Horse racing in New Jersey likely began soon after the first settlers and horses arrived in the colony as riders sought to test the speed and endurance of their animals against each other. Somewhat more organized competitions began to be a feature of local fairs, and in the 1830s the Monmouth County Fair held annual harness races, although it seems that local horsemen also competed in mounted pickup races against each other. The races at the Fair were followed by the founding in 1870 of Freehold Raceway, which is believed to be the first racetrack in the nation.
Other tracks soon were established throughout the state. One located in what is now Newark's Weequahic Park attracted some of the nation's top harness horses and jockeys, racing around a track originally built in the 1850s on the outskirts of Newark for what was then the Waverly Fair, which was the site for races sponsored by the Gentlemen's Driving Club. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant attended the Newark races when he was in the city to inaugurate the Newark Industrial Exhibition. Two world records were set in separate races at the track on a racing day in October 1927 before a crowd estimated between 25,000 and 40,000. Racing continued at Weequahic, with a gap starting in World War II through 1954, until it was permanently closed in 1961.
From 1885 to 1893, the Gutenberg Race Track (in what is now North Bergen) hosted the only true racing in the world which continued through the winter. Located across the Hudson River from Manhattan, weekend crowds typically were in the range of 10,00 to 12,000, with the track deriving most of its revenue from renting spaces to bookmakers who set up tables at the track. According to one newspaper account explaining Gutenberg's appeal to New York gamblers, .“…Betting upon the races has become a business with a large number of New Yorkers, and although the city poolrooms ‘attend to the wants’ of a great many, there is still a large contingent of bettors who prefer to visit the track."
Etching of racing at Monmouth Park. Image: RobertHazelrigg.com
On the Jersey Shore, a track opened in 1870 near Long Branch, seeking to attract the visitors to what was then one of the nation's most fashionable resorts. The Monmouth Cup, Champion Stakes and Freehold Stakes were held at Long Branch in the 1800s, and the nation's most famous jockeys competed at the track in the 1880s, including Isaac Murphy, the African American star who won three Kentucky Derbies. In 1886, the sprinter Tremont, viewed by contemporary journalists as the best two-year-old trained in the United States in the nineteenth century, won the 11th of his 13 victories at the track-- a record total for two-year-olds that still stands today. The track would close, however, shortly before New Jersey banned pari-mutuel betting in 1894. After a gap of fifty years, the track would re-open in 1946 as a new venue, Monmouth Park, when betting was again approved in a 1939 state referendum.
Toward the end of the century, moral reform movements targeted alcohol and gambling and had an inevitable impact on racing, with New Jersey banning parimutuel gambling at race tracks in 1894. The prohibition undermined the viability of several tracks, with both Guttenberg and Monmouth closing as a result. Other tracks like Weequahic, however, continued to operate supported by admission, concession and boarding revenues, with their patrons' demand for gambling satisfied by informal betting among themselves or by local bookies, who soon came under the influence of crime bosses and organized crime networks.
- 1939 referendum to allow betting
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, pressure developed to renew betting at New Jersey tracks for its argued potential as a tool to increase jobs, investment and tax revenues, particularly as race tracks in other states allowing betting continued to prosper and were able to offer higher purses, attract the highest-quality horses to their races and lure New Jersey-bred horses and trainers to relocate to their tracks and breeding farms. In 1939, New Jersey finally repealed the ban enacted in 1894 by a referendum which passed by over 155,000 votes in an election turnout of some 760,000 voters. * Vote 'Yes' to Horse Racing in New Jersey 1939, Colin's Ghost.org
- Opening of Garden State, Monmouth Park and Atlantic City
The approval of the referendum led to the opening of three new tracks. The first was Garden State Park in Cherry Hill which began racing in 1942, with its Jersey Derby and Garden State Stakes becoming recognized as two of the nation’s premier races attracting top horses like Citation and Secretariat. As a two-year-old in 1972, Secretariat came from 15 lengths behind on the backstretch to win the Garden State Stakes. The new track also attracted other development to the area such as a well-known Philadelphia night club, the Latin Casino, which moved to a new location across the street from the track. In 1946, two other tracks joined Garden State.
