The first time I visited Atlantic City Racecourse was back in 1978; I was twelve years old and immediately struck by the track’s rustic beauty and old-fashioned adornments. Clubhouse admission was a mere $3 and my mother and I breezed right through with the entrance gate with no line. Inside, Atlantic City’s half-empty grandstand was a peculiar combination of archaic and modern technology. Chalk boards that harkened back to the days when odds were still written by hand hung stubbornly beside electronic tote boards. There were other quaint anachronisms as well – a coat check, a shoe shine stand and even a barber shop – all closed. My mother and I had fun watching the races that night and little did I know it at the time but Atlantic City Racecourse would soon encompass a large part of my life.
From the very beginning when Atlantic City Racecourse opened its doors on July 22, 1946, it was all about turf racing. Indeed, the main track was constructed at the unique distance of a mile and an eighth specifically to incorporate an inner turf course of one mile. In 1953 track president John B. Kelly created the United Nations Handicap, a 1 3/16 miles turf race featuring the largest purse money offered at that time. Champion European horses were invited to compete, planting the seed for the idea behind the Breeders’ Cup. Throughout its long history the United Nations Handicap was won by such champions as Round Table, Mongo, Dr. Fager, Fort Marcy, Manila, Lure, and Sandpit.
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s Atlantic City Racecourse flourished and along with Monmouth Park and Garden State Park established what came to be known as New Jersey’s “Golden Triangle”. A.C. was held in such high regard that Alfred Hitchcock chose it a filming location for his movie “Marnie” which starred Sean Connery and Tipi Hedren. With its night racing card and proximity to Atlantic City (it was actually located in Mc Kee City, a twenty minute drive from the shore) the track attracted tourists looking for something to do after a day on the beach. All that changed in 1978 when the first casino opened in Atlantic City. Gamblers no longer had a reason to leave the city and it was the beginning of the end for the South Jersey racetrack with the elite turf course.
In 1983 at the age of sixteen, I became a hotwalker on the backstretch of Atlantic City Racecourse. It was the perfect summer job for a kid with college aspirations and I enjoyed listening to the old timer’s stories of the track’s glory days when esteemed outfits such as Calumet Farm had stabled there. In the 80’s A.C. had become an aging Rolls Royce – the shine was gone and its owner was unable to pay for repairs but if you looked closely, you could still see its residual splendor. Meadowlands had the New York horses and crowds, Monmouth Park had the big races and purses, Garden State brought the glitz but Atlantic City was all about the horses. Large, airy barns and plenty of pastures gave the track a relaxed atmosphere. Grass was everywhere and the backstretch workers made the most of it. Grooms grazed their horses at all hours of the day, portable round pens were set up outside the barns for the Thoroughbreds to enjoy turn out time, and lead ponies would contently forage untethered outside the pony hut.
I eventually graduated college, became a trainer and raced at other Mid-Atlantic tracks, yet I still enjoyed my summers when I stabled at A.C. More importantly, so did my horses. Sour horses that had been running poorly suddenly found their spark at A.C. Maybe it was all that grass and sunshine. Sadly, it all came to an end in 1997 when A.C. no longer accommodated full-time stabling and only held brief all-turf meets to satisfy the requirement for simulcasting privileges. Yet even while the grandstand and barns began to crumple, A.C.’s turf course remained defiantly lustrous. I continued to race at those short but bitterly sweet meets at my old home track until 2001 when I said goodbye forever to racing Thoroughbreds. On January 16, 2015 Atlantic City Racecourse closed its doors for the final time and it broke my heart. Whenever I drive past the husk of A.C.’s grandstand, I can’t help but recall all those warm summer nights in the paddock, the fragrance of flowers tickling my nose as the horses danced around the walking ring, and the immeasurable joy of watching my horse turn for home five lengths in front of the field.