The Short Life and Long Death of Phoenix Trotting Park

Harness Racing Update
March 28, 2014
by Dean A. Hoffman

GOODYEAR, Ariz — It was built 50 years too soon. Phoenix Trotting Park was a fantasy track when it opened in 1965, but the fantasy became a nightmare when it ceased operations in December of 1966, less than two years after its inaugural card. The shell of the space-age grandstand has survived for a half-century in the dry Arizona climate although the decay is obvious even from a distance.

What is also obvious is that the track is located in high-visibility location, just a short distance from busy Interstate 10 which connects Phoenix with Los Angeles. Millions of vehicles pass within a two-minute mile of the Phoenix Trotting Park each month.

It wasn't that way when track executive Jimmy Dunnigan, who also operated Buffalo Raceway, led a group of investors to bring harness racing to the desert. The 1960s were an era of unbridled optimism in harness racing. Phoenix Trotting Park was seen as the western version of Florida's popular Pompano Park, bringing pari-mutuel action on trotters and pacers to new territories. After all, race tracks were guaranteed money makers in that era. But Phoenix Trotting Park proved to be the exception.

The pundits had perfect hindsight, of course. They were quick to point out that the track was built "too damn far out"— at least 20 miles — from the center of Phoenix and that, at the time, there weren't any major roads connecting Phoenix and the track. And it was built west of the city when the greatest growth then was in the eastern suburbs of Phoenix.

Jimmy Dunnigan knew racing and racetracks and his expertise attracted investors who wanted to see harness racing gain a foothold in Phoenix. Two late Hall of Famers, Norman Woolworth and Delvin Miller, were among those who helped bankroll the new venture.

The track opened with a 60-day meeting on January 11, 1965. Earl Flora waxed poetic in the pages of Hoof Beats, noting that his trade journalist colleagues for The Horseman & Fair World and Harness Horse wished that they could paint the scene instead of relying on their typewriters.

"An Arizona sunset staged its daily extravaganza in the background and a misty blue haze hung low over the quiet desert growth," Flora wrote about the opening night vista. "The trotting park might have been a mirage from another age or another world."

The pari-mutuel handle on opening night was virtually a mirage, too, as the crowd of more than 12,000 pushed $130,984 through the windows. (Yes, that's a per capita of ten bucks but, remember, the sulky sport was all new to the Phoenicians).

Stars of the sport like Billy Haughton and Joe O'Brien and the reigning national dash champion Bob Farrington came to the desert for the opening night action, but the honor of driving first winner went to Gerry Kazmaier.

The 5/8-mile track was the first in North America to have spiral turns to help horses get through the curves better, but the fastest mile of the evening was 2:10.4 by Santa Raider.

The second night the crowd fell to 4,000, which wasn't unexpected, but then the crowds simply kept shrinking. Soon the thrill was gone and the 50-acre parking lot was mostly empty.

Today the area surrounding the Phoenix Trotting Park is dotted with houses, apartments, retail outlets of every description and a spaghetti-like tangle of interstate overpasses looms over the shell of the old track. Goodyear Ballpark, the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians, is just a few miles away.

The population of the Phoenix metro area is more than 4.3 million people, making it the 13th largest metro area in the United States. Growth in the "Valley of the Sun" is rebounding from the economic downturn which started in 2008.

The track sat idle after racing closed, but some horses trained there decades later. It mostly sat idle. One pundit described the hulking shell of the track as "a giant tan Jetsonian mausoleum built in the middle of a desert to host harness racing, without any apparent regard for how flagrantly dumb and doomed it would be to do something like that."

The backstretch area now is the Cotton Lane RV and Mobile Home Park. Plans for the track property are not known. Repeated calls to officials at the City of Goodyear were not returned.

While tracks seemingly couldn't fail to make money in the 1960s, tracks today cannot stay alive without the subsidies from slots. Assuredly no one is going to salvage the old track and bring back racing. Thoroughbred racing is held at Turf Paradise just north of central Phoenix, but its best days are in the past.

Phoenix itself was built on the ruins of a Native American civilization and thus earned its name after the mythical bird of rebirth. It's unlikely, however, that the trotting park in the desert will ever gain new life.

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This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2014 issue of Harness Racing Update Newsletter (PDF).