Monmouth Park opened on the site of the track originally built in 1870. Investors in the new track included wealthy and politically influential businessmen led by Amory Haskell, who was a key figure in lobbying for approval of the 1939 betting referendum and would head the track for twenty years until his death in 1966. Other major shareholders in the track included David Wilentz, the former New Jersey Attorney General and prosecutor of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh; David "Sonny" Werblin, the prominent Hollywood agent whose clients included Ronald Reagan and Johnny Carson and would later head the New York Jets and the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority; Philip Iselin, a clothing manufacturer who succeeded Werblin as president of the New York Jets and also was named chair of Monmouth Park following Haskell's death; and Leon Hess, Chairman of the Hess Oil Company and owner of the New York Jets. Since 1968, the Haskell Invitational race named after the track's founder has been the major race between the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup series, with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah winning the 2015 Haskell before a crowd of over 60,000.
The other track that opened in 1946 was the Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing. The track was backed by a consortium of local businessmen along with such celebrities who often had appeared in Atlantic City as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Harry James and Xavier Cugat. During the 1940s and 1950s, Atlantic City was regarded as one of the nation’s top tracks, but after gambling came to Atlantic City in 1977, it dramatically reduced attendance and revenues, and the track scaled back its live racing days to just a handful each year, finally closing permanently in January 2015.
- The Meadowlands
In the 1950s and 1960s, the profitability of racing led to proposals to use tracks as vehicles to generate revenues to finance larger entertainment complexes. One plan included using the track in Cherry Hill to lure the Philadelphia Phillies to a newly-built stadium next to the track, an idea which pressured Philadelphia to successfully overcome the opposition (and repeal the ban on Sunday beer sales) which had blocked building a new home for the team in the City.
The concept of using racing as a financing tool, however, soon resurfaced in the northern part of the state in a project advanced for the Meadowlands by Governor William Cahill, whose key advisers included Joseph McCrane, a former general manager of Garden State Park founded by his father-in-law, Eugene Mori. Both McCrane and Mori had been involved in the unsuccessful effort to bring the Phillies to a new stadium at Cherry Hill next to the race track. Adapting the former Cherry Hill plan for the Meadowlands, Cahill proposed establishing the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority to build and operate a new racetrack with much of its revenue used to subsidize construction of a football stadium for the NFL's New York Giants. After facing stiff opposition from New York political officials, that plan would be implemented after Cahill left office by Governor Brendan Byrne, with the Meadowlands Race Track's opening in 1977 followed by the new Giants Stadium and subsequently by the indoor arena named after Byrne. In 1981, the Meadowlands was able to persuade the sponsors of the Hambletonian, harness racing’s most prominent race for 3-year-old trotters, to relocate from its long-time home in Du Quoin, Illinois.
Soon after the success of bringing the Hambletonian to the Meadowlands, however, there were increasing signs that racing was declining in attendance, interest and the level of revenues it generated. The decline was experienced at other tracks in the country as racing competed with other entertainment options, but was exacerbated in New Jersey as bettors became drawn to casinos in Atlantic City and nearby states. By the latter years of the 1980s, all tracks in the state were facing financial problems.
Garden State Park, which had closed after a fire destroyed its grandstand in 1977, reopened in 1985 with a new glass and steel grandstand built after the track was acquired by the flamboyant (and later imprisoned) stock broker Robert Brennan. But the new track, undermined by competition from Atlantic City casinos, quickly failed to meet its attendance and revenue targets and was forced to lay off much of its staff and cut back its racing calendar. The track continued to struggle until permanently closing in 2001.
- State government regulation and support
The New Jersey Racing Commission is responsible for regulating the horse racing industry. It licenses tracks, owners, trainers, jockeys and others working at tracks; oversees pari-mutuel wagering both at tracks and off-track sites; conducts testing of blood and fluid specimens of horses; supervises the operation of races; and initiates disciplinary actions for violations of its regulations. In 2016, the three operating racetracks in New Jersey scheduled 271 live racing dates.
Over the years, New Jersey's state government has provided various subsidies and other types of support for the racing and equine industries. These programs have been justified by their advocates for their benefits in maintaining open space of the substantial acreage needed for horse farms and the economic benefits and tax revenues generated by the racing industry. In 1971, Governor Cahill signed into law the New Jersey Sire Stakes Program to encourage the breeding of Standardbred horses competing in harness races. Using revenue from race entry fees posted by horsemen, the program funds purses for winning Standardbreds sired by New Jersey-based stallions registered with the Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey, thus giving stallion owners an incentive to locate their stallions and horse farms in New Jersey.
