CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Like an aging claiming horse limping across the finish line, Garden State Park staged its final card Thursday, ending an era in which it went from horse racing showplace to neglected also-ran.
The 58-year-old track, which hosted the likes of Citation and Secretariat, will be razed by developers who plan to build upscale shops, offices and homes on the 225-acre site. No formal commemoration was held for the track's final live program, a nine-race card.
Built on farmland in what was then known as Delaware Township, the original Garden State Park opened in 1942. In its heyday, it drew racing's brightest stars and up to 40,000 fans for such big races as the Trenton Handicap, Cherry Hill Stakes and Jersey Derby.
But by the 1970s it was faltering because of increased competition from other tracks, lotteries and, eventually, casino gambling 60 miles away in Atlantic City.
In 1977, a spectacular fire destroyed the old wooden grandstand, killing two people. The track remained closed until 1985 when penny stock financier Robert Brennan and his International Thoroughbred Breeders company rebuilt it for $140 million.
Touted as "The Racetrack of the 21st Century" and featuring an upscale restaurant and a glitzy, greenhouse-like saddling enclosure, the track thrived temporarily. But its fortunes faded with those of Brennan, who ran afoul of securities regulators and was convicted of bankruptcy fraud.
When New Jersey began allowing racetracks to offer full-card simulcasting in 1992, on-track attendance waned--going from about 375,000 in 1995 to 173,419 in 1999. The handle fell from $70 million to $30 million in the same period.