Monday, November 26, 2018

The Cauldron That Changed Cherry Hill Forever

I was visiting my parents who lived in Pennsauken at the time.
It was a quiet April afternoon in 1977 -- sunny and pleasant.
My wife and I were in front of my parent's house when a neighbor reported he just heard on the radio about a raging fire nearby. We looked up at the sky and we could see black smoke rising in the distance.
It was Garden State Park, the storied racetrack that was the crown jewel of Cherry Hill's glamorous Golden Triangle. Garden State Park was the linchpin for all that surrounded it: the Latin Casino, the Rickshaw Inn, Sans Souci, the Cherry Hill Inn, Cinelli's and so much more. The race course was synonymous with Cherry Hill.
We jumped in the car and in no time we were at the scene of the fire. By that time the place was a veritable inferno and police had cordoned off huge areas as crowds watched from whatever vantage point they could find.
It was over. One of America's legendary racecourses was burning to the ground.
The fire started in the Colonial Room restaurant's kitchen during a racing program. Despite no functional firefighting system, the wooden grandstand (built in 1942 during the war when iron was used for the war effort) would still last long enough to allow more than 11,000 patrons and employees to escape the inferno. At 4:45 p.m., the walls and massive roof overhang of the grandstand gave way to the flames and reduced the structure to a smoking ruin. Despite the flying embers very nearly igniting The Rickshaw Inn across the street and the wooden barns and stables on the backstretch, the damage was contained to the massive grandstand complex. Three lives were lost in the fire. One patron (Ed Bucholski) and one employee were later found in the rubble, and one fire officer (John McWilliams) died of a heart attack on-scene. But, the very next day, the vault with the previous days' "take" was opened, with the money intact; while outside on the track, horses continued to train.
Despite the stables on the east side of the track remaining open for training, Garden State Park no longer held races until securities trader Robert Brennan financed construction of a new $178,000,000 steel and glass grandstand which opened on April 1, 1985. The first race that day followed the schedule from the day the original track burned. The track, running night programs, would provide racing for standardbred harness racing as well as thoroughbred racing. The grandstand also had on the Clubhouse level The Phoenix Room, which also served as a large banquet hall that hosted events year-round.
On May 27, 1985, Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year winner Spend A Buck won the first Jersey Derby at the new Garden State Park, having earlier the same year won the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes, both at Garden State Park, and also the Kentucky Derby. The $2.6 million purse, including a $2 million bonus put up by Brennan for winning the four races, was the largest single purse in American racing history up to that point.
One of the controversial tax breaks the facility enjoyed was a legislative loophole that allowed a near total exemption from what would have been high county property taxes because it was categorized as a "farm." It qualified for this special exemption because its operations generated horse manure that could be sold. The tax classification was allowed because the business "produced over $500 per year in agricultural products".
Garden State Park never re-acquired its glamorous past. Over sixteen years, the track suffered from the apathy of New Jersey horsemen and New Jersey state officials, and unrestrained competition from the Atlantic City casinos. The final straw came when Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman vetoed legislation that would have permitted slot machines at New Jersey racetracks, a measure that possibly could have saved the Cherry Hill landmark.
On May 3, 2001, 2,000 fans came to see the last racing program at Garden State Park. After 58 years, the Garden ran its last race.
On October 30, 2003, with the property sold to Realen-Turnberry for a mixed-use 'town center' redevelopment, demolition started on the grandstand often referred to as a masterpiece. By late March 2004, all that remained of the racecourse was the original 1942 gatehouse on Route 70. The gatehouse still stands and has long been slated to be renovated as part of a planned off-track betting facility at the site. But who knows if that will ever actually happen?

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