Turf ParadiseProgram 1960
Turf ParadiseProgram 1973
Turf ParadiseProgram 1980

Berkshire Downs

First I'd like to give a shout out to "delayjf" who got me listed on "cool racing sites" on the website. They categorized my site as "Nostalgic", which I thought was fitting, so looking for something to do and keep me motivated, I thought why not dig a little more into the history of now defunct tracks. My first attempt will be a little place once known as Berkshire Downs, a one half mile dirt oval, with an open air grandstand that held 3,500. Really not much more than a glorified fair track, which it ended it's life as.

Probably least known for horse racing, this place had everything corruption, organized crime, Hollywood stars, a religious sect, politics, legal battles at one time or other in it's lifetime. At least no one was ever murdered, that I know of. This place had more court dates, then race dates.

Who knows when this whole thing started but 1953 looks like a good place to start. Before 1953, the small town of Hancock, Massachusetts was known for being one of the last homesteads of the Shakers, a religious group that had roots back to the Pilgrims. Anyway in 1953, a man named Eddie Mack, who was the publicity director at Lincoln Downs, came to town with a plan to build a commercial race track there. He had six years to make it happen, but was never successful. In 1959 a new player Joseph Murphy, a State Senator from Dorchester, throws his hat in the ring.  

1960 Let the Games Begin

The craziness starts in earnest in January of 1960 when the Massachusetts Racing Commission once again denies race dates for the proposed Hancock oval by Senator Murphy. Then on April, 22 something weird happens, the Commission suddenly does an about face and grants the track 24 days of racing for 1960. Soon after the dates are granted the Shakers come into play trying to block racing, because the dates, legally needed to be authorized in January, they would lose that case, but in August, Bernard E. Francis the president of the track bought 60 acres of land adjacent to the track, which would create a unique situation down the road. Remember that Lincoln Downs connection, it returns a few days before the track opens.

Turf ParadiseGrandstand 1960

In September, a few weeks before the track is to open, the original investors who do not even have a grandstand built appear to run out of money, in steps B.A. Dario. Dario, the managing director of Lincoln Downs is assumed to have given the troubled track an infusion of cash, also remember that Dario is from the Providence, Rhode Island area, something that may turn out to be a coincidence, or maybe not. Finally on September 19, under rainy skies, Pay Mike crossed the wire in the first race and racing had begun. If you drove to the track during the first meet you noticed a sign nailed to a tree at the overflow parking lot entrance.

Turf ParadisePay Mike Wins Opener

The meet ended with a record crowd of 16,500 but that wasn't enough as the track lost money, so they said. In a lighter moment New York State Police found a man unconscious a few miles from the track, he was wearing a coat, vest, two sweaters and a rubber T-shirt. The man awoke and said he had to keep training, seems he was an overweight jockey from Berkshire Downs who had a little too much to drink. Another jockey Henry Ploof was arrested by Massachusetts State Police on a warrant issued from Brockton.  In that original jockey colony was Jesse Davidson, who would go on to be the countries leading jockey in 1969 and became the regular rider of Shuvee, they would win the Triple Tiara in 1969. Davidson once said that Berkshire Downs was one of the worst places he ever rode at.    

Turf ParadiseFree Parking for Friends

Remember that 60 acres of land that Bernard E. Francis bought for "speculation" before the track opened? Well low and behold it turned into a parking lot, against the wishes of the Shakers, who stated that the land could not be used for a racetrack or drinking, so back to court we go! Mr. Francis, who obviously was a nice guy posted on that sign nailed to the tree that "Free parking was available to friends and relatives of Bernard E. Francis" in that lot, you just had to tell the policeman directing traffic so much and you were in. Mr. Francis claimed he wasn't circumventing the zoning law, he was just treating his friends. Francis was eventually found guilty of eight counts of violating zoning laws and fined $80, $10 dollars on each count, which he immediately appealed the ruling. 

