History And Tales Of Long Island’s Roosevelt Raceway

Roosevelt Raceway

Roosevelt Raceway Press Photo: Public Domain

If your over fifty years old, there is a good chance that at one time in your life you may have been approached by a friend or colleague offering a tip on a horse. It was a common conversation for many, “Hey my cousin knows a guy who knows a guy whose uncle is friends with a driver that got a tip on the five horse in the seventh race at Roosevelt Friday night.” It might not have gone exactly like that, but it was probably some sort of variation. From the 1940’s up until the end of the 1980’s, Long Island’s Roosevelt Raceway enticed New Yorkers to lay down their cash for two minutes of sheer excitement multiple times an evening. For some, it was simply a night out every once in a while. For others, it was far more than just an amusement.

There are many stories that can be told from all those involved with the legacy of Roosevelt Raceway. This article will look at the history of the track and the fans and gamblers who went there from Roosevelt Raceway’s opening day on September 2, 1940 until the last horse trotted around that track on June 15, 1988.

Pre-history of Roosevelt Raceway  

In 1911, the Hempstead Plains airfield was established totaling one thousand acres. It was renamed by the United States Army in 1917 as Hazelhurst Field. One year later in 1918, the eastern section of the field was renamed in honor of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. The Lieutenant was the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. The President’s Son Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt had lost his life in aerial combat during World War I in France.[1] Eventually, the entire thousand acres was named Roosevelt Field. In 1935, the eastern section of Roosevelt field which contained an airfield was sold. The eastern section would become the home of Roosevelt Raceway. Ten years later the western section would be sold to developers who would open Roosevelt Field Shopping Center in 1956.[2]

After the eastern section of Roosevelt field was sold in 1835, a racetrack that preceded Roosevelt Raceway was built in 1936. The track was designed to host the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup. At the time, a lawyer by the name of George Morton Levy was representing the notorious gangster Charles Luciano who went by the name of Lucky Luciano.[3] George Morton Levy’s association with Luciano and friend Frank Costello presumably had an effect on Levy’s understating of gambling profits. It would not be long before Levy got the idea top open a racetrack where it could be all done legally with huge profits.

George Morton Levy put together group of investors that were entitled the “Old Country Trotting Association. The group of investors would have been meaningless if it were not for New York State legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horse races in 1939. (Pari-mutuel betting is a concept in which gamblers are betting against other gamblers in horse races instead of just gambling against the house like in a casino.) With pari-mutuel betting legal in New York, Roosevelt Raceway officially opened for business on September 2, 1940. It would be the first time horse racing was ever held under the moonlight in New York. [4]

The Early Years at Roosevelt Raceway

George Levy opened Roosevelt Raceway at a cost of twenty five thousand dollars. At the time, harness racing was not as popular as the flats (Thoroughbred Racing). In order to brew interest in harness racing, Levy understood it would be better to not compete during the day with the thoroughbred races. There was no competition at night as far as racing went. Opening at night also made it easier for gamblers who worked during the day. Furthermore, the race track offered a night out for those who viewed racing from a casual point of view.

There were high expectations for the opening night at Roosevelt Raceway. The administrators at Roosevelt Raceway were hoping for close to a capacity crowd. However, opening night at Roosevelt Raceway in 1940 had a disappointing paid attendance of only 4, 584 people. There was only $40,742 spent that opening night.[5] Nonetheless, for many of those who attended, they were soon bitten by the racing bug. A night at the track can be extremely addicting, if you manage not to lose too much money. If you win, forget about it, they got you!

That addiction and word of mouth should not be taken lightly. Within five years Roosevelt Raceway was booming. After being closed for a year due to World War II, Roosevelt Raceway was proving to be incredibly successful. However, the closure did hurt Levy and his associates financially. George Levy was forced to borrow money to keep the track from going under. The sources he used to borrow the money eventually led George Levy to be investigated by the Kefauver Committee.[6] In the end, Levy was cleared but over time, the history of Roosevelt Raceway was saddled with investigations including the final investigation into the tracks closure in 1988.

In time of war, the entertainment industry has always seen a rise in business. People need an escape from the horrors and stories of warfare. Horse betting and a night at the track was a great distraction to war. Social historians will always argue that at war’s end, new forms of entertainment will also give rise to people’s thirst for celebration and escape from mourning. There is no doubt that Roosevelt Raceway’s success was partially related to the end of World War II and the upcoming decade of good times in the 1950’s. Yes, there was the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, but the track never closed to that war, and the nation’s economic growth was too strong to stop. Through the 1950s into the 1960s, Roosevelt Raceway continued to thrive economically.

