Narragansett Race Track
Narragansett Park: Classic "Post Card" photo.
|Location||Pawtucket, Rhode Island|
|Date opened||August 1, 1934|
|Date closed||September 4, 1978|
|Race type||Horse racing|
|Notable races||Narragansett Special;
Rhode Island Handicap
Narragansett Park was an American race track for Thoroughbred horse racing in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On May 18, 1934, a special Rhode Island election was held where, by a 4-1 margin, parimutuel wagering was made legal. Walter E. O'Hara formed the Narragansett Racing Association and was named president and manager. James Dooley (judge) was appointed Racing Secretary, while being acknowledged as the controlling interest. Previously, the Association had purchased the What Cheer Airport after the State of Rhode Island had picked a Warwick, Rhode Island location for the new official state airport. The former landing strip was on a tract of land just south of historic Slater Park and on an elevated plain west of the Ten Mile River. At the time, the river had been dammed downstream to form a reservoir for the East Providence, Rhode Island water supply. Horse racing was about to return to "The Ocean State", and at a top-flight racing venue.
At the Post
On June 2, 1,800 laborers were put to work on the site which was served by the New Haven Railroad, and straddled the Pawtucket/East Providence line. Building supplies came in via railroad on a regular basis. By the end of July, after around the clock work, Narragansett Park was prepared to open for business. 22 barns with stalls that could hold more than 1,000 horses were up and ready on the backstretch which, along with the 6 Furlong chute, were actually across the city line and in the Rumford, Rhode Island section of East Providence. The venue with the one mile racing oval was described by the Baltimore Sun as; "the showplace of the North, one of the finest tracks in the country". A Daily Racing Form headline read: “NARRAGANSETT COMPLETED-New Rhode Island Track Ready for Gala Opening on Wednesday”. The 182 acre property did open on August 1, 1934, with 37,281 people officially attending and wagering some $351,482 after having been deprived of the opportunity for three decades. Grandstand admission was $1.00 and the Clubhouse charged $2.50. Racing programs that listed all the basic information for a day at the races were 10 cents. Yearly membership was available for the Terrace Club which featured fine dining on the second floor of the Clubhouse and offered a sweeping view looking out from the beginning of the first turn. Tiger John won the first race run. The first meet was scheduled to run from August 1 to September 3. A second fall meet was run from October 5 to November 3, and was just as popular.
Narragansett Park had taken its name from a defunct race track that had existed in Cranston, Rhode Island at the turn of the previous century. Narragansett Trotting Park hosted the great pacer Dan Patch - the "most famous" horse in the nation - twice during that period. It his second appearance, Dan Patch broke 2 minutes for the first time (1:59 1/2, 8/29/02). The one-mile oval in Cranston was paved and became the nations first automobile Super Speedway in 1915. The banked track was AAA sanctioned and, on September 18, 1915, its first race was won by Eddie Rickenbacker.
Many of Narragansett Park's early stakes races paid tribute to Rhode Island's rich history. The first big Saturday stakes race run was the Roger Williams Handicap won by C.V. Whitney's Roustabout. Some of its other important races were the Rhode Island Handicap, Governor's Handicap, King Phillip Handicap, and, in later years, the Providence Stakes. The James H. Connors Memorial Stakes (run as the Old Colony from 1934 to 1941) and the Jeanne d'Arc Stakes (fillies) were two year old added money events that ran from the 1930s until well into the 1960s.
The Narragansett Special was the richest race run each year and was named for the "Special" trains that came into the track from Boston, to the north, and New York from the south, on branch lines. In its heyday, the track conducted races in which numerous Thoroughbred greats and consensus Champions competed. The names such as, Equipoise, Challedon, Discovery, War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Stagehand, Armed and Coaltown ring like a virtual Who's Who for horse racing in the 1930s and '40s. They all ran at the track they called "'Gansett". Later, greats such as Misty Morn, Decathlon, Tempted and Gun Bow continued to come in for big races at the race track off U.S. Route 1A.
Narragansett Park was the second Thoroughbred track to operate in New England, after Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. Massachusetts also passed gambling legislation and Suffolk Downs opened in 1935. These three tracks operated on a rotating basis that avoided conflict. Soon Narragansett was running three short meets in the Spring, Summer and Autumn.
Despite being in the midst of the Great Depression, Narragansett Park soon became somewhat of a “High Society” track with it being just 35 miles from Newport, Rhode Island – the summer resort of many wealthy owners from New York City. It was an easy ride for the monied class to come and see their investments run in the flesh. Many wealthy owners of the nation's top outfits kept a string of horses on the shed row of Narragansett and this area of the backstretch was soon referred to as "Millionaire's Row".