On November 8, Berkshire Downs survived a referendum which would ban racing and was able to proceed with plans to erect a permanent grandstand. To close out 1960, Bernard E. Francis lost a bid to re-zone his "parking lot" and on a darker note a new player Dr. Charles Furcolo's name starts to pop up. Why is he important? His son Foster just happens to be the governor, remember that Racing Commission reversal, probably just a coincidence!  

1961 A Roof Over Our Heads

In it's second year of operation, Berkshire Down requested summer racing dates, but was overruled by the racing commission, which once again allocated the track fall dates. In April, the track announced it would be a "good neighbor" and not conduct Saturday racing as not to interfere with local football games, it also would institute a free lunch counter, to make up for high food prices it charged it's first year. I don't think either of those things happened.

Turf ParadiseGrandstand 1961

In May, the construction of the grandstand got under way, it would have general seating for 3,000 fans, plus another 566 box seats. It was estimated 10,000 people could fit comfortably in the complex. The facility would also include a 50 seat restaurant, a gentleman's bar under the grandstand and a cocktail lounge north of the grandstand. Imagine if this happened today! No woman were allowed in the gentleman's bar because by Massachusetts Law it was undignified for a woman to drink standing up, tables and chairs were required, hence the cocktail lounge.

Things were looking good, even the parking situation got resolved, but a few days before the opener, a construction worker died when he fell forty feet from the grandstand roof. Racing kicked off on September 18, with legendary track announcer Ralph (Babe) Rebenstein in the booth. A few days into the meet financial problems came into play, B.A. Dario who was said to be drawing a $25,000 salary and Bernard E. Francis, were both ousted as the track went into receivership.

The 1961 meet ended on a positive note as the Morning Telegraph touted Berkshire Downs as the fastest growing track in the country with a 22% increase in handle and a whooping 108% increase in attendance.           

1962 Off to Court We Go

1962 finds Bernard E. Francis and B.A. Dario, back in charge as the receivership order is overturned. Dario claims the track is losing $2,000 a day and needs summer dates to survive, the racing commission once again disagrees and the normal fall dates are assigned. Now the action starts to heat up off the track.

Remember Joseph Murphy, the State Senator who tried to get racing started here in 1959, well he is now suing Dr. Charles Furcolo, claiming that Furcolo, whose son was Governor at the time, forced him out of his interests in Berkshire Downs, boasting that his son controlled the racing commission and Murphy would never get race dates approved. Remember that back in 1960, the racing commission denied Murphy's request and once he sold out reversed their decision.

The situation with Furcolo came up at the time and a member of the racing commission and a close friend Morris Leff said that Furcolo's name never appeared on any documents involved with Berkshire Downs. It later came out that Furcolo employed a "straw" a Charles Carson, who was the only person in this whole mess who did jail time. After all this Murphy settles his case for court costs and another State Representative starts pushing for forty more days of racing at Berkshire Downs. Fishy!

Now if that's not enough, enter S.A. Rizzo, of Scarsdale New York, who on August 1st claims he is now the majority shareholder of the track. B.A. Dario, claims otherwise, Bernard E. Francis quickly resigns as president, Rizzo takes over. One of Rizzo's first acts is to install Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to the board of directors, they are said to now be shareholders. Probably trying to capture a little publicity it's said that Sinatra and Martin are booked at a local motel and plan to visit the track, that never happens.

Ho Hum, another season of racing begins, Ray Pasquarelli captures the riding tittle. Berkshire Downs survives another referendum at the ballot box and continues operations. B.A. Dario throws in the towel. 1962 ends with S.A. Rizzo as the new leader, but there's big trouble on the horizon.

1963 Green is Not Good

Less than 20 miles away sits an all weather, glass enclosed, multi level state of the art racetrack set to open in May. Green Mountain Park under the leadership of Lou Smith is ready to showcase it's 13/16 mile lighted oval(coincidence or a shot at Dario whose Lincoln Downs share the same odd dimensions). Meanwhile more shenanigans goes on at Berkshire Downs.