Roosevelt Raceway Inventions and Renovations

Roosevelt Raceway was a groundbreaking track in the history of harness racing for many reasons. The introduction of the mobile starting gate at Roosevelt Raceway in 1946 had a tremendous impact on the future success of harness racing. The gate was designed by an employee of a racetrack in North Randell Ohio. Steve Phillips had been toying with the idea of a mobile starting gate using his 1932 Ford Model A. Once Steve Phillips was employed by Roosevelt Raceway in 1945, he found that the Racetrack was interested in his idea. There had been many issues with false starts at Roosevelt Raceway that were frustrating the patrons and leading to long stretches of time in between races. On May 24 1946, Steve Phillips’ mobile starting gate was introduced to the crowds at Roosevelt Raceway. The gate was an instant hit and the track’s popularity grew immensely from that point on.

By the mid-1950s, many of the facilities at Roosevelt Raceway were deteriorating rapidly. This was a track that was originally built in 1936 for the motorized Vanderbilt races. An architect by the name of Arthur Froelich was paid four hundred thousand dollars to come up with plans for a new racetrack. In the end the new Roosevelt Raceway cost twenty million dollars to construct. [7] The new Roosevelt Raceway featured a fully air-conditioned Grandstand. Placed at the top of the Grandstand was a beautiful restaurant called the Cloud Casino. The Cloud Casino restaurant had a spectacular view of the track and a capacity to hold nine hundred patrons. It was huge! The restaurant would hold on to that name until the track’s eventual closing in 1988.

Along with the new Grandstand and Cloud Casino, Roosevelt Raceway patrons were treated to a grill room and a coffee shop. One of the most innovative features of the new Roosevelt Raceway was the installation of closed circuit television which allowed the bettor to watch the races from anywhere in Roosevelt Raceway where there was a closed circuit monitor. This gave patrons a close up view of the race. What we take for granted in the 21 century was a mind-blowing experience to those who attended the meets at Roosevelt Raceway in the 1950s.

Roosevelt Raceway and the Gambling Scandals

Over the years, harness racing had to deal with the many claims that races were fixed. Drivers, trainers, owners and organized crime were always accused of fixing races. In the mid 1980’s the film Easy Money depicted a scene in which Joe Pesci and Rodney Dangerfield go to the harness track to place a few bets. During the race, Joe Pesci horse is winning easily when the driver begins to pull back the horse. As the horse fights to continue trotting, the driver puts his feet into the ground to slow it down. Joe Pesci goes nuts and jumps over the rail to beat up the driver for preventing the horse from winning. It was a scene in a movie that horse players loved.

“The fix is in,” claim or the accusations that certain drivers had to deal with all the time, were rooted in the supposed ties that many racetracks had with organized crime. They were also an effect of gambler’s blaming their loses on the drivers. There is nothing worse than leaving a racetrack with empty pockets unless you are also leave owing money that you borrowed to try to win back you money. Perhaps one of the biggest reason’s gamblers complained that races were fixed, was the effect that the 1974 Superfecta Trial had on racing’s reputation.

On December 20th 1973, twenty eight persons were indicted by the Federal Government on charges of fixing superfecta races at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways.[8] Fourteen harness drivers were charged with violating Federal statutes prohibiting bribery in sporting events. The indictments included three of harness racing biggest stars at the time. Named were Del Insko, William (Buddy) Gilmour and Carmine Abbatiello.[9] Prosecutors argued that drivers were paid to keep two to three horses out of finishing in the top four of a superfecta race. This allowed organized crime to box four to six horses leading to guaranteed wins no matter what order the first four finished. Other charges claimed that some drivers were paid to finish a horse in a particular spot like win, place or show.

The trail went on for months. Over time, prosecutors had a very difficult time finding any solid evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the accused. Eventually all the drivers accused of collaborating to fix races were found not guilty by a jury in New York City’s Brooklyn Federal Court.[10] Nonetheless, the publicly that the trial generated left an awful taste in the mouths of the betting public. Many of the drivers accused in the trial would never lose the stigma associated with them from the trial’s publicity. They would continue to have hall of fame careers, but the crowds at the tracks would be cruel to them verbally. I was there at the tracks, I heard the chants all the time.

My father and uncle were big time bettors. They did everything they could to keep me away from the racetracks, but it was in my blood too. After they realized they couldn’t stop me, they decided to teach me. I learned how to read the forms, how to watch the boards, etc…. Eventually I realized that no matter how much I learned about handicapping, I was still going to walk away losing most of the time. There were not many who could handicap well and win. No matter how great of a handicapper you could become, there was still a little luck involved and of course there was always the unknown.

