Racing Beneath The Peaks

By: M.R. Werner
Sports Illustrated
March 8, 1965

Having torn up mutuel tickets at tracks in two hemispheres, an ever-optimistic handicapper rounds out his experiences among the mountains that surround Phoenix and Santa Anita

Racing has been my recreation and avocation for much of my adult life. I have indulged in it in the hot-dog atmosphere of New York City's environs, under the elms of rustic Saratoga, at rural Goshen, in the bluegrass and bourbon country of Kentucky, among the flamingos and mink of Florida's Hialeah, in the crab-cake and black-eyed Susan surroundings of Maryland, with cockles and mussels at England's damp Epsom Downs, alongside the toppers and bowlers of Ascot, with the aid of Jameson and Guinness at Ireland's Curragh, on the edge of the forest and chateau of Chantilly, in the Bois de Boulogne amidst Paris elegance and on the outskirts of drab Moscow. But until recently I had never been racing surrounded by mountains. To remedy that shortcoming I spent a few days in Phoenix, Ariz. for its three kinds of racing, and at Santa Anita to watch some of California's — and the world's — best Thoroughbred action.

Phoenix, where I arrived on a Monday night, when the craggy brown mountains all around its periphery were turning to a deep purple, has tracks for Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds and dogs. The next morning the president of Phoenix Trotting Park, James J. Dunnigan, showed me the town and his brand-new harness track, about three-quarters of an hour's drive from the heart of Phoenix' neon-lighted, used-car and supermarket area. Mr. Dunnigan, who is about the size of a jockey, is an ex-Bronx horseplayer who has become a cactus enthusiast. Since 1942 he has operated the harness raceway near Buffalo, and the company that operates Phoenix Trotting Park is incorporated with the Buffalo enterprise, so that the old and established can support the new and struggling. Looking for a place to spend his winters, Mr. Dunnigan settled on Phoenix about 15 years ago. He talks in clipped, direct New Yorkese and refuses to give anybody, including himself, a bum steer.

We drove first to a large tract of land in the western part of Phoenix, where the Goodyear tire people own 14,000 acres. There was a ground-breaking that morning for an 18-hole addition to the existing 18-hole golf course Goodyear owns, and a luncheon afterward at The Wigwam to announce Goodyear plans for housing and factories in the vicinity. Clowning by the actor Phil Harris, assisted by smiling Tony Lema and grave, quiet Robert Trent Jones, golf course architect, who is designing the new course, helped launch Goodyear's enterprise as Scotch and martini glasses tinkled and a medium-sized Goodyear blimp hovered protectively above.

After the Goodyear luncheon, Mr. Dunnigan drove me to his harness plant near The Wigwam for an inspection tour preliminary to attending the races that night. We passed large herds of grazing sheep and green, irrigated fields planted to cotton. The new 640-acre track is located on a vast plain entirely surrounded by distant and varied brown mountains.

Phoenix Trotting Park had its inception a couple of years ago when Karl and Norbert Abel, large landowners in Arizona, decided to put some of their spare property to racetrack use, though neither of them had previously been attracted to racing. Governor Paul Fannin, now a U.S. Senator from Arizona, interested in further development of the capital city, threw his support behind the project for a Phoenix harness track. Since they had in Jimmy Dunnigan an experienced operator of harness racing, they solicited his aid. He, in turn, interested Norman Woolworth, harness racing owner and enthusiast, and some other out-of-state capitalists in the enterprise. Ivone Grassetto, of Padua, Italy, who is both a horseman and architect of tracks and other structures in various parts of the world, was employed to design a modern five-eighths-of-a-mile track.

Before racing began last January 11, with a ribbon-cutting presided over by George Morton Levy, chairman of the board of Roosevelt Raceway, and the famous Grand Circuit harness drivers, Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton and Joe O'Brien, Phoenix Park had cost $9,500,000. It is built along modern, functional lines, but without any gaudy-colored plastic bas-reliefs. For decoration there are a couple of expensive, Stonehengelike slabs near the entrance. Visibility from the stands is good in the bright, clear southwestern air, and the seats for 5,400 bettors are comfortable, with plenty of cafeterias and a pleasant Sunset Casino for more luxurious dining. Catering is supplied by Harry M. Stevens, Inc., which handles all New York tracks. Nature provides the superb mountains. When enough green dollars come through the mutuel machines there will be additional landscaping so that the desert may become rosier.