On October 31, 1934, Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane – who had won that year’s Kentucky Derby with Cavalcade and owned Brookmeade Stable – came to ‘Gansett with Okapi. The tiny brown horse carried the white and royal blue silks of Brookmeade to victory over the big brown steed, and reigning Horse of the Year, Equipoise. Both were weighted equally at 130 lbs. Mrs. Sloane, who would that year become the first female to top the Owner’s Earnings List for a single season, always considered Okapi her favorite horse. “He was so small”, the "Mistress of Brookmeade" said, “he’d jump under horses and win”. (AP) Still, Cavalcade was the top 3 year old for the year. But when he was injured, Alfred G. Vanderbilt II's Discovery was lured to 'Gansett and commenced to set the World Record for 1 3/16 miles in the time of 1:55 while winning the Rhode Island Handicap.
Soon local papers were giving each days entries and results. Advise on betting and how to avoid "touts" was also given. Additionally, the papers ran advertisements in the Sports Section which read: "Horse Race Results every night on WEAN 6:35PM - courtesy of Swiss Cleaning Company" - Locals knew the band was 790 AM. Other Ads read: "After the races, come dine and dance at the Hotel Warren: "The Tavern of Distinction"".
After three highly successful years, with record crowds and betting handle, Narragansett Park opened for an abbreviated 19 day spring meet in May 1937. On four successive Saturday’s, the biggest Stake races of the meet were run and all won by the team of jockey Eddie Smith and trainer Bob Curran for Araho Stable. Araho is O’Hara spelled backwards and the horses were indeed registered in the name of Mrs. Walter E. O’Hara, the wife of the president and manager of the Narragansett Park Racing Association. This, along with the great amounts of money flowing through the facility during the hard times of the Great Depression, garnered the attention of local officials. Not the least of which was Rhode Island Governor Robert E. Quinn. Nicknamed “Battlin’ Bob”, Quinn set up a battle known as the “Race Track War” which would ensue in the fall of 1937.
From the first incident on September 2, the “War”, which Jack Read of The Miami News called "the strangest and most dramatic story in American turf annals", would give track management a lasting "black-eye". The National Guard was called out and men with machine guns blocked the front entrance to the track. Time Magazine reported the story nation-wide. Quinn won in the short-term as, with shareholders of the track demanding his resignation, Walter O’Hara was removed from his post. On 2/9/38, Judge Dooley officially took control of the track. Quinn, however, would be defeated for Governor in the elections of 1938 by millionaire William Henry Vanderbilt III as the “Race Track War” was considered a national embarrassment. In February 1941, on a narrow stretch of Route 44, about two miles west from the center of Taunton, Massachusetts, Walter E. O’Hara died in a violent, two car, head-on crash. That “war” was now over.
While the “Race Track War” was getting started, a top horse was getting ready to make a final appearance at Narragansett. Of all the Champion horses that ran at 'Gansett, by far, Seabiscuit ran at the track the most. "The Biscuit" performed at Narragansett Park for two different owners and in two distinct forms.
During the early part of his career in 1935, the two year old Wheatley Stable colt Seabiscuit won his first race in his 18th lifetime start. It occurred at Narragansett Park. In his next effort, Seabiscuit won the Watch Hill Claiming Stakes which carried a winners share of $2,795. This amount was more than the horse had won in all his previous starts combined for Hall of Fame trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. After a 5th place finish in the Old Colony Stakes on the 4th of July, 1935, the connections returned for the park's fall meet. In the Pawtucket Handicap, Seabiscuit would place second. The star in waiting was given some time off in the winter and then ran at Narragansett Park twice as a 3 yr old. He would garner a 4th in the Providence Handicap and a first in an allowance race. The circuit moved north and, with Seabiscuit's form going bad, the stable sold the horse to Charles S. Howard for $8,000 after 2 rebound wins at Saratoga Race Course. The horse was transferred from the Wheatley barn to the care of another Hall of Fame trainer, R. Thomas Smith. And the rehabilitation of Seabiscuit was begun.
Seabiscuit returned to Narragansett Park as a racing star for the 1937 Narragansett Special Handicap. With a purse of 31k added, the Special was one of the top races in the country despite the fact that the track president had been arrested on the Thursday night before the race. Pawtucket's Mayor McCoy posted the bail for O'Hara, and more than 30,000 people came out for the big race. Seabiscuit was on a seven-race winning streak and packed the assigned top weight of 132 lbs. - the second highest impost he ever would carry. After a forecast of cloudy, the track came up muddy after two days of rain. As a result, a mud-loving Calumet Farm cast-off named, Calumet Dick won while packing the handicappers assigned weight of 115 lbs. Snark, of Wheatley Stable, finished the trip second with a weight of 117 lbs. Seabiscuit under Red Pollard got up for 3rd and then started another winning streak. Seabiscuit was named the top Handicap horse for 1937, American Horse of the Year for 1938, and retired in 1940 as the all-time Thoroughbred earnings leader.