Roosevelt Raceway was an incredible escape from reality. You could get parking, admission, and the Racing Form, program or a Sports Eye (my fav) for all under 10 bucks. The hots dogs in the clubhouse at Roosevelt Raceway were real good. The pretzels, the beer and everything else at the Harry Steven concessions were fairly priced. You were not going to get horseplayers to spend too much money on food in a grandstand or clubhouse.  The Cloud Casino was another story, but the two dollar bettor never went into the Cloud Casino especially during the track’s last ten years. It even surprised me how empty the clubhouse at Roosevelt Raceway was when compared to the Grandstand. The Clubhouse was so much cleaner and yet most bettors did not want to pay the extra dollar for admission into the Clubhouse.

Most of my time spent at Roosevelt Raceway was in the 1980s. Those days were way past  Roosevelt Raceway’s glory years. New York’s OTB had killed track attendance. OTB not only hurt Roosevelt Raceway, it hurt Yonkers, Aqueduct and Belmont race tracks. When OTB first opened in 1971, bettors would only hear an audio call of the race.[11] There were no televised broadcast signals of the race. In the 1980s, they started showing the races in the OTB parlors on television sets. However, the tracks still had one key advantage because the OTBs did not pay track prices. OTB would take a cut out of the gambler’s winnings. Eventually in 1986, super OTB Parlors called OTB Teletheaters opened with theater seating, and an admission price. Those parlors also paid track prices and that attracted the heavy gamblers who were affected the most out of OTB’s cut at the smaller parlors.

Many will argue that the rise of OTB not only killed attendance at tracks like Roosevelt Raceway and Yonkers, it led to the eventual closing of Roosevelt Raceway. Some argue that it was simply a changing of the guard. The generation of gamblers who frequented the tracks during their glory years in the 1950s and 1960s were getting older. Many other forms of entertainment were growing and competition from tracks like the Meadowlands in New Jersey which opened in 1976 hurt the New York tracks. The opening of Resorts the first casino in Atlantic City with legalized gambling in 1978 fueled an entire new era of competition for the gambler’s money.

It was a sad day for so many when Roosevelt Raceway closed its doors for good on June 15, 1988. Following the closing of Roosevelt Race an investigation of the sale of the property ensued. In 1984, a group of investors had brought Roosevelt Raceway and its property promising to keep the track open and successful. The group had secured a 54 million dollar bond through the Hempstead Town Industrial Development Agency to purchase the property. These were bonds that were exempt from federal state and local taxes.[12] Four years later they sold the property for close to a 100 million dollar profit because of the value of the real estate the track was built on. However, the original bonds by the Hempstead Town Industrial Development Agency were approved because of the promise of the new owners to revitalize the track and stop the losses.

The result of the investigation was concluded and presented to the public in a 507 page document. In the end, the Nassau County Grand Jury investigating the closure and sale of Roosevelt Race concluded that they did not find reasonable cause to believe that any crime had been committed by those who purchased and sold Roosevelt Raceway. [13]  The jury also stated that no further investigation or action would be warranted.

Investigation Report on closing of Roosevelt Raceway

Roosevelt Raceway was home to so many people who worked there most of their lives. From the people who worked behind the betting windows to those who groomed the horses, from the drivers to the trainers, from the fans to the parking lot attendants, from the porters to the cooks, it was all gone on June 15, 1988. It is a place that is missed dearly by so many.

Sources

[1] Eisenstadt, P. E. (2005). The encyclopedia of New York State/ editor in chief, Peter Eisenstadt ; managing editor, Laura-Eve Moss ; foreword by Carole F. Huxley. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. p.1337

[2] Eisenstadt, p 1337

[3] Howard, Victoria M. Roosevelt Raceway Where It All Began. New York Tate Pub & Enterprises Ll, 2014. p 24

[4] Howard, p 27

[5] Howard p 41

[6] Howard p 45

[7] Howard p.53

[8] Cady, Steve. “28 ARE INDICTED BY FEDERAL JURY IN RACING FIXES.” The New York Times. December 21, 1973. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1973/12/21/archives/28-are-indicted-by-federal-jury-in-racing-fixes-13-drivers-are.html.

[9] Cady

[10] Cady, Steve. “Trot Trial Leaves Threat of Stigmas.” The New York Times. June 03, 1974. Accessed March 26, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1974/06/03/archives/trot-trial-leaves-threat-of-stigmas-racefix-trial-leaves-threat-of.html.

[11] “New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation.” History of New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation – FundingUniverse. Accessed March 27, 2019. http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/new-york-city-off-track-betting-corporation-history/.

[12] New York (State). Temporary Commission of Investigation. Investigation into the Sale and Closing of Roosevelt Raceway. New York, NY: Commission, 1991.p 16

[13] P. 464

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