Track Menu



cal

cal


  No Garden Party!     

Garden State park LogoGarden State was a one mile thoroughbred track located in Cherry Hill about five miles from Philadelphia. Garden State would have two two distinct periods each ending in disaster.

The first version of Garden State Park was a grand old wooden open air grandstand with a seating capacity of 20,000. The stable area could accommodate 1,546 horse. The original track was destroyed by fire in 1977.

The second version of Garden State was rebuilt on the original site and reopened in 1985. Contrary to the original wood structure the new Garden State was a magnificent glass enclosed structure. While the new structure seemed massive seating was reduced to 9,500 seats. The stable capacity remained the same. The new Garden State ended up being too grand and went out of business in 2001. In 2004 the track hosted the "wrecking ball derby". 

Garden State Park AdIt was 1942, America was at war, none the less Garden State Park was set to open. Owner Eugene Mori, overcame some giant hurdles to get his race track up and running. For starters all of his structural steel was seized for the war effort, he was forced to use wood and some steel that was salvaged from the demolition of an overhead railway in New York City. After that he had to meet a construction deadline that came two months early, that would have halted construction till after the war. With all this going on he had local clergymen having their congregations praying for rain to slow down his efforts. Things didn't get any easier after the track opened, rationing of gas and rubber meant most racegoers had to rely on public transportation to get to the track, the only problem was most routes ended a mile or more from the track. So what would be better than taking a horse ride to the park! The track provided horse drawn carts for the last part of the journey. There also was no gas for maintenance equipment, despite all this racing went on through the war years. During the forties many top horses ran at the "Garden" highlighted by the Jersey Handicap, which would eventually become the Jersey Derby. Those of us in the digital age would be shocked to know how the first race results were sent to the Philadelphia Newspapers. Carrier pigeons were used, they would make the seven mile journey in thirteen minutes, probably faster than you could drive today!

Garden State Park continued to thrive in the fifty's, attendance and purses soared during this decade. In 1958 the Garden State Stakes, was the richest race in the world. During this period Garden State along with Monmouth Park and Atlantic City Race Course, became known as the New Jersey "Golden Triangle of Racing".  In 1959 Garden State began the use of "Punch Cards" in the racing secretaries office.

The sixties proved to be a bit more challenging then "The Garden" was use to. For starters Pennsylvania approved harness racing and in 1963 Liberty Bell opens across the river in Philadelphia, by 1969 thoroughbreds are also racing there. In a tragic event a father and daughter, were both crushed in a freak accident on an escalator during maintenance on the stairs while the track was closed. In the running of the 1967 Jersey Derby, jockey Manny Ycaza aboard Dr. Fager was disqualified and placed last for interference during the race. On an ominous note the decade ended with a barn fire that killed five horses, also the old wooden track was starting to show it's age. The grand old lady was having troubled putting her makeup on straight.

The seventies, would be the last decade for the old wooden track, and it started out with a familiar theme, fire!In  October of 1970 another barn fire swept through the stables at Garden State Park, this time killing thirty five horses. The final blow came on April 14, 1977, while racing was going on. Race track fire usually don't happen during live racing but this one did, it started in one of the restaurants and quickly spread through the wooden structure that had no fire protection. In was a chaotic scene a some bettors were still trying to cash tickets while others were running for their lives. Most jockeys had to shinny down fire hoses from the second floor jockey quarters to escape. It took but a few hours and Garden State Park was reduced to rubble. It was a miracle that only three people died, a patron and employee were found in the remains, and a fireman died of a heart attack fighting the blaze. That was it for the seventies and part of the eighties, then came a man called Robert Brennan and his phoenix.

If you were alive in the early 1980's, and you owned a TV you probably knew who Robert Brennan was, he was everywhere, hawking First Jersey Securities. Besides being a financier, he also loved horse racing, so much in fact that bought out the old Garden State Park, with plans to rebuild it, and rebuild it he did.

Eugene Mori would have been proud, Brennan produced a grand facility, a magnificent metal and glass structure dubbed "The Taj Mahal of Racing", he topped it off with a banquet facility named the "Phoenix Room". Brennan's new track was built for night racing and included harness racing for the first time at the Cherry Hill Oval. The quality of racing was to be as grand as his facility, so much in fact that he threatened the existence of thoroughbred racings holy grail the triple crown. In 1985 Brennan put up a then amazing two million dollar bonus to any horse to win the Kentucky Derby and three races at Garden State concluding with the Jersey Derby. That year he got Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck, to take his challenge and forego the Preakness Stakes, which set the established racing world into a panic.

No expense was spared on the standardbred side either, top quality harness racing was also provided at Garden State Park, unfortunately after only two years the track was begging the state to let them shut the harness meet down early, the cracks were starting to show already, and the Phoenix was on it's way back to ashes.

In the nineties it was all over for Brennan, convicted of securities fraud he was forced to step down as Chairman of Garden State Park. A year later in 1996, The New Jersey Racing Commission forced him out as majority shareholder of the track. Love him or hate him he tried to recreate Eugene Corsi's vision of a grand racing facility in the Garden State. The only problem was that it wasn't 1940 anymore, there was no place for the "white elephant" . In May of 2001 the last horses went down the Haddonfield Road backstretch to return never again. 

In October of 2003, the wrecking ball started it's journey through Garden State Park, by spring of 2004 it was mostly gone, except for Route 70 gatehouse, which is all that remains. The chronological demolition of the track was captured by Equine Photographer Nancy Rokos, if you visit her website you can see the depressing picture of what the future of horse racing may be.

Even after death, Garden State Park cannot rest in peace. In 2008 one of the two abandoned bronze statues was cut off it's base and sold for $4,000 at a local scrap yard. As art, the magnificent piece was said to be worth $500,000, and in a bit of irony in 2012, a row of condominiums on the track site burned to the ground. Finally, there is a woman who is claiming that Garden State Park, is causing people to have brain cancer!

I was fortunate in that I was able to attend racing at both versions of Garden State Park. My first visit to Garden State was in 1969. I remember a stretch dual between two of my favorite jockey's at the time Eddie Maple and Michael Hole. I would like to forget the feature race that day, the Valley Forge Handicap. I got sucked in to betting the grey Iron Ruler at 3/5. He had been a triple crown contender and looked ok on paper. In choosing him I totally disregarded one of my favorite Maryland horses, Spring Double with my favorite Maryland jockey, Charles Baltazar. You probably figured where this is going, at the head of the stretch Spring Double collars Iron Ruler and wins easy going away. Anyway it was nice to spend a day in Cherry Hill while Garden State was still at the top of it's game.

My next visit was in 1987, for a night of harness racing all I remember was a long escalator ride to some upper level which had a nice view of the track. The last trip was sometimes in the nineties it was on the back end of a double header with Philadelphia Park. By that time they were running nights with cheap claimers, the end was in sight. I do recall that the place was still in excellent shape and remember the statues that adorned the track. It would really be nice if I could go back to that sunny afternoon in 1969, and bet Spring Double!