Top-flight horses raced there. Triple Crown winner Whirlaway carried 130 pounds as if it were no more than a sprig of parsley while winning the 1942 Trenton Handicap. Between his 1948 Preakness and Belmont Stakes victories, Citation dropped in and tipped his cap to four opponents as he won the Jersey Stakes. Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Round Table, the best three horses from the top crop of 3-year-olds ever, ran against one another in the memorable '57 Trenton. Bold Ruler won not only the race but also Horse of the Year honors. Nashua, Carry Back, Mongo, Quill, Idun, First Landing, Cicada and Riva Ridge all swept down Garden State's stretch to victory. The largest purse Secretariat ever earned ($179,199) came not from one of his Triple Crown triumphs but from the Garden State Stakes at the end of his 2-year-old season.
New Jersey is a different state today than it was in the old track's heyday. The nation's most densely populated state, it now has more gambling per square mile than any other. Last year, Atlantic City's 10 casinos had a "gross win" of $1.9 billion, while the state-operated lottery sold $848 million worth of tickets. It's impossible to move in almost any direction within a 200-mile radius of Cherry Hill without bumping into a racetrack of one kind or another. Let's count them: Aqueduct, Atlantic City, Belmont, Bowie, Brandywine, Charles Town, Delaware Park, Dover Downs, Freehold, Freestate, Harrington, Keystone, Laurel, Liberty Bell, The Meadowlands, The Meadows, Monmouth Park, Monticello, Ocean Downs, Penn National, Pimlico, Pocono Downs, Roosevelt Raceway, Rosecroft, Timonium, Waterford Park and Yonkers Raceway. Garden State brings the total to 28, a staggering number at a time when many track operators admit that, for the most part, they are dog-paddling to keep their heads above water.
Brennan has jumped into the fray with verve, imagination and the backing of 50,000 stockholders. Not only has he rebuilt Garden State from ashes but, at the end of December, he also took control of nearby Keystone at a cost of another $37.5 million. He intends to pump from $7 to $10 million more into the Bucks County (Pa.) plant until, as he says, "it becomes one of the finest tracks in the nation." While Keystone is only 10 years old and has been a profit maker, it could use some refurbishing. "Just wait and you will see a Keystone you never imagined before," Brennan says. In the three months since Brennan's takeover, he has upgraded the quality of the horses, increased purse money, hired more cleaning help and increased the promotional budget. As a result, Keystone has experienced a boomlet. Attendance was up 5%, and the betting handle was up 8%.
Television viewers around the country have seen Brennan many times on the commercials he stars in for his First Jersey Securities brokerage house. He's the guy with the blond hair and sparkling blue eyes who flies a helicopter over Grand Coulee Dam or stands by a lock of the Erie Canal and says: "What is the promise of America? Opportunities, not guarantees." Brennan holds that "television is the single best carrier pigeon of the 20th century." First Jersey Securities, which he started in 1974, now has 35 branch offices, 1,200 account executives and more than 350,000 accounts. (Yes, he does fly his own helicopter.) An athletic-looking 6'1", Brennan has boundless energy. When he talks, his hands move in expressive gestures, and when he talks about horse racing, Garden State, Keystone or mares in foal, his voice rises. And, yes, he knows about racetracks.
He didn't learn about them from aristocratic forebears, either. There was no standing around the sales rings at Keeneland or Saratoga waiting for the chauffeur to take him off to pony class. Brennan learned about horses the old-fashioned way: He bet on 'em.
In racetrack terminology, he is Under The Fence from Newkidontheblock by Walter Mitty. "When I was 10," he says, "I used to take a bus, then the subway from my home in Newark over to Aqueduct and sneak under the fence. I loved racing. It got to me. Being a New Jersey boy, I also went to Monmouth Park and Atlantic City. There were no off-track betting shops around then, but as I grew older I found my own: a bookmaker. The only track I never got to in my own state was Garden State Park."
Brennan, one of nine children born to Henry and Agnes Brennan, grew up in a five-room apartment on South 17th Street in Newark. As a youngster he took jobs delivering both the morning Star-Ledger and the afternoon News. He also collected old newspapers, scrap iron and tin cans and sold them to junkyards. Brennan graduated from St. Benedict's Prep in Newark and went on to Seton Hall University in South Orange. The monks at St. Benedict's must have taught him well because last year he donated $5 million to the school. "They personified a sense of commitment that others lacked." he says. "They inspired me." Upon the death of his wife, Henry Brennan studied for the priesthood, was ordained at the age of 65 and, until his death last August, was a chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital in Milwaukee.
Young Bob Brennan scooted through Seton Hall in two years by going to both day and night sessions to earn an accounting degree. He also sold classified ads for the News, where he met Willie Ratner, a boxing and racing writer for the newspaper. "In the afternoon," Brennan says, "we would stand together and read the results as they came over the racing wire. It was quite an experience for me, and I learned a lot about racing from Willie Ratner."
In 1965 Brennan joined the New York accounting firm of Haskins & Sells and stayed three years before moving on to a small brokerage firm, Mayflower Securities. He opened First Jersey Securities with some $300,000 in loans from 20 people and put out his shingle in a Red Bank, N.J. office furnished with two rented chairs and a desk.
Brennan entered racing in March 1980 by buying a pair of 2-year-olds in training at the Florida Breeders' Company sales at Hialeah. He paid $40,000 for one of them, a colt, and named him Schride. The other, a filly, cost $20,000 and was subsequently called Newkidontheblock. The second name seemed sensible enough, but the first baffled people, particularly when they saw SCHRIDE inscribed on the T shirts worn by Brennan's stable help. It is Brennan's acronym for success. "It stands for the creed I use to guide my business and my life," he says. "Each letter stands for a specific characteristic that I try to follow."