In my life as a horse racing
fan, the Meadowlands was a special
place. For years a very good racing buddy and I went to the races at the
Meadowlands every Thursday night. It meant late nights and long drives along
the New Jersey Turnpike, but the racing was good and by today’s standards the
crowds were large. The Meadowlands attracted people from Northern Jersey and
more of a New York crowd, which was very different from the family beach scene at
Monmouth Park in the summers.
The Meadowlands Sports
Complex grew out of the wetlands of Northern New Jersey along the western
branch of the Turnpike. The idea
began as a way to get an NFL team into New Jersey and then became reality when
Governor William Cahill signed the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority
Law in 1971.
David A. “Sonny” Werblin, former president of the NY Jets, became chairman
of the NJSEA. With the Jets he was responsible for the signing of Joe Namath
and is credited with building the Meadowlands racetrack and the Stadium, which
would become the home of the NY Giants.
Later in his career Werblin would become the Chairman of Madison Square
Garden. He was involved with racing as the owner of Elberon Farm, which campaigned
two champions Process Shot and Silent Screen.
Thoroughbred racing began
on September 6, 1977, with a 100 night thoroughbred meeting. Dave Johnson,
famous for his calls of the Triple Crown races and his trademark, “…and down the
stretch they come”, was the original track announcer.
The track was nicknamed
The Big M to seemingly attract the New York crowd with the play on the nickname
of Aqueduct racetrack, the Big A. Major stakes race were run on Thursday nights
to avoid competing with the weekend stakes at the New York tracks. Night racing
was a big success. In the first
two years average daily attendance was over 17,000.
The Meadowlands Cup, the signature stake, began as a 10 furlong race on
the dirt track and was run on Thursday night. In the early years of the
meeting, the Cup was won by Dr. Patches 1978, Spectacular Bid 1979, Wild Again
1984, Broad Brush 1986, Crème Fraiche 1987, and Alysheba 1988. Angel Cordero, Jr. won the race four times in the 1970’s and 1980’s, while John Velazquez won it four times in the
later years. Ron McAnally and Bobby Frankel each won the Cup twice.
The seven-time Eclipse
Award winning Hall of Fame horse John Henry made his last start at the Meadowlands. He won the grade one Ballantine Handicap going a mile and three
eighths on the turf.
Over the years attendance
declined, and by the time the last full thoroughbred meet was run in 2008, there
were only 40 racing days with an average of 3,556 people.
thoroughbreds are back at the Meadowlands in 2012, for racing on the turf
course only. Converting the main harness surface to use by thoroughbreds
involved adding 11,000 tons of clay, sand, and soil to the track. Each Friday
and Saturday from October 12 until November 3, an eight day Monmouth Park
at the Meadowlands fall meeting will bring the Sport of Kings back to East
Rutherford with first post at 2:15 pm.