In total, he ran 7 times at Narragansett Park with 3 wins.
On September 19, 1942, one of the great races of the American Turf took place on this site. Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown Champ and 1941 Horse of the Year, took on, the one year younger, Alsab, who was the reigning Preakness winner as well as 2 yr old and soon to become 3 yr old Champ. Whirlaway was in California when WW II started for America with the attack on Pearl Harbor. After a quarantine period, he was shipped back east and had won seven of twelve starts before winning the rich 31k Narragansett Special at 1 3/16th miles with Hall of Fame jockey George Woolf aboard on September 12. Nicknamed "Iceman", Woolf and Calumet Farm's Whirlaway had won comfortably as Alsab had scratched out of the event. Despite having run just 7 days earlier, Judge Dooley sensed public interest and proposed a match race for the following Saturday. The race would be at the same distance and with the younger Alsab getting a seven pound allowance. Both sides came to an immediate agreement and the race was billed as a contest between the two best closers of the day.
In the "winner-take-all" 25k Match Race, "Iceman" allowed Alsab's jockey, Carroll Bierman, to take an easy lead where the 6 furlong split was a slow 1:14 1/5. Although "Whirly" closed strongly through the stretch, after racing wide throughout, it was Alsab going to the lead, having something left in reserve, and lasting by a nose as both horses flew home through the stretch run.
It was a thrilling race that people talked about for years (view a postcard of the event). Still, Whirlaway was named Horse of the Year for 1942 after defeating Alsab in a subsequent race and having 12 wins for the year to Alsab's 9.
On June 29, 1953, Narragansett Park celebrated its 20th year of operation with Eddie Arcaro Day. In 1934, Arcaro was just starting out when he rode at 'Gansett during its inaugural year. Mr. Arcaro had just been put under contract to Warren Wright, Sr. of Calumet Farm and "engaged a suite at the fashionable Providence Biltmore Hotel" where he lived while riding at the track.
Arcaro rode Warren Wright's first Thoroughbred stakes winner when Hadagal won the Rhode Island Governor's Handicap in that first summer of 1934. The Master won the Narragansett Special in 1940 for owner Helen Hay Whitney and Hall of Fame trainer John M. Gaver, Sr. aboard the Greentree Stable-bred Hash, while upsetting the horse of the year, Challedon.
1942 saw Arcaro suspended for most of the year due to his admitted attempt to unseat another rider during a race. This resulted in his not being able to ride Whirlaway in that years famous match race.
By 1953 "The Master" had ridden two Triple Crown winners (Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948)), as well as three other Kentucky Derby winners ( Lawrin (1938), Hoop Jr. (1945), and Hill Gail (1952)), on his way to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Among his achievements are; America's leading money winner six times; Retired with record purse earnings of $30,039,543; George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, 1953. On his day in 1953 at Narragansett, he rode two races and won them both, including the $7,500 Eddie Arcaro Purse.
The 1950s marked the half-way point for Narragansett Park in terms of years of existence. Lincoln Downs, located less than ten miles away, opened up operations on 7/7/47 for car dealer B. A. Dario. The three-way truce between New England race track owners, now, became an uneasy four way battle for racing dates that would, ultimately, lead to an ugly end.
Still, five championship horses appeared at Narragansett during the decade.
Sickle's Image lt. br. F. 1948, by Sickletoy (Sickle) – Ariel Image by Ariel, appeared at 'Gansett three times as a two year old. She ran 7th in the Jeanne d'Arc Stakes which was restricted to two year old fillies. After an Allowance win, she defeated males in the open (to two year olds) James H. Connors Memorial Stakes. The Conners dated back to the tracks very first year (as the Old Colony) and was contested annually (save for 1947's year of the swamp fever breakout) into the 1960s. As a five year old mare, Sickle's Image would win the 165k Washington Park Handicap and be named the 1953 American Champion Older Female Horse.
Sweet Patootie dk. b. F. 1950, by Alquest (Questionnaire) – Sweet Woman by Roman, won the 1952 Jeanne d'Arc Stakes by 7 lengths on her way to being named 1952 American Champion Two-Year-Old Filly.
Misty Morn b. F. 1952, by Princequillo (Prince Rose) – Grey Flight by Mahmoud out of the powerful Wheatley Stable came to 'Gansett in June 1955 for the 37k Providence Stakes. She defeated males for trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and was named American Champion Three-Year-Old Filly and American Champion Older Female Horse of 1955 after additional wins in the Molly Pitcher, Monmouth Oaks and Diana Handicap.
Decathlon b. C. 1953, by Olympia (Heliopolis) – Dog Blessed, by Bull Dog won the 11k Narragansett Nursery Stakes as a 2 year old in 1955. Two years later, the horse, with a clubbed foot, was assigned 134 lbs. for the 21k Bristol Handicap. Oclirock, a Peter D. Fuller horse with a feathery 106, won by one length. It was Decathlon's only loss of the year, as he went 8 for 9. He was named American Champion Sprint Horse for 1957, after having also won the award in 1956.
