After William H. Clark’s Empire City Trotting Club opened on September 4, 1899, it became the source of debate when the man behind the racetrack died a year later. His heirs underwent a series of legal issues and litigation procedures that resulted in the closure of the track for seven years. Only during special events did it open up for racing. On one such occasion, history was made when a one-mile record was set by an automobile race at the facility that had a few name changes before becoming Yonkers Raceway. In 1902, Barney Oldfield’s Ford 999 covered the distance in 55.54 seconds at what was called the Empire City Race Track at the time.
Where Legacies Began
Located at the intersection of Central Park Avenue and Yonkers Avenue in Yonkers, New York, this raceway is near the city’s border and is now considered a city landmark. In 1907, the raceway was purchased by a New York grocery store businessman, James Butler. He opened it up to host thoroughbred horseracing instead of automobiles. Two years after his death in 1934, the infamous Seabiscuit won the Scarsdale Handicap at a racetrack that was still referred to as Empire City.
When the state legalized parimutuel wagering in 1940, the racetrack was converted in 1942 so it could accommodate harness racing. In 1943, the Hambletonian was held that year which featured Volo Song and driver Ben White winning this prestigious harness race event.
Ups and Downs
In 1950, William H. Cane was in charge of the Algam Corporation syndicate that purchased Empire City and turned it into Yonkers Raceway. Through him, the renamed track underwent extensive renovations, including the half-mile oval replacement of the one-mile track that was there beforehand. When it reopened on April 27, 1950, it welcomed 21,178 betters and spectators. On May 20, 1950, Yonkers handed out the first million-dollar handle in trotting history.
In 1954, Yonkers made history again as the first harness facility to hit a two-million-dollar handle in just one night. Throughout the 1950s, the popularity of the raceway sometimes had a crowd of at least fifty thousand in attendance. In 1955, the Yonkers Trot became the first installment of what became the Trotting Triple Crown. This was also the same year the first Cane Pace was held.
The popularity and future of Yonkers Raceway while under Cane’s authority reached its peak on November 30, 1962, after it became the first harness track to top the three million dollar handle mark on a single night. However, this changed once the decline began not long after. This ultimately lead to the facility becoming neglected. Over time, it became a shadow of what it once was. At one point, it was either take it down or fix it up.
On December 15, 1969, the raceway once again broke the three million dollar mark in a single night handle. Four years later, Yonkers was purchased for fifty-two million dollars by the five brothers of the Rooney Family. It was the largest purchase of a private racetrack in American history. The first act the new owners did was hire Milton d. Taylor to be the Director of Racing.
This is the same family that has owned the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers since 1933. It first started with Art, then his oldest of five sons, Dan, and now with Art Rooney II. Both the team and Yonkers are still owned by the Rooneys to this day.
The Maras Family are part owners of the New York Giants. Both families share an Irish-American ancestry that traces their roots to Newry, County Down, Ireland. Actresses Kate Mara and Rooney Mara are the great-granddaughters of Tim Mara, the founder of the New York Giants, and Art Rooney, the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the Rooney Family are the owners who manage the direction of Yonkers, the influence of the Mara Family can also be felt.
The legacy of Yonkers under the ownership of the Rooneys saw it go through a series of changes. As of 1972, the management of Yonkers began with Timothy James Rooney and it has remained as a joint venture shared between the Rooney Family and their relatives, the Mara Family. Those changes included the installment of color television screens. In 1973, the $317 million it received in total handles took only 160 racing dates to achieve. It was the highest the venue had ever received in such a short period of time.
In 1986, Yonkers also brought thoroughbred racing back to the track but in the form of simulcasting from New York Racing Association’s tracks. These live telecasts, which originated from Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, brought in a whole new era of racing at the Hilltop Oval.
Since 1991, Yonkers has hosted the annual New York Night of Champions. This showcase event features the best of the best among two-year-old and three-year-old horses from both sexes and gaits. This is the same event that features the New York Sires Stakes program.
Records & Renovations
On April 24, 1993, Silver Almahurst set a world harness racing record on a half-mile track with a finishing time of 1:50:4 to win the George Morton Levy Memorial Final Not long after this, American Winner set a new Yonkers Trot record on July 10, 1993, with a tie of 1:56:2 in what was the first of three jewels of the Trotting Triple Crown. It was also a new time record for the track.
On August 14, 1993, Giant Force won the thirty-fifth International Trot in 2:27. The American horse’s time broke the world record for the mile and a quarter distance.
In 1996, the raceway’s finish line was moved to the end of the stretch by 220 feet from its previous 440 feet. This was a year before the grandstand itself was demolished. At one point, there was the possibility of Yonkers Raceway being sold to the National Football League’s New York Jets. However, the stadium proposal was shelved after environmental considerations were taken into account, as well as a lack of political interest.
Maintaining itself as a racetrack, Yonkers underwent major renovations in 1997. This was also the same year that hosted the final Cane Pace race, which was won by Western Dreamer. That horse then captured the sport’s first Pacing Triple Crown since Ralph Hanover in 1983.
It was at Yonkers Raceway driver Walter Case Jr. earned a new record for the most amount of wins by a driver in one track in a single year with 978. This was achieved in 1998, as well as a record he set in the total amount of 1,076 wins in a single harness racing season. On January 16, 1992, he was also the youngest driver to earn five thousand victories after piloting Royal Ironstone as the first horse to cross the finishing line.
Where Legacies Continue
On October 11, 2006, the first phase of Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway opened up its doors with little fanfare. Despite this, the revenue it earned outpaced its nearest neighbor, Saratoga Casino and Raceway by two-thirds. On December 26 of that same year, the second phase opened up with an additional 120,000 square feet so it could house the four thousand slot machines that were installed. After this, the third phase opened on March 12, 2007, which added thirteen hundred additional slot machines. As the only casino in the area that falls under state lottery laws, it has a lower minimum age allowance to play there at eighteen years old instead of twenty-one.
The cost to build the casino at Yonkers was $225 million. This was later met with a fifty-million-dollar expansion that broke ground on July 26, 2011, and was completed in January 2013. This expansion added 66,000 square feet of impressive architecture.
For Yonkers, it doesn’t stop there. There are intentions to keep growing and keep expanding as its Empire City Casino continues to serve as the raceway’s primary cash cow that plays an instrumental role in the racetrack’s future as it continues to pave out its legacy.
While the Cane Pace is no more a leg of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Pacers, it now hosts a leg for the Messenger Stakes. It’s also home to the Yonkers Trot, which is one of the legs of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Trotters. When the facility held these two trots on the same day on November 25, 2006, it made history as the first harness track in the United States to host two Triple Crown races within this time span. As a venue with such rich history, Yonkers Raceway continues to establish itself as an elite track that’s still trotting its way as one of New York’s landmark legacies.
History Of Yonkers Raceway article published on ClassicNewYorkHistory.com ©2022
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