The whole layout would have delighted the heart of a Phoenix pioneer, "Lord" Darrel Duppa, an English adventurer, scholar and inebriate, who is credited with giving Phoenix its name. Looking over the prehistoric mounds and irrigation canals surrounded by desert land in the 1860s, Lord Duppa suggested that the recently established village be called Phoenix after the mythical bird of great beauty — the only one of its kind, alleged to have lived in Arabia for about 500 years — which burned itself on a funeral pyre only to rise from its ashes in the fullness of youth to live another cycle of 500 years. He predicted that the city would arise, phoenixlike, "new and more beautiful than these ashes of the past." Lord Duppa might have made a good handicapper, for Phoenix has developed steadily and beautifully. Since the end of World War II, the population of the Greater Phoenix area has grown from 150,000 to 750,000.

Phoenix had Grand Circuit harness racing in the first two decades of this century, but trotting and pacing languished and died in 1949. Then the Abel brothers, Governor Fannin and Jimmy Dunnigan came along. It is an uphill job to educate the natives and tourists, who are accustomed to Thoroughbreds during the day at Turf Paradise and dogs at night at Greyhound Park — both much closer to the center of the city — to the fascinations of watching horses attached to sulkies and to betting quinellas and doubles on them.

I arrived Tuesday night in time for the third of the eight-race card, having been detained by southwestern hospitality at a cocktail party given by Phoenix sports-writers. After a quick study of conformation I bet $5 win $5 place on Shafter Meadow, a 4-year-old gelding pacer, which finished second, so I only lost $1. Thereafter my luck varied, as usual throughout my racing career. Three other rewarding bets gave me a net profit on my first night of Phoenix racing of $47.50. The card that night consisted of two trots and six paces, and the purses were mostly $700, with features of $800 and $900. The attendance was disappointing to Mr. Dunnigan. A violent wind and rainstorm during the afternoon and a sharp drop in temperature to the 40s, rare in Phoenix, discouraged night excursionists. Only 1,605 showed up, and they bet only $29,476. On opening night, January 11, 1965, 12,223 had come out. On the way home in his car Mr. Dunnigan hopefully remarked that when Roosevelt Raceway first opened in New York in 1940 attendance and handle were proportionately dismal, and that he and his associates are prepared for a period of deficit years before natives and visitors begin to appreciate the delights of harness racing under the desert stars.

Mr. Dunnigan at first had resisted the quinella (a bet that two horses will finish first or second in a race) and the twin double at his track, but he was assured that if he ever hoped to draw crowds from the dogs, where there is a quinella on every one of the 11 nightly races, as well as a "Big Q," a twin quinella, on the 10th and 11th races, he would have to bow to what the gambling public wants. Phoenix Trotting Park now has a daily double on the first and second races, quinellas on the second, third, fourth, six, seventh and eighth races, and a twin double involving the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. Phoenix, Dunnigan pointed out, can only expand to the west, where his track is located, and he is counting heavily on the Goodyear land development to turn his deficits into surpluses.

Next day, Wednesday, there was racing at Phoenix's Thoroughbred track. Francis B. Campbell Jr., secretary and treasurer of Turf Paradise, whom I had met at the sportswriters' cocktail party, kindly offered to drive me to the track in time for the daily double. The day was clear and the sky a brilliant blue, with enough zip in the air to satisfy an Easterner. Effete Westerners, used to 70s and 80s, were shivering a bit.

Turf Paradise, which is in its 10th year, is one of the prettiest small tracks I have ever visited. The rim of mountains is nearer and clearer than at any other Phoenix park; the flower beds are attractive, and since Wednesday was "Ladies' Day," with female admission free, there was a plenitude of female pulchritude accompanied by sports in sombreros. The track was heavy because of Tuesday's storm, and I got the idea quickly that horses that came off the pace were winners. The horses were not stakes animals, most of them being claimers, with prices ranging from $1,500 to $4,250. The purses for the 10 races were usually $1,000, with a $2,000 purse for the feature. I won the first race, which was a six-furlong sprint — as were eight of the 10 races — when Little Heel, an 8-year-old gelding, a $7.80-to-$1 shot, came into the lead in the stretch, and I had a $64.50 profit on my $5 win $5 place bet, with one of my four daily-double tickets alive. But Copper Boot, the favorite in the second, with which I had coupled Little Heel, failed to threaten and finished third. The fourth race was the first one on which there was quinella betting, and I hit the quinella, paying a mere $15.40 for $2, when Mio Pass, a 7-year-old mare, beat my other horse, Shippin In, a 7-year-old gelding, by a head. Turf Paradise has had to emulate the dogs by instituting a "Big Q," which is a double quinella, based at Paradise on the ninth and 10th races. My Big Q was dead after the ninth race. However, I won a $10 bet in the 10th and last race on Firebolt, a 6-year-old gelding, who came off the pace to win by a head. My profit on the day was $61.90, and my hospitable hosts were congratulatory and impressed, for they were losing.

