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Back In A Blaze Of Glory
William Leggett
April 22, 1985
Destroyed by fire, New Jersey's Garden State Park has been lavishly rebuilt by bustling Robert Brennan
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April 22, 1985

Back In A Blaze Of Glory

Destroyed by fire, New Jersey's Garden State Park has been lavishly rebuilt by bustling Robert Brennan

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Does the name Garden State Park cause a small light to go on in your memory? If not, don't be dismayed; even staunch racing fans have largely forgotten the old track in Cherry Hill, N.J. that burned to the ground on April 14, 1977. It has been eight long and controversial years since a fire raged through the wooden stands, twisting the steel underpinnings into grotesque shapes. Now, phoenix-like, a new Garden State has risen from the ashes. Billed as the "Racetrack of the 21st Century," Garden State opened on April 1 with a gala evening of entertainment and racing. Spotlights illuminated the night sky, banjos strummed in the glass-enclosed grandstand, violins played in the seven-story-high clubhouse. The crowds at the concession stands were five and six deep, and traffic near the track got so bad that the main gates had to be closed for an hour.

Just after midnight, almost as if scripted, 4-year-old Hail Bold King won the feature race, the $156,800 Genesis Handicap, in a canter. Hail Bold King's rider was Bill Shoemaker, the world's most famous jockey. The colt's owner is Robert Emmet Brennan, 41, the builder and prime mover of the new Garden State Park.

Only dreamers ever imagined that the site off Haddonfield Road would house a racetrack again. During the years before the fire, Garden State had begun to resemble a once-proud lady who could no longer put her makeup on straight. A race-fixing scandal was uncovered, attendance declined and patrons no longer found the track a comfortable or friendly place to visit. The 1977 fire occurred during the running of a racing card and took only two hours to consume the grandstand. As the riders escaped the second story jockey's room by shinning down fire hoses, personal belongings, clothing and equipment they had thrown out windows in hopes of saving were stolen by people waiting below. With smoke wafting through the building, horseplayers waited in line to get paid off on a $3.20 winner.

The new Garden State was built by broker, horseman and one-man band Brennan at a cost he estimates to be $170 million. If that figure is accurate—and Brennan's reckoning in financial matters has often been questioned—his commitment to racing is close to the combined recent purchase prices of the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Garden State is attempting to lure the best horses to its inaugural meeting, particularly 3-year-olds on their way to the Triple Crown races. Two weeks ago, the track drew 14 entries to the $200,000 Cherry Hill Mile, run the same day as Aqueduct's Gotham Mile, and the convincing winner was Spend A Buck, second among 2-year-old colts in money won in 1984. This week brings the $300,000 Garden State Stakes, an event to be staged on the same day as Aqueduct's $250,000 Wood Memorial.

The big move, however, comes with the $1 Million Jersey Derby on May 27, nine days after the Preakness and 12 days before the Belmont Stakes. The pots for those two Triple Crown races are $350,000 each, but the conditions of the Jersey Derby call for an added $1 million bonus to any horse winning that race plus any two of the following: the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby. A horse sweeping the three Garden State races plus the Kentucky Derby gets a $2 million bonus.

The bonus scheme is an attempt to lure the Kentucky Derby winner away from the Preakness and, inevitably, steal some of the Triple Crown's luster. The move quite naturally has Pimlico's management up in arms, and Churchill Downs is reportedly considering litigation against Brennan and Garden State. The New York Racing Association, which runs the Gotham, the Wood and the Belmont, is said to be displeased, too.

Money, of course, draws top horses, but Garden State must also draw people to make it a success. A decade before the fire, Garden State was one of the nation's top tracks in both attendance and betting. Its 1966 meeting averaged 19,865 fans per day and $1.85 million in betting handle. By 1976 those figures had dropped to 10,645 and $1.36 million. So far this month the new Garden State has averaged 14,434 and $1.4 million.

Certainly the new track is beautiful. The paddock is actually a huge atrium visible from all levels of the grandstand and clubhouse—from seats, dining tables or overhanging balconies. Glass elevators whisk patrons to the various levels of the track. The posh Phoenix (get it?) dining room on the top level can accommodate 950 customers, and on a clear night it affords them a view of the Philadelphia skyline. There are bars everywhere, and the fans can follow race action on the two huge matrix boards in the infield, one of which can produce "more than 30,000 different colors." Welcome to the track of the 21st century.

The old Garden State was also quite a place—before it turned shabby, that is. It didn't get built without a struggle. Construction began early in 1942, soon after the U.S. entered World War II, and the materials consisted mostly of wood and some steel acquired when New York's Third Avenue elevated subway line was torn down. The track opened on July 18, 1942, and because of wartime gas rationing, management soon was hiring horse-drawn vehicles to bring patrons to the track from bus and railroad stations. The most popular way of getting there was to ride a hay wagon and do your handicapping as it moved slowly along.

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