Having completed the requirement of running a county fair for five years it is now eligible for horse racing. Fair racing is more lucrative than commercial racing because of a lower take out. So after five years of putting up a couple of tents with a few farm animals under them here we are. Perfect, right, no not for Berkshire Downs. This one was a doozy!

I doubt in 1963 that many people knew of the Franklin Fair, least of all in Hancock, considering it was 140 miles from there and hadn't been held for twenty years, but it was going to add six days of racing at Berkshire Downs. Berkshire Downs was granted 36 days of racing in 1963. The 24 commercial days were split in half with six days of fair racing in the middle and six more at the end, from June 17 to July 27. In the sixties Massachusetts may have been the most corrupt place on the planet, the problem with that is you have to pay everybody off, somebody didn't get the memo. This move caused such a stink that the Attorney General revoked the Franklin Fair Charter, charter gone, racing days gone, Berkshire Downs loses six days. Guess one bogus fair was enough.

Meanwhile back in court, who really owns the place is trying to be sorted out. Charles Furcolo who used Charles Carson as a front claims Carson had no right to sell his shares to S.A. Rizzo. It also begins to circulate that organized crime had infiltrated Berkshire Downs and that a State Official was involved in getting dates for the track.

On June 17nth racing resumed. After the meet ended, including the first Berkshire Fair, it was deemed a disaster. The track was now said to be losing $18,000 a day. In another matter, the long drawn out bill to give Berkshire Downs an additional 42 days of racing was killed. With all this going on it's no surprise that Berkshire Downs goes into foreclosure. In November, a New York City Attorney George Vivino steps in to buy the track. S.A. Rizzo remains President.

1964 That Man is Back!

After a disastrous 1963 season, Berkshire Downs asks for and are granted fall dates. The corporate name was changed from Hancock Raceway Inc. to Berkshire Downs Inc., that should help cash flow. How does that saying go "you can't keep a good man down" well, B.A. Dario must be a good man, because heeee's back. Having secured another mortgage for the failing track, Dario is in everybody else is out. Dario, appoints Herbert Erlich, general manager before the season begins.

On the track jockey Charles Wood wins the riding crown, while the track remains in the red.

1965 Things Are Looking Up!

In 1965, Berkshire Downs, trying to avoid conflict with Green Mountain Park, runs it's commercial dates from May 1 to May 31 and the fair in the fall. 8,710 fans show up on opening day, to listen to Jim Hannon, veteran New England announcers call of the races. Most of this years action is on the track as the track sets new single day attendance and handle records. This is Berkshire Down's best year ever.    

1966 OOP'S The end is near!

After a pretty good year in 1965, things came to a screeching halt in 1966. Citing a 1948 ruling, Berkshire Downs got caught in a catch-22, it seem every six years the town the track is in must get voter approval. This hadn't been done in seven years, it seems to have gone unnoticed in 1965. It was put on the ballot for March, but because the State Racing Dates must be approved by the end of January. The referendum passed easily 5 to 1, but the dates went to Suffolk Downs. So instead of thoroughbred racing you got Jay and the Americans at Berkshire Downs. The fair dates weren't affected and ran their fall schedule. Funny, those rules didn't apply in 1960.

Racing resumed in 1967 from May 30 to June 29 after an agreement was reached with Green Mountain Park. Berkshire Downs made national news in a Life Magazine series on organized crime. The magazine said the track was being run under an "atmosphere of conspiracy". 1967 continued to be another disappointing year for the track.

In 1968, the track ran it's earliest dates, when it opened on April 27 and ran till May 30. Joe Fay took over as announcer and Ray Pasquarelli won another riding title.

Turf Paradise1983 Waiting for Demolition

In 1969, B.A. Dario, was ahead of his time when he proposed running his 24 days over eight weekends, a practice that is common today. His proposal was soundly rejected. It really wouldn't have mattered anyway, Bill Veeck was the new sheriff at Suffolk Downs and he wanted all 90 days of racing, in Massachusetts. Veeck teamed up with Marley DeMalteo of Green Mountain Park, who also had enough of Berkshire Downs. Together they bought out B.A. Dario, ending forever commercial racing at the Hancock oval.

