OFF TO THE RACES

The story of Seabiscuit – told in Laura Hillenbrand’s book and the 2003 movie – is one of those horse tales that everyone thinks he knows: How the ungainly, little colt, who had lost his regular jockey to a riding accident, came out of the West to defeat that powerful Easterner, War Admiral, in the 1938 Pimlico Special.
The facts are a little less romantic, as facts often are. For one thing, Seabiscuit and the Triple Crown-winning War Admiral shared some great genes as descendants of Man o’ War, although neither resembled that legendary steed, who won 20 of 21 races in the post-World War I era and is generally regarded as one of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever. (The shapely, velvety War Admiral, though perhaps handsomer than Seabiscuit, wasn’t particularly big either.)

Secondly, although Seabiscuit was a star of the West, he also shone in our own backyard.

“Seabiscuit won more stake races at Yonkers’ Empire City then at any other racetrack,” says Bob Galterio, vice president of Empire City at Yonkers Raceway.

It’s just one of the juicy nuggets that give the place – a half-mile Standardbred harness- racing dirt track and slots racino – its piquant history.

A Yonkers’ landmark, the track began its life in harness racing when William H. Clark opened it as the Empire City Trotting Club in 1899. His death a year later sent the place into litigation and the track went dark, save for events like the 1902 car race in which Barney Oldfield, driving the Ford “999,” set a one-mile record with a time of 55:54 seconds.

New York grocery titan James Butler would return the other kind of horse power to Yonkers, reopening the venue in 1907 for Thoroughbreds, who, Galterio says, are more fragile than the Standardbreds used in harness racing and thus race less frequently. This is where Seabiscuit comes in, taking the Scarsdale Handicap in 1936 on his way to his eventual showdown with War Admiral.

The track hosted “the flats,” as this kind of Thoroughbred racing is sometimes called, until 1942, when it went back to harness racing. In 1950, the Algam Corp., headed by William H. Cane, turned the site into Yonkers Raceway.

The turbulent ’60s saw a decline in harness racing’s popularity. But better times were ahead. In 1972, the Rooney Family – as in the five sons of Pittsburgh Steelers’ founder Art Rooney – acquired the track. While remaining a home to harness racing, the track welcomed flea markets and the annualWestchester County Fair, sponsored by the Westchester County Department of Parks, in the 1990s. The finish line was moved in 1996 to the end of the stretch, increasing its length to 660 feet, and a year later, the grandstand was demolished.

For a time, it looked like Yonkers Raceway would be transformed into a new home for the New York Jets. (Just think: Tim Tebow could’ve been playing there.) But the site was destined to remain a track. In 2001, New York state authorized slot machines at eight racetracks, including Yonkers Raceway, paving the way for a $225 million renovation by EwingCole. The original six-story clubhouse was refurbished to accommodate more than 2,000 video gaming machines and restaurants on the first two floors. A one-story building was added to hold an additional 3,000 video gaming machines, a food court, bars and an entertainment lounge. (Under state lottery laws, the minimum age to play the slots at Empire City is 18.)

The public apparently liked what it saw: During the first week of its October 2006 opening, the raceway netted $3.8 million, streaking passed its nearest competitor, Saratoga Casino and Raceway, by two-thirds.

Since then, the track has undergone a renaissance, Galterio says.

“We have the best drivers and trotters. We simulcast the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May. There will be a summer festival with bands, games and more and a fall festival.”

The track – which is home to the Messenger Stakes, one leg of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Pacers, as well as the Yonkers Trot, a leg of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Trotters – will again welcome the Art Rooney Pace, on June 2. And for the first time in more than 30 years, there will be a concert series this summer.

Guess the Bo Diddley song used in the track’s commercials is true. You really can’t judge a book by looking at the cover.

For more, visit empirecitycasino.com.

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