History of the Phoenix Trotting Park
I have compiled what I believe to be the most in-depth and complete history of the Phoenix Trotting Park and all of the people involved with it. Sources for information are linked at the end of each statement.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- 1. The Dunnigan Family
- 2. The Buffalo Raceway
- 3. The Phoenix Trotting Park
- 4. References
The Dunnigan Family
The origins of the Phoenix Trotting Park begin with the Dunnigans, an Irish-American family living in New York at the turn of the century.
John J. Dunnigan
In 1915, Dunnigan traded in his drafting pencils for politics as he took a seat on the New York State Senate. He enjoyed politics and remained a member of the Senate and the Democratic party until his retirement in 1944. He also served as president pro tempore of the New York State Senate from 1933 through 1938.
John J. Dunnigan was instrumental in passing the "Pari-mutuel Revenue Law" of 1940, which effectively allowed people to bet on horse races in New York State. This legitimized the sport, which was once dominated by bookmakers ("bookies") at the turn of the century.
James J. "Jimmy" Dunnigan, Sr.
James J. Dunnigan, or "Jimmy" as he was often called, was born in the Bronx in 1912. He attended the University of Notre Dame and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934. The school newspaper "The Scholastic" referred to Dunnigan as "the well known speed skater, [who] is on the ice every afternoon teaching the fundamentals of that sport to all who desire instruction." He continued to support his alma mater after graduation, donating $500 to the scholarship fund of the Buffalo Club in 1956.
In June of 1942, James helped found the Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg, New York. The track was a success right from the start, and James managed the track for twenty-five years, during which time he became greatly experienced in the world of harness racing.
In the early 1960s, James J. Dunnigan invested heavily in a new harness racing track called Phoenix Trotting Park, located in Arizona. While the track seemed promising at first, a variety of factors caused it to close after only two and a half seasons, leaving Dunnigan nearly bankrupt. He lost both the Phoenix Trotting Park and Buffalo Raceway, which he sold to the Sportservice Corporation in 1966.
Undeterred by his failed business venture, Dunnigan moved west to California and set about rebuilding his career. In 1973, Dunnigan was awarded "The Comeback of the Decade" award from the U.S. Harness Writers, for his part in launching the successful harness race meeting at Los Alamitos, Calif and later Golden Bear Raceway. He also received the Grand Circuit Medallion Award in 1971. At various times during his long association with the sport, he served as a director of the USTA, Harness Tracks of America and the Harness Racing Institute. In 1975 he was inducted into the Living Hall of Fame.
James J. Dunnigan died on April 6, 1983 at the age of 71.
The Buffalo Raceway - Hamburg, NY
The Buffalo Raceway opened in June of 1942 in Hamburg, New York. The track's existence was a direct result of the passage of the "Pari-mutuel Revenue Law" of 1940, which was largely influenced by Senator John Dunnigan.
The half-mile track was a success right from the start, and flourished under the management of James J. Dunnigan, who served as the president for 25 years. This was one of the top 10 tracks in America, with multiple speed records set and broken there.
Unfortunately for James J., he had borrowed heavily against the Buffalo Raceway in order to build the Phoenix Trotting Park, which closed indefinitely in 1966. Hard times forced him to sell the Buffalo Raceway to the Sportservice Corporation that same year.
Racing continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s while many renovations and improvements kept the track up to modern standards. The track changed hands again in 1990 when it was purchased by the Erie County Agricultural Society, who continues to operate it to this day. It is part of the Erie County Fairgrounds and is located at: 5600 McKinley Pkwy, Hamburg, NY 14075.
Phoenix Trotting Park
It is unclear what drew James J. Dunnigan from his home in New York to a barren patch of Arizona desert. It was here that he purchased a 640-acre parcel near Cotton Lane Road and McDowell Road for his new harness racing track, the Phoenix Trotting Park.
In 1960, Phoenix was not the thriving metropolis it is today. Arizona had become a state just 48 years prior, and the capitol city of Phoenix was quite small with a population of just 439,170 people. The track was located far outside city limits, where roads were mostly unimproved dirt.
Dunnigan formed Arizona Harness Raceway, Inc. on June 7, 1961. He purchased a huge plot of land from Karl and Norbert Abel, who owned vast amounts of land in the area. Dunnigan was able to drum up some financing from his trotting buddies in New York, including Norman S. Woolworth (a relative of the wealthy J.W. Woolworth family and owner of Clearview Stables in Maine) and Delvin Miller, a harness racing Hall of Famer who was involved with the Roosevelt Raceway in Long Island.
The plan was to build a grandstand with a capacity of 5,400 spectators. Construction began in 1964 on the massive structure, which contained more than 27,000 cubic yards of concrete. The track was originally supposed to cost about $2 million, but the final cost ended up being a whopping $9.5 million.
It is not clear who was the architect of the track. According to the 1983 book "A Guide to the Architecture of Metro Phoenix" by the Arizona Institute of Architects, the Trotting Park was built by Impresa Eugenio Grasetto, Padova Italy (Design Consultant) - Victor Gruen Associates. A 1965 Arizona Republic article also lists Eugenio Grasetto as the architect. However, a 1964 New York Times article and a 1965 Sports Illustrated article both credit the building's design to Ivone Grasetto, also of Padua, Italy. While it is possible that more than one person worked on the design, this has not yet been verified.
The Trotting Park opened on January 12, 1965 to a crowd of 12,223 attendees. That first night, more than $130,984 was wagered at the gleaming new facility. The park received a great deal of local press and was even featured in Sports Illustrated magazine and in The New York Times. Things were off to a great start, but it wasn't long before the park's luck changed.