More indirectly, the state also allows farm owners, including those with horse farms, to be assessed for local property taxes on the basis of their property's value as a farm, accordingly avoiding the substantial additional property tax burden which would be imposed if the property were taxed on its market value for development for other uses like housing. Another program authorizes the state to purchase development rights of farms, thus giving farm owners an incentive to forego development and maintain their farms in breeding, boarding and related equine uses.
The state also previously subsidized the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park race tracks with $30 million in casino revenues when they were operated by the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, but this support ended when the tracks were privatized by the Christie Administration over the 2011-2012 racing year, which disclosed that the two tracks were losing annually some $15 million to $20 million. Attendance at the Meadowlands, which averaged 17,000 daily in the first years of its operation, had fallen to some 3,000 in the final year of its operation by the state. Soon after taking control of the former state-run tracks, however, the new private operators complained that they were at severe competitive disadvantages with tracks in nearby states where tracks were located at or near casinos or were subsidized by tax revenues. Attempts to get legislation to allow slot machines and video gaming terminals be installed at the tracks, thus broadening the gambling options for track patrons, failed to gain adequate support, with Atlantic City casinos opposing the measure as further undercutting their declining betting revenues.
In 2016, a referendum will be on the November ballot seeking approval of a constitutional amendment to authorize three new casinos in North Jersey which also would allocate two percent of casino revenues to the tracks in the state, as well as provide the potential for one of the casinos to be located at or near the Meadowlands Racetrack.
- Steeplechase and Fox Hunts
Although racing is most commonly associated with mounted thoroughbred and harness standardbred competitions at race tracks, New Jersey also is the site for other events with roots in equine history. The Far Hills Race Meeting at Moorland Farm in
Somerset County attracts some 30,000 spectators annually to see a day of races which feature The Grand National steeplechase, the most prestigious race in American steeplechasing. The Meeting offers some of the richest purses in America, and traces its origins to the Essex Hunt, a fox hunting event founded in Montclair in 1870. One of the early Essex Hunt races started in the nineteenth century, the New Jersey Hunt Cup Steeplechase, remains on the current Far Hills Race Meeting card. The Far Hills Meeting also is one of the premier events in the state for social and business entertaining and networking.
While traditional fox hunting has decreased in response to objections over animal abuse and the loss of an adequate expanse of lands open for riding, a few hunts continue to be held, frequently under rules which prevent killing of the animal or which use planted scents for hounds to follow rather than a live fox. The Essex Fox Hounds, formerly the Essex Hunt which gave birth to the Far Hills Race Meeting, continues to sponsor hunts, although the events now are typically held in Somerset and Morris Counties. The Essex group became widely known when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis rode on its annual Thanksgiving Day hunts in the 1970s when she resided at her weekend estate in Bernardsville and owned horses that were trained locally. Other hunt clubs include the Windy Hollow Hunt, based in Rockland County in New York State but which also has run hunts in Sussex County for over fifty years; Spring Valley Hounds, founded in 1915 by the grandson of the prominent clockmaker Seth Thomas, active in Sussex and Warren Counties; the Amwell Valley Hounds, which has sponsored hunts in Hunterdon County since the 1960s; and the Monmouth County Hunt, founded in the 1880s whose later masters included Armory Haskell, the founder and president of Monmouth Park Racetrack.
- Horse shows, fairs and rodeo
Like they have since colonial days, horses also continue to be featured at equestrian competitions for hunters, jumpers and dressage, as well as in horse shows at county and local fairs. The Sussex County Horse Show was begun in 1919, and is now one of the country’s oldest. Since 1999, the Show has been part of the official New Jersey State Fair, with over 2,000 horses on site.
The Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta also host several other eguestrian shows and events, with perhaps the most prominent the Garden State Horse Show presented by the Junior Essex Troop annually in May. Commenced in 1951, this five-day show features the Ted Grant Welcome Stake Grand Prix, the John H. Fritz Challenge, and the Junior Essex Troop Garden State Grand Prix.
The Salem County Fair also gave birth to what is the current Cowtown Rodeo, started in 1929 in Woodstown at the Fair's original auction grounds and now the oldest weekly rodeo in the nation. The rodeo was held annually during the Fair until 1937, and then suspended until renewed in 1955 at a new location separate from the Fair, with its 4,000-seat arena built in 1967 in Pilesgrove. Now in the fourth generation of ownership of the Harris family, the Rodeo also produces rodeos throughout the East Coast, and breeds and raises bucking stock for their own and other rodeos.