Tempted ch. F. 1955, by Half Crown (Hyperion) – Enchanted Eve by Lovely Night won a November 1957 running of the Jeanne d'Arc at 1 1/16 miles by 3 1/2 easy lengths. She would go on to be named the American Champion Older Female Horse off victories in the Diana Handicap, Beldame Handicap and Ladies Handicap of 1959.
Ultimately, a slow decline in the 1950s led to a last gasp in the 1960s. "Go 'Gansett" was the slogan, but fewer people did. New England, without a breeding industry, relied on horses from elsewhere and the quality of horse racing throughout the area dropped.
Gambling scandals and trouble with the accounting of money multiplied as the glory days were now surely over.
A lasting, poignant moment occurred in early 1968. The beloved Charlie Boy, a 13 year old gelding owned and trained by William W. Carroll, was put down due to complications from an injury. During his 11 year career of 241 races, Charlie Boy won 58 times, one of the highest totals in racing history, and a number of them were at 'Gansett. On February 7, Charlie Boy was ceremoniously buried in the Narragansett Park infield, complete with a playing of taps.
On Monday, March 22, 1976, a spectacular fire destroyed Barns E + D. Each of the original barns was 350 feet long by 50 feet wide and stocked with hay. Eyewitnesses said that flames shot 100 feet into the nighttime air. It was determined that 38 thoroughbreds perished in the disaster.(AP) Track management had pointed to the 15 years of declining betting handle for lack of site improvements.
Narragansett gained national attention in the summer of 1978 one last time. The old veteran, seventeen year-old Golden Arrow, won at the track off of a six month lay-off after having been worked into shape by trainer Bill Sienkewicz of Land's End Farm on the beaches of Buzzards Bay. This was documented by Sports Illustrated in it's September 3, 1979 edition. Apprentice jockey Debbie Riemers rode the old favorite in all of his five victories that summer - four of which occurred at 'Gansett. His 5 for 7 campaign boosted the geldings life-time win total to 58.
Finally, the facility closed following the 1978 Labor Day weekend. Five weeks were still left in the meet. After 44 years, 'Gansett was shut-down. By that time, Narragansett Park was over a half million dollars in arrears for back taxes. Only 2,882 fans officially showed up to wager their money on that last Monday. Open The Gap who had Discovery and Whirlaway four generations back in his pedigree won the last race run.
The following year, the city of Pawtucket bought the site for commercial and residential redevelopment. The majority of the property was bulldozed and turned into a business park. Eventually, Hasbro built a facility - the Playskool Division - on what was once the backstretch of beautiful Narragansett Park and, previously, an airport landing strip.
Thoroughbred horse racing in Rhode Island had come to an end.
As of 2014, Suffolk Downs is the only thoroughbred race track operating in New England. All that remains of the Narragansett racing plant today is the grandstand building. With the roof and seats removed, it served as an outlet for the discount retailer Building 19 after having been used as a Flea Market in the 1980s. Some old artifacts, such as tote boards and stairwells that end abruptly, still remain in the old facility. On Friday, November 1, 2013, Building 19 filed for bankruptcy and is now closed as of December 8, 2013. The Park's old business office, which housed the jockeys room on the second floor, is also still in use. Three roads: Seabiscuit Place, War Admiral Place and Whirlaway Place, now exist just north of the old grandstand where one of the parking lots once extended to. The names speak to a long gone past.
The cold winds blow and the sounds have gone silent. The noble Thoroughbreds that once graced the land have gone to those places where horses can be horses. Pawtucket remains "The Bucket". There are groups for former racetrack fans, employees, and people that have survived the area. Narragansett Park Drive loops through where the barns stood, past an old pond, skirts the railroad tracks, and turns west towards where the finish line used to be. In a sporting world defined by winning, everybody lost.
- Horseracing and fans - Narragansett Park, Pawtucket, R.I. | Flickr – Condivisione di foto!
- The Evening Tribune - 5/22/1929
- An Album of Rhode Island History by Patrick T. Conley
- Daily Racing Form 7/31/34
- The Pawtucket Times
- Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America by Charles Leerhsen
- The Providence Journal 8/16/34
- The Miami News 10/20/37 
- Time Magazine 9/20/37.
- "A Racing Life" by Allen Woodville" (1969)
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand
- "I Ride to Win" by Eddie Arcaro(1951)
- National Museum of Racing, Hall of Fame, Jockeys
- Daily Racing Form 6/29/53
- The Providence Journal - 12/11/1960
- "Lincoln Downs closing for rest of '76"-New York Times August 8,1976