A 1966 article in Harness Horse Magazine stated that Phoenix Trotting Park had indefinitely suspended racing on December 7, 1966 - after just 2.5 seasons.
There are a number of reasons why the Trotting Park was unsuccessful:
- Low Attendance - Although opening night drew over 12,000 people, the park's attendance had dwindled to less than 3,000 by the end of 1966.
- Remote Location - Located far from downtown, the Trotting Park was not easily accessible as its construction predated Interstate 10 by twenty years.
- Cost Overruns - Construction of the park soared far beyond expectations, giving the owners little room to make a profit.
- Competition - Phoenix's Turf Paradise racetrack at 19th Ave and Bell Road had already been established for a decade and featured live horse racing in the traditional fashion, while the Trotting Park was focused on harness racing - a sport not familiar to most Americans.
After racing was suspended in 1966, the building's equipment was removed by the Delaware North corporation for use at their other racetracks. Following the closure, the name was changed to Arizona Equestrian Center.
The Trotting Park has been closed since 1966. According to a YouTube video, a motorcycle show was held at the park on March 26, 1988. The parking lot was used as an automotive swap meet called "AutoSwap USA" in 1991. It was featured prominently in the 1998 film "No Code of Conduct" starring Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen.
At some point, the land was sold to Grand Canyon University, who later sold it to Roles Inn of America company in the late 1990s. They built the Cotton Lane RV Resort on the backstretch of the track. Phase I opened in 2002 with 285 spaces, while Phase II added an additional 300 spaces. Roles Inn of America owns the land upon which the Trotting Park is built.
Back in 1964, the Trotting Park was located far outside the edge of town. Over the years, the city has grown up around the Trotting Park. As it stands today, the grandstand is highly visible from a four-lane Interstate highway and is in close proximity to the Perryville Prison as well as numerous homes, farms, and a major freeway interchange.
Due to its highly visible location, the Trotting Park has unfortunately become a target for vandals, scrappers, and graffiti artists. While it is in danger of being labeled an eyesore by the community, I do not have any reason to believe the structure is in any imminent danger of being demolished.
Personally, I would like to see the park opened to the public on a limited basis for photography and tours - however, the current owners do not seem interested in such ideas. The structure poses a number of hazards including asbestos, dust, pigeon droppings, as well as damaged walls and possible structural deficiencies. It is quite simply too expensive to tear down and too much of a liability to reopen.
The Trotting Park is significant for having survived for 50 years without being demolished. In a city that does so little to preserve its history, this is a remarkable achievement. I can only hope that future generations will appreciate the uniqueness of this mid-century structure and will seek to preserve it - if at all possible.
NOTE: Some sources do not include published dates. Therefore, the published date is the earliest known capture that could be located using the Wayback Machine.
1 John J. Dunnigan. (6 Oct 2008). Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia.
2 Hon. John J. Dunnigan. (2011). Bronx County, NY - Online Biographies.
3 John J. Dunnigan Is Dead at 82. (12 Dec 1965). The New York Times.
4 Harness Racing Hall of Fame: James J. Dunnigan, Sr.. (2016). HarnessMuseum.com
5 Commencement Exercises (PDF). (3 Jun 1934). The University of Notre Dame.
6 Waldron, Howard T. 23rd Consecutive Victory Is Goal Of Irish In Pitt Contest Saturday. (PDF). (19 Jan 1934). The Notre Dame Scholastic, Vol. 67, Issue 14.
7 Leous, Dick. Buffalo Alumni Club News (PDF). (Nov-Dec 1956). Notre Dame Alumnus, Vol. 44, No. 6.
8 Buffalo Raceway History. (25 Jan 1999). Buffalo Raceway Website.
9 Phoenix Trotting Park Suspends Racing Indefinitely. (14 Dec 1966). Harness Horse Magazine.
10 Arizona Rites Held for James Dunnigan. (14 Apr 1983). The Sun and the Erie County Independent.
11 Sport: $100,000,000 Turnover?. (29 Apr 1940). Time Magazine.
12 Buffalo Raceway. (13 May 2004). The Western New York Harness Racing Page.
13 Phoenix, Arizona Demographics. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
14 Arizona Harness Racing, Inc. (7 Jun 1961). Arizona Corporation Commission.
15 Werner, M.R. Racing Beneath The Peaks. (8 Mar 1965). Sports Illustrated Magazine.
16 Slater, Chuck. Del Miller, Legendary Driver in the Sulky, Is Dead at 83. (21 Aug 1996). The New York Times.
17 Phoenix Trots Out A $9 Million Track With Spiral Curves. (27 Dec 1964). The New York Times.
18 Kiko, Sally. Phoenix Trotting Park History. (Dec 2010). Three Rivers Historical Society, Vol. 7, Issue 4.
19 Hoffman, Dean A. The Short Life and Long Death of Phoenix Trotting Park. (28 Mar 2014). Harness Racing Update.
20 Goodyear's Horse Track Becomes 'White Elephant'. (21 Sep 2006). West Valley View.
21 TwiMet. Motorcycle Show Phoenix/Goodyear Trotter Park 1988- PART 1. (27 Sep 2010). YouTube.
22 AutoSwap USA. (15 Nov 1991). Arizona Business Gazette.
23 Goodyear Trotting Park Receives Interest. (10 Oct 2011). West Valley View.
24 Arizona RV Resorts: Cotton Lane RV Park. (2 Aug 2002). Retrieved from the Wayback Machine.