2008, Bay Meadows was shut down after being purchased by a real estate development company.  Prior the final race, “The Last Dance Stakes,” the track bugler played “Auld Lang Syne.”  The crowd gave a standing ovation to the final string of horses to race that day, while the athletes broke from their post-parade to face the audience.  While facing the crowd, the jockeys gave a salute to the witnesses who showed up to watch the last race ever to be run on that track.  And, moments after that final salute, Bay Meadows closed for good.

When I view the six and seven figure prices paid for a single horse in a sales ring, I wonder why no one had ever thought to set up a foundation to provide funding to help save the tracks that require emergency funding, to promote the sport in general and to help fund Thoroughbred retraining and retirement.

As an owner, I would happily pay a surcharge on a sale price to ensure that the tracks can keep racing horses in the future.  Further, I would pay a nominal fee when registering a foal to help provide the necessary funding to prevent such closures.  And finally, I would happily give a percentage of my winning purse share toward a foundation that funds the promotion of Thoroughbred racing and retirement.  Because, in the final equation, it does not serve myself, nor the industry, any good to have a racehorse without a racetrack to race upon.  In the same time that leads to the closure of a track, there is time to prevent the collapse of it if funding is provided and used to promote the future of racing. 

If such a foundation had existed to save Bay Meadows, the site of Seabiscuit's two-time victory in the then-longest running race in California may not be slated to become a shopping area today.  It would be a racetrack where wonder existed as to when the next Citation, Seabiscuit, or John Henry may set foot that ground.

And, if such a foundation had existed in Illinois, Washington Park would have been rebuilt in Homewood after it was destroyed by a fire in 1977.  I would have enjoyed racing a horse in the same place where Triple Crown Winners Whirlaway and Citation competed on that ground.  I would have felt humbled to stand where Native Dancer left that track victorious before later retiring with a record of 21 wins in 22 lifetime starts.  I wish I could have watched my horses race on the same oval where Nashua and Swaps held a $100,000 match race and Jockey Eddie Arcaro became the two-time winner of the American Derby.  Yet, Washington Park was sold for commercial and residential development in 1992.  And, with that sale, the living monument to those moments disappeared in a dismal demolition.

If I were born a few decades earlier, I would have gone to the Wood Memorial when it was held at the former Jamaica Racetrack prior to its' demolition in 1960.  Jamaica Racetrack was where Omaha won the Wood on his road to becoming a Triple Crown Winner.  Native Dancer made his debut at Jamaica. Even Seabiscuit raced there.  And, before Bold Ruler retired to stud and gave the racing world Secretariat, he ended his career of 23 wins in 33 starts with his last race at the Jamaica Racetrack.  Yet, I'll never visit that park because the Rochdale Village Housing Development occupies the site now.  The greatness that took flight on that soil has long been forgotten in exchange for one more residential area.   

And finally, I wish I was at the former Sportsmans Park in Illinois in 2002 to watch War Emblem capture a victory in the Illinois Derby and stamp his ticket to Churchill Downs to race in the Kentucky Derby.  But, it appears that Fontenelle's proposition, "It takes time to ruin a world, but time is all it takes," proved true for Sportsman's far too soon.  By the time War Emblem set foot in the gates to win the Kentucky Derby at odds of 20-1, Sportsman's had already closed for good.  Whatever may have been celebrated from War Emblem's road to the roses the following year was ultimately replaced with plans to develop a shopping center on that site.

And now, Hollywood Park is facing closure with the same swan song from developers that, in time, it will become a commercial and residential development.  And sadly, it seems that time may be all it takes to demolish it.  

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