On life support for the better part of the last 20 years, the plug has been pulled on venerable Atlantic City Race Course.
Just 10 miles from the Jersey shore, Atlantic City Race Course was the dream of John B. Kelly, a three-time Olympic rowing champion and father of Princess Grace. Kelly was Philadelphia royalty, ran a successful masonry contracting business in the city and owned a vacation home just south of Atlantic City in Ocean City. Kelly's contracting company even completed the brickwork for the race course that he founded in partnership with some well-known entertainers.
Atlantic City Race Course opened in 1946 to great fanfare amidst a crowd of more than 25,000 . Celebrities like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis had ownership interests in the track. Alfred Hitchcock filmed scenes from “Marnie” at ACRC and in the early 1990s the track hosted the “Mane Event,” which featured a boxing match on the grandstand apron right after the Caesars International Handicap race was run.
Atlantic City Race Course proved to be a popular destination for fans and horsemen alike, especially with its one-mile grass course, once considered to be the best turf in the country. ACRC also had the distinction of being the first racetrack to conduct a season of racing under the lights and the first to simulcast wagering from another racetrack, the Meadowlands, in the early 1980s.
Some of the best horses of the 20th century raced at ACRC, the likes of which included Round Table, Dr. Fager, Kelso, Forego, Manila, Lure, Sky Classic and Star of Cozzene. Under the stewardship of Atlantic City Racing Association president Robert Levy, ACRC created the popular “Matchmaker” stakes in which the winning horse, in addition to the purse, earned a stallion season, an innovative concept in horse racing. That race was won by such outstanding fillies and mares as Politely, Gallant Bloom, Susan's Girl, Numbered Account, Just a Game, Mairzy Doates and Carotene.
By the late 1970s, the granting of simultaneous dates to Monmouth Park and the arrival of Resorts Casino in Atlantic City proper began the downfall of ACRC. For the next 20 years, the track scraped by and loped along as business dwindled. Racetrack property was sold off for housing and retail development, and the backside areas became more and more constricted with the passing of each year. Barns were abandoned and sit today slowly deteriorating.
As the millennium approached, ACRC was running abbreviated meets and in 2001, the track and surrounding property were sold to current owner Greenwood Racing. Brief live meetings continued for the next decade while fans and industry folks speculated on how long the race course would operate before finally being shut down.
The first time I saw a race at Atlantic City Race Course, the brilliant Exbourne won the Caesars International Handicap for future Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel and Juddmonte Farms in the summer of 1991. That race hooked me on the beautiful turf course which, in my eyes, could only compare to my home track, Belmont Park.
I was at Atlantic City Race Course in 2004 to watch the simulcast of Smarty Jones' failed attempt at the Triple Crown. At that point, little did I know that ACRC was running a paltry six days a year. Venturing around, I noticed the condition of the plant and began to wonder if the owner would be interested in selling the property. Although the grandstand was in poor condition, the racetrack itself was intact, and more importantly, the turf course was perfect.
I spoke to family, friends and some potential investors that were interested in acquiring the track. In 2005, numerous phone calls to Greenwood officials went unanswered and no return phone calls were ever received. I even developed the beginnings of a business plan and sent a PowerPoint presentation to Greenwood officials for consideration.
Eventually I was told that Greenwood was continuing the abbreviated meets and that Hal Handel, CEO of Greenwood at that time, would be overseeing a revitalization of ACRC, which included constructing a new grandstand and adding up to 14 more racing days to the current six.
Sometime in 2006, I was invited to ACRC to meet with officials about my interest in the racecourse. We talked about ACRC and ultimately I was told that I would have no involvement unless I chose to apply for a job at the racecourse, working in the race book section. I declined and reiterated my offer to potentially purchase the property. The answer was still “no.” Unconvinced about its future, I built and maintained a website called SaveACRC.com to bring attention to the current state of affairs with Atlantic City Race Course.
It wasn't long before several local newspapers contacted me to inquire about my website and campaign to save ACRC. I continued to invest time and money into the grassroots effort and began to put small road signs promoting my website on public property near the racecourse. Signs that said “Help SAVE the historic Atlantic City Race Course,” went up on roads leading to the racecourse, on medians, but never on racecourse property itself. Shortly after I put the signs out, they disappeared. I'd put more signs out, and they would quickly disappear. Then the email appeared. Officials of the racecourse asked me to stop placing signs near the track. I decided to back off for a while and wait until the next race meet in 2007.
I found myself in a surreal situation on Aug. 9, 2007. A few months earlier I had received a summons from Hamilton Township, in which the racetrack was located, for “defiant trespassing.” ACRC officials were pressing charges against me for placing signs on the property. During the court hearings, I testified that, in 2006, I mistakenly placed a few signs on racetrack property. I told the court that this next round of signs were purposely placed on property off the ACRC premises. One track official testified he found one sign on racetrack property. Another track official testified that I placed hundreds of signs all around the racetrack but not on racetrack property. The judge decided the case and I was found guilty of “defiant trespassing.” I never placed signs near ACRC again. I never returned to the racetrack, either.
The website was paid for and would remain visible until the end of that year. I didn't renew the agreement with the website host and eventually got notice it would be shut down. My story ends here. Or does it? The website continues on, albeit, on life support, much like its namesake had for the past 20 years, each day not knowing when the plug would be pulled.
Two weeks removed from my court hearing, Hal Handel resigned as CEO of Greenwood Racing and moved on to another company. Surprisingly, ACRC continued to idle on but with no vigor, almost lifeless, except for those six days each year, when it came alive for a few hours a day.
The place known for “a smile and an eighth” regaled fans for almost 70 years. When a Thoroughbred walked the ring in the backyard or exploded from the starting gate and hit the ground running on that glorious turf course, ACRC buzzed with excitement. The rare sound of the bugler on those historic grounds signaled the return of the glory days when anyone who wanted to be seen, was seen at Atlantic City Race Course.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.”
Goodbye, Atlantic City Race Course.
Photographer Eric Kalet's images appear frequently in the Paulick Report
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