In 1970 snowmobiles replaces horses at Berkshire Downs. In 1972 Berkshire Downs once again made national news when Raymond Patriarca a Providence crime boss and Frank Sinatra were subpoenaed to appear before a congressional committee on organized crime. Sinatra was questioned about his ties to Berkshire Downs.

The Fair Years

Berkshire Downs remained idle until 1972, when fair racing returned. This was also the time I made my only trip to the Hancock Track. It was a cold fall day, I made the trip with a friend in an old VW beetle, that had no heat. It was snowing in the Berkshires and that old bomb barely made those hills on the Mass Pike. We finally made it to Berkshire Down, but thing weren't much better there. I remember having to walk on plywood sheets to get to the betting windows, because the roof leaked so bad. It was a miserable day, too cold to drink beer, we left early, still I'm glad I went.

The fair returned in 1973, by then each fair track could run 10 days including Sundays. There was also a meet in 1975 and on October 3, 1976, Pams Whim was the last horse ever to be led into the Berkshire Downs winners circle.

The Berkshire Fair lived on for a few more years at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, until that too went out of business.

Turf ParadiseSebring Stables

In 1983 Berkshire Downs reverted back to the original owners, the crumbling grandstand was razed shortly after that and for a few year dog shows were held in the parking lot. Today Berkshire Down's equine heritage lives on at Sebring Stables a facility dedicated to the Morgan Horse. Sebring Stables has preserved the original one half mile oval from Berkshire Downs, with one difference, it is now a turf course. You're probably not going to see any Morgan's going five furlongs on the weeds, but they are likely a descendent of the thoroughbred.        


I once read that, probably in the sixties, that an owner said that having a race track was like being able to print money. He obviously didn't invest in Berkshire Downs, which brings me to the all too familiar question, why did they even build this place?  No locals wanted it, everyone involved was either from the other end or out of state. It was obvious organized crime was involved, but I don't think they needed to launder money back then. I guess they did it cause they could!

It would be a fair bet that all of the players from this little endeavor have moved on, probably not the good place, but who knows?

Dr. Charles Furcolo, didn't even last as long as the track. Allegedly he received 50  of the 100 shares in Hancock Raceway Inc. in return for a little help from his son the governor. He died on September 7, 1971 at the age of 84.

Charles R. Carson, was the "straw" for Furcolo, who didn't want his interest's in the track made public. Carson turned the tables on Furcolo, sold his stock to S A Rizzo bought a $100,000 bond with the proceeds and hid it under a rug in his house, the rest he blew at the track in Florida. He was the only one who did time for what went on at Berkshire Downs. No idea when he passed.

Raymond Patriarca, was the next to go, Patriarca the alleged kingpin of the operation, was the real prize the Feds wanted, he too went to jail, but not because of Berkshire Downs. With all the fuss they made over this guy, you would think he died in jail. Not so, he died in his girlfriends apartment of a heart attack on July 11, 1984. He was 76.

B. A. Dario, the on again off again front man for Berkshire Downs, lived to the ripe old age of 102. His involvement with organized finally came out, how could you own a race track in Providence and not be involved. He died on February 17,1976, but old B. A. lives on. The story goes that some local Pittsfield musician's were practicing for their first gig in a local horse barn. There debut was in a day and they had no name for their band, one of them looked up and saw a sign that said "B A Dario", they had no idea what it meant, but B A Dario they became.

Frank Sinatra, the most famous of the clan, joined the group on May 5, 1998 at the age of 82. For his part in Berkshire Downs, he got a free trip to Washington D.C. to have some fun with a Congressional Committee.

Bernard E Francis, the first president of the track, was the last to go. He lasted until August 17, 2005, dying at the age of 85. He probably went hoping there was some free parking for him in the good place.

That's all I know, but forget Seabiscuit, they should a made a movie about this mess!