Atlantic City Race Course’s end has finally come. Greenwood ACRA, which had been conducting full-card simulcasting and six-day spring meets consisting of all-turf racing at the track in recent years, announced Friday that the entire facility would cease operating on January 16.
While most people around today will remember the track for these brief meets, or for the identity it forged in the mid-1970s as a venue for night racing with generally low-level fare, I prefer to admire Atlantic City for what it was intended to be and what it was for the first three decades of its existance: one of the leading Thoroughbred racetracks on the East Coast.
Opened in 1946, Atlantic City was once the third cog in the highly successful New Jersey circuit. In the 1950s and 1960s, Garden State Park, Monmouth Park and Atlantic City generally raced 50-60 days each, with Atlantic City’s allotment covering dates from mid-August through mid-October.
There was also an unofficial “Philadelphia circuit” that catered to racing fans from that extended metropolis at a time when the state of Pennsylvania had no pari-mutuel wagering on Thoroughbreds. That consisted of racing at Garden State, Delaware Park, and Atlantic City, with no overlap among the three tracks.
Atlantic City jumped early on the rising tide of turf racing by inaugurating the United Nations Handicap in 1953, a 1 3/16-mile test that was an immediate success due to its lucrative (at the time) $100,000 purse and it being held on a spacious, lush one-mile course.
Another important grass race at Atlantic City was the Kelly-Olympic Handicap, the main local prep for the United Nations. It honored track president Jack Kelly, a former Olympic rower and father to the actress Grace Kelly, later the princess of Monaco. Grace Kelly, along with husband Prince Rainier and 29,000 others, attended the 1956 United Nations won by the season’s grass champion Career Boy:
The legendary Round Table won two of his three attempts in the United Nations, in 1957 and 1959, but lost during his 1958 Horse of the Year campaign to Clem. Interestingly, Willie Shoemaker rode Round Table to his two wins and was aboard Clem in his upset over Round Table, giving “The Shoe” a United Nations three-peat:
Atlantic City’s dirt features were not quite up to the standards of its turf racing. However, Kelso won his debut at the track in 1959, and the World’s Playground was a solid race for juveniles that yielded divisional champions Hill Prince (1949), Hail to Reason (1960), and even Spectacular Bid (1978).
Another World’s Playground winner was Dr. Fager (1966), who returned to Atlantic City two years later to run in the United Nations. In his only start ever on grass, Dr. Fager toted 134 pounds and won purely on class over three-time grass champion Fort Marcy and the great Australian import Tobin Bronze, a former two-time winner of the Cox Plate as well as the Caulfield Cup.
Inaugurated in 1967, the Matchmaker was also an instant success. The 1 3/16-mile, main-track test soon became one of the most sought-after prizes for fillies and mares, won or contested by such leading ladies as Politely, Straight Deal, Gamely, Gallant Bloom, Numbered Account, and Susan’s Girl. In 1974, a Columbus Day crowd of more than 16,000 watched Hall of Famer Desert Vixen win under Laffit Pincay Jr. (and yes, that is Bob Weems at the mic).
Unfortunately, the New Jersey and Philadelphia circuits were dealt an ultimately fatal blow in 1969 when Thoroughbred racing was introduced in Pennsylvania. Liberty Bell Park, the predecessor to Keystone/Philadelphia Park/Parx Racing, began running dates that overlapped with both Delaware and Atlantic City and also raced in the winter, making racing a year-round business in the Delaware Valley.
With Atlantic City’s business suffering in the mid 1970s, the track turned to night racing to survive. The United Nations continued to attract top-level horses — Manila, Steinlen, Star of Cozzene, Lure, Sky Classic, and Sandpit were among the winners. However, the Matchmaker’s status declined after it was moved to the turf while the track’s other traditional fixtures disappeared altogether.
The United Nations (sponsored at the time and run as the Caesars International on special afternoon programs) was run for the last time at Atlantic City in 1997. The winner was Influent, who also won that year’s Man o’ War, Bowling Green, Fort Marcy, and Maker’s Mark Mile:
Many of the greatest filmed/videoed moments in Atlantic City’s history are not currently accessible on the internet. Hopefully they are collecting dust somewhere and will someday be available rather than lost to history as the track now is.