That same night I went to Greyhound Park, Phoenix' dog track, which is within walking distance of many offices and factories. Sitting at a good table on the dining terrace, with a fine view of the entries and finish line, I tried to handicap those diminutive animals, which are hard enough to see except with binoculars, let alone handicap. The crowd of 5,300, large for Wednesday, appeared to be tense, active and interested. It bet $180,951. The dog fans were less well groomed than the harness and Thoroughbred crowd and had to be active, for the dogs for the next race were brought out almost as soon as the results of the previous race were official. There was a race every 17 minutes and a quinella on every one of the 11 events, as well as the "Big Q" involving the 10th and 11th races. You had to be almost as fast on your feet as an untampered-with dog to make your selections and get to the windows on time. By the time the 11th race came on I was bored and tired and had blown $56 of my profits on harness and Thoroughbred horses.

I have seen dog races only twice before, once at London's White City and once at Tampa. Both of those tracks had more style than Greyhound Park in Phoenix, but the quick and unsatisfactory action was just as disturbing. In my opinion, dogs should be confined to hearths and gentlemen's estates or ladies' laps and not be put to chasing a crazy mechanical rabbit to satisfy the gambling mania of people who belong in the cellar of a garage shooting craps. Three-furlong races for baby Thoroughbreds are bad enough betting and watching, but greyhound races at five-sixteenths of a mile are even more frustrating. The yapping of the hounds is in harmony with the yapping of the greedy bettors. I truly believe that if cockroaches could be trained to stay on course some people would bet heavily on them. How else explain that Greyhound Park has been getting about four times the attendance and handle of Phoenix Trotting Park, and usually betters the attendance and handle at Turf Paradise?

Thursday night I went back to the Trotting Park with relief. The atmosphere was less frantic, more decorous and the animals worth watching. Once more the spectators were few — 1,755, as opposed to the 4,620 at the dogs the same night — and they bet only $27,829 on six paces and two trots, as opposed to the $156,494 bet by dog-betting fanciers. In addition to higher handles and larger attendance than the trotters, especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Greyhound Park has minuscule expenses, since dogs do not require stable areas or starting gates more elaborate than boxes with slits.

During my last night of Phoenix mountain racing I hit the daily double, paying a mere $19.60 for $2, and a quinella paying $45.60 for $2, but I had managed, by the time the last race was over, to turn my night's profit into a loss of $7.40. After all my betting at harness, Thoroughbred and dogs, I left Phoenix on Friday with a net profit of $46.

I had hoped to make the races at Los Angeles' Santa Anita, a flight of an hour from Phoenix, that Friday afternoon, but a hydraulic leak in the plane that was to take me there — and to a fortune, of course — forced me to spend that afternoon at Phoenix airport reflecting in my whiskey that planes are sometimes no more reliable than dogs.

Saturday, however, I did make magnificent Santa Anita in plenty of time for the San Antonio Handicap, $50,000 added. At Santa Anita a big mountain range faces the crowd; and as the air grew less dusty toward post time for the feature, the range grew sharp and tranquil, and the infield turf course was a bright emerald in the dying day.

The races here were first-rate, and it was good to see classy animals again, despite the fact that my handicapping was better with cheaper at Phoenix. I left $44 of my profit in California, giving me all of $2 to take back to New York for plunging at Yonkers and Aqueduct. Gun Bow, potential Horse of 1965, ran beautifully from wire to wire to win the San Antonio by three quarters of a length, with Manuel Ycaza up.

Sunday morning I started from Beverly Hills for the Los Angeles airport. My taxi driver turned out to be from New York's Lower East Side (although he assured me that after several years in Los Angeles he wouldn't take New York if they gave it to him), and he had also lived in Monticello, N.Y., where there is a harness track. He told me exuberantly about a pacer he and a friend picked up at Monticello for $200, who was fixing to make them a fortune when he bowed a tendon. My driver's accent made me feel as though I were home on the Hudson again. I asked him if he liked Santa Anita. "Santa Anita, Santa Anita, don't mention Santa Anita to me," he screamed. "That Gay Beau, that Gay Beau, I had a feller in my cab yesterday, he was on his way to bet Gay Beau with his bookie, and what do I do, I stay in my cab trying to make a lousy living." Gay Beau won the third when I was there and paid $56 for $2. I, too, had been kicking myself for not making a good living.

Arizona and California racing in their respective ways are as pleasing-except the dogs-as much racing I have seen. Now that I have been racing among the mountains, I am hankering for a visit to California's Del Mar, where, I understand, "the turf meets the surf."

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This article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated.