Phoenix Trotting Park History

Three Rivers Historical Society Newsletter
Vol. No. 7, Issue No. 4
December 2010
by Sally Kiko

Have you ever wondered about the empty four story grandstand along I-10 near Cotton Lane? It was once the dream of James J. Dunnigan, the owner of a harness racing tack in Buffalo, New York. Dunnigan, who spent his winters in his Paradise Valley home, wanted to develop a harness racing venue in the southwest to provide winter harness racing.

In the early years, Arizona enjoyed Grand Circuit harness racing but the sport faded out by the late 1940s when thoroughbred and greyhound dog racing became more popular. Things came together in the early 1960s when Karl and Norbert Abel decided to sell some land and Senator Paul Fannin supported the project to enhance development in Phoenix. Add in enthusiastic Jim Dunnigan, Norman Woolworth, a harness racer owner and capitalist and Italian architect and horseman, Ivone Grassetto and you get Phoenix Trotting Park. Not surprisingly, you have to stir in about 10 million dollars, as well! And, of course, the highway department assured them all that the freeway, I-10, would be complete in just a few years. Goodyear residents were excited to have such a grand racetrack coming to their town. Mr. Dunnigan was seen around town selling stock to the townspeople who hoped to make some money, too.

The trotting park was situated on 640 acres of land south of McDowell and west of Cotton Lane. The grandstand comfortably seated 5,400 bettors who were able to see the entire track from any seat. There were several areas for casual diners to enjoy food and beverages. In the upper level was the Sunset Casino for luxurious dining. Harry M. Stevens, who managed the food service at all the New York tracks, brought his expertise to the Goodyear track. The grandstand design was modern and beautifully done. Beside the grandstand, the facility had stables for 1000 horses, dormitory rooms for 120 people, its own water supply and sewage plant.

The Phoenix Trotting Park opened to much fanfare on January 11, 1965; 12,223 people came out for the event. "Can't tell the horse from the driver without a program," was the patter heard from the program salesmen. As the season progressed the attendance dropped. That winter saw more rain than usual. The freeway had not been completed leaving surface roads, prone to flooding, the only way to get way out west. The Phoenix fans, not accustomed to harness racing were not willing to make large wagers. Dunnigan said in a March 8, 1965 Sports Illustrated article that attendance and handle were low when Roosevelt Raceway first opened in 1940 and that he expected to have deficits during the early years.

I was excited to be hired as an RN in the First Aid station at the racetrack. In addition to myself there was a corpsman from Luke AFB, an ambulance, and a doctor on duty. Most nights we dispensed Band-Aids and Alka Seltzer and played cards to pass the time. However, one night, in the thirteenth race we were called to the track. A driver had fallen out of the sulky and into the inside rail. We took him by stretcher to the first aid room and the attending physician pronounced him dead. Since it was an accidental death we then had to wait for the County Coroner. Phoenix Trotting Park never had a thirteenth race again. We were told later that the driver had suffered a heart attack coming in the home stretch.

Racing continued only into the third season when it was abruptly closed. Jim Dunnigan lost not only Phoenix Trotting Park but his Roosevelt Raceway in Buffalo that he had used as collateral a victim of poor timing and location. Local stockholders had souvenirs instead of dividends. I-10 was completed 20 years later.

The facility was purchased by Emprise, rumored to be connected to the murder of Arizona Republic reporter, Don Bolles. They gutted the building and used the equipment and fixtures for their other tracks around the country.

After being vacant for 30 years, the grandstand was used once again in the action scenes of the film, No Code of Conduct, staring Martin and Charlie Sheen. In order to use the building the production company had to rid the building of large amounts of asbestos, dead animals, and excrement. They spent $40,000 and finally received clearance from health groups and the EPA so that they could use the building to shoot a few scenes for the movie!

At one point, the site had been donated to Grand Canyon University. In 1995 Roles Inn of America purchased 220 acres of the property from Grand Canyon University. Since then, Roles Inn has developed a RV park called Cotton Lane RV and Golf Resort. It has 300 RV spaces and 4 holes of golf. The old horse stables have been turned into storage units, the old tack room is the Laundromat, and the hay barn has been removed to accommodate the pool.

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This article originally appeared in the Three Rivers Historical Society Newsletter.