On June 27, 1958, hotel owner Sidney Sussman opened up Monticello Raceway as an entertainment venue for guests. He, along with the Stlutskys and Kutshers, each had interests in the raceway that served as more than just a track for horses. Located in Monticello, Sullivan County, New York, the Mighty M established itself as a harness racetrack featuring standardbred horses. The idea was to draw in more people to the resorts in the Monticello area.
Not even the freakish deep snow was enough to deter the Sullivan County Harness Racing Association from opening up the racetrack for spectators to come to check out this new facility. When it officially began as a track, it was considered a lightning-fast venue. Straight out of the starting gate, it seemed destined to make history as more than simply another oval track for horses. Situated on two hundred and forty-six acres of land, it was easily accessible for patrons coming in from within the state, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Long before Monticello established this racetrack, it earned a statewide reputation for its harness racing conditions. From New York City, it’s a ninety-mile drive that leads into the scenic Sullivan Valley. It was a tourist destination then and it still is now. At the time, it was designed as a competitor against Roosevelt Raceway while Yonkers Raceway was undergoing renovations.
On July 22, 1975, it held the richest race to date in all of the horseracing industry with a $250,000.00 USD prize winning earned by Hall of Famer pacer, Silk Stockings in its Monticello-OTB Classic. The success of this event became an annual tradition until 1985. Since then the New York Sire Stakes are part of the track’s premier racing events, along with the Magnificent 7 Classic Series.
Over time, Monticello established itself as an innovator of harness racing, thanks to the unique promotions it held to win over fan appeal. This included Rock ‘N Racing, an event that pooled together the biggest names from the entertainment industry with the venue’s racing programs. Notable talents such as Natalie Cole, Ike & Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, and Bobby Vinton have each taken part in this creative twist to horseracing.
One of the most memorable races in its history was a race featuring Tar Boy and his driver, Adios Butler. The duo won what was a new track record at the time at 2:00:3 on DATE, 1960. This was broken in 2007 when Hall of Famer John Campbell drove the six-year-old stallion, NAME, to a wire-to-wire victory in 1:51:2. This $480,000.00 USD purse in the Monticello-OTB Classic Final became the richest race in the track’s history to date.
On June 20, 1980, Monticello served as a closed-circuit host for the first boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. It was the first time the racetrack hosted championship boxing with its harness racing program. This resulted in the biggest attendance it had up to that point with 17,495 spectators.
In 1983, Louis Berenson purchased Monticello Raceway for $3.5 million before selling it for ten million dollars to Catskills Development, a subsidiary of Watermark Investments. The idea was for Watermark to partner with Oneida to open up a casino. However, Oneida bowed out and St. Regis Mohawks took their place. In 1998, it was approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Eastern Office for the Mohawks to obtain land trust for the raceway. Two years later, the approval was given for the casino but the Mohawks discontinued its partnership with Catskill Development in favor of Park Place Entertainment for a casino at Kutsher’s Sports Academy.
Since 2000, there were several attempts to add a gaming casino by the St. Regis Mohawk tribe at the raceway. It often encountered backlash, including from Donald Trump and his fellow Atlantic Casino operators. Trump’s efforts wound up having him fined $250,000.00 USD for failure to disclose his lobbying efforts. Those efforts included secretly funding attack ads against the casino run by the anti-gambling group, New York Institute for Law and Society. When the group ran its ads, they claimed it was funded by about twelve thousand campaign donors who felt the casino was inappropriate. Evidence revealed the vast majority of the money came from Trump.
Miracles and Mayhem
In the meantime, Empire Resort was able to install its multi-million dollar Mighty M Gaming in 2004. This installed 1,800 video terminals at the track. Going into the next year, the Cayuga tribe ended their partnership with Empire Records. At the same time, Mowhaks leave Park Place and Kitsher’s and partner up with Empire for a casino at the raceway. This came about after the drama of legislation approvals and withdrawals took place with the state government. Finally, in 2006, the federal government gave environmental approval for a six-hundred million-dollar casino project at Monticello Raceway.
As fate seemed to have it, the racetrack witnessed what’s been deemed as the Monticello Miracle. A racehorse accidentally struck World War II veteran Don Karkos in the exact same spot that took away the man’s eyesight after a naval battle took place while he was on board the USS Rapidan. This particular hit somehow gave Karkos his sight back. The theory has it the collision dislodged the shrapnel that had been stuck in the man’s body up until that moment.
On the downside, trainer Marc Mosher and veterinarian Berkeley Briggs were charged with injecting a trotter at Monticello Raceway with a fatal dose of a performance-enhancing drug. This unfortunate incident cost the life of a four-year-old mare, Too Much Data, when they injected her prior to her scheduled February 20, 2001 race. Both the New York State Racing and Wagering Board and state police investigated the matter that managed to reveal this tragic conspiracy. On the flip side, Monticello’s record handle was achieved in 2001 as December 12th saw an intake of $1,191,695.00 USD.
On March 3, 2022, history was made again at the Raceway when a new record was set during the fifth race that was held that day. $126,851.00 USD was wagered, breaking the 2014 record of $126,583.00 USD. The day itself held nine races that had a total handle of $704,649.53 USD.
In 2008, Empire Resorts abandoned its partnership with the St. Regis Mohawks, putting an end to the tribe’s bid for the casino project. This came about after the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior blocked Mohawk’s plans for a casino as it felt the tribe’s reservation was too far off track along the American-Canadian border.
Three years later, Concord developer Louis Cappelli and Mohegan Sun locks up the approval to proceed. Meanwhile, Empire Resorts teamed up with Entertainment Properties Trust from Kansas to establish a casino and resort village at the old Concord Hotel site. This included the plans of relocating the harness track to this particular location. Doing so sparked a lawsuit by Cappelli against the two companies for $1.5 billion as he saw their actions as an act of conspiracy against his resort plan. This resulted in the state government to agree seven casinos to open up in New York.
In May 2013, Governor Cuomo proposed a state-wide referendum that led to an agreement of four upstate casinos in three regions. Catskills-Hudson Valley, Southern Tier near Binghamton, and the Albany-Saratoga Springs corridor were the destined locations to receive these casinos. This enabled Empire Resorts, thanks to the financial backing from casino magnate K.T. Lim, to develop Monticello Raceway as one of the four state-approved facilities to have a gaming license.
As of February 2018, Resorts World Catskills opened up nearby Monticello Raceway. They’re both owned by Empire Resorts which ultimately led to the slots and racino part of the racetrack shutting down for good in 2019. The racetrack still continues as a year-round venue for harness racing that enables betting opportunities for the patrons.