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The Downs : Though Harness Racing's Bustling Sights and Shrill Sounds Have All Faded, Sparkling Memories of the Sport Linger On

October 27, 1985|JEANMARIE MUPRHY | Times Staff Writer and

The memories are almost as faded as the whitewash on the old buildings. But for those who can still remember, who are able to fine-tune the pictures of yesteryear in their minds, there are visions of ribbon-decked grandstands, Sunday afternoon picnics, charging race horses and cheering crowds.

When thinking of those days at the Downs, some say they can recall the way the hoofs sounded as they pounded the track in the early-morning mist, the way the harness buggies squeaked as they circled the course, and the way the rich smells of alfalfa and popcorn and horses filled the air.

But all that actually remains from those days are a few scattered buildings and some stony, dusty acres of undeveloped land.

Forty years ago, long before there was a Cal State Northridge, when the West San Fernando Valley was inhabited mostly by truck farms and dotted by pioneer suburbanites, Devonshire Downs in Chatsworth was a training center and race track for many of the area's top horses, especially harness horses.

Every Sunday for about 20 years, horse trainers and racing fans crowded into the grandstand at 10001 Zelzah Ave. to witness the victories of such top horses as Dutch Harbor, a winner of $65,000 and 1952 Harness Horse of the Year; Wayzac, a $40,000-plus winner; Meadow Lesters, a top trotter, and All Star, who in 69 races was out of the money only three times.

Hollywood stalwarts such as James Cagney, Mae West, Jay Silverheels (Tonto) and Eddie Anderson (Rochester on Jack Benny's radio and television shows) owned race horses and came out to present trophies and awards. A host of local personalities--such as Maj. Harry Dornan (Rep. Robert Dornan's father), Roger Dalyum (original proprietor of Farmers' Market), Charles Dant (orchestra leader for Judy Canova and Dennis Day), and Tom Brenaman (owner of Sardi's restaurant and host of the "Breakfast in Hollywood" radio program)--also turned out to watch their equine charges race.

"In those days, harness racing was a rich man's hobby," said Bill Luther, who drove and trained at the Downs for about 20 years. "They had the money and owned and raced horses for fun and relaxation."

Today, harness racing is considered a sport for the blue-collars, not the bluebloods.

"Harness racing is now a sport the middle class can participate in," he added. "The wealthy go for the thoroughbreds and quarter horses. But, in the '40s and '50s, only the wealthy owned race horses."

Those days are gone, and with the passage of time, so are any traces of the racetrack at Devonshire Downs, which is the popular name for the 50-acre site north of Lassen Street.

The Matador football stadium stands on the spot where the half-mile racetrack and grandstand once were. Until a couple of years ago, converted barns were used as team locker rooms and exhibition halls. The stalls, which were once leased out to horsemen, were converted into storage areas.

The open fields where horses once galloped are still there, but plans are under way to build dormitories, a hotel and convention center, a 20,000-seat athletic stadium, a 1,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, a 2,050-seat auditorium, an art gallery and many other commercial and educational facilities there.

In 1943, Helen Dillman, a wealthy Valley resident, and Pete Spears, a horseman, purchased the 40-acre Devonshire Downs tract for $80,000. The land is now estimated to be worth $400,000 an acre--or about $20 million for the entire parcel. It is considered one of the most valuable pieces of undeveloped real estate in the Valley.

When Dillman and Spears bought the parcel from the Atwater family, however, most of the tract was just a stony and hilly parcel of land surrounded by orange orchards and walnut groves, and considered an unattractive prospect for development.

"Helen and Pete were the first ones into racing at the Downs, they started the whole thing," said Gertrude Mott Viraldo, whose family had harness horses at the Downs when it opened. "Pete had a horse ranch--long before Devonshire Downs started--in an area that's now known as Panorama City."

Gordon Van Avery, a former harness driver at the Downs added: "Pete was a little bit of a promoter. He trained saddle and show horses and brought them to the Downs. He drove harness horses and he always had something going. He promoted the Downs all the time."

When Dillman and Spears tried to build on the property in 1943, they discovered that the wartime government of President Roosevelt had put a moratorium on all but military construction. To dodge the red tape, they obtained a building permit by agreeing to construct several facilities on the site for the armed forces.

The Army used Devonshire Downs as a dispatch depot and warehouse for military supplies for the remainder of the war. During that time, Dillman and Spears also opened a sizable part of the property to horsemen, and it became a training and boarding center for standardbreds.

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