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

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

Senator Dunnigan on Feb 22, 1934
Senator John J. Dunnigan on Feb. 22, 1934
John J. Dunnigan was born in Manhattan on September 6, 1883.[1] After high school, he studied architecture at Cooper Union and graduated in 1906.[2] With his partner Edwin W. Crumley, they started the architectural firm Dunnigan & Crumley.

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.[1]

John J. Dunnigan was instrumental in passing the "Pari-mutuel Revenue Law" of 1940,[1] 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.

John J. was married to Margaret (Gilligan) Dunnigan and they had four children together: Margaret, James, Ruth, and Joseph.[2] He died in December 1965 at the age of 82.[3]


James J. "Jimmy" Dunnigan, Sr.

James J. Dunnigan Sr.
James J. Dunnigan Sr. on Jan. 11, 1965
James J. Dunnigan, or "Jimmy" as he was often called, was born in the Bronx in 1912.[4] He attended the University of Notre Dame and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934.[5] 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."[6] He continued to support his alma mater after graduation, donating $500 to the scholarship fund of the Buffalo Club in 1956.[7]

In June of 1942, James helped found the Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg, New York[8]. 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.[8] While the track seemed promising at first, a variety of factors caused it to close after only two and a half seasons,[9] leaving Dunnigan nearly bankrupt. He lost both the Phoenix Trotting Park and Buffalo Raceway, which he sold to the Sportservice Corporation in 1966.[8]

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.[4]

James J. Dunnigan died on April 6, 1983 at the age of 71.[10]


The Buffalo Raceway - Hamburg, NY

Buffalo Raceway - May 25, 1974
Trotters at the Buffalo Raceway on May 25, 1974

Construction

The Buffalo Raceway opened in June of 1942 in Hamburg, New York[8]. The track's existence was a direct result of the passage of the "Pari-mutuel Revenue Law" of 1940,[11] which was largely influenced by Senator John Dunnigan.

Operation

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.[8]

Today

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.[12] It is part of the Erie County Fairgrounds and is located at: 5600 McKinley Pkwy, Hamburg, NY 14075.


Phoenix Trotting Park

Construction

Phoenix Trotting Park logo
Re-creation of the Phoenix Trotting Park logo

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.[13] The track was located far outside city limits, where roads were mostly unimproved dirt.

Land Purchase

Dunnigan formed Arizona Harness Raceway, Inc. on June 7, 1961[14]. He purchased a huge plot of land from Karl and Norbert Abel[15], 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[16].

The plan was to build a grandstand with a capacity of 5,400 spectators.[15] Construction began in 1964 on the massive structure, which contained more than 27,000 cubic yards of concrete.[17] The track was originally supposed to cost about $2 million, but the final cost ended up being a whopping $9.5 million.[15] Total construction time from the groundbreaking ceremony to the first race was less than 12 months.

Phoenix Trotting Park under construction
Phoenix Trotting Park under construction in 1964. Photo by: Don Daniels of mi-harness.net

Design and Contractors

According to the 1983 book "A Guide to the Architecture of Metro Phoenix" by the Arizona Institute of Architects, Phoenix Trotting Park was designed by Impressa Eugenio Grassetto of Padua, Italy. 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.

Victor Gruen and Associates of Los Angeles, CA were the coordinating architects on the project. The firm and its eponymous founder are famous for inventing the modern shopping mall as we know it today. Construction of the grandstand was a joint venture between Gilbert & Dolan Enterprises and E.L. Farmer Construction Co., Inc. [24]

Unique Construction Methods

There are several unique features about the grandstand's construction that make it unique. The Trotting Park's wall panels, roof slabs, columns, beams, and girders were all constructed of precast concrete, which was poured on-site. While commonly used today, this method of construction was considered cutting-edge in the 1960s.

Because of the high summer temperatures, special precautions were taken in the preparation and curing of the concrete. Aggregates used in the concrete mix were cooled before mixing by introducing ice into the mixing process to disspiate heat. Trucks which transport the mix to the site were equipped with water spray devices to cool the drums containing the concrete while they were being hauled to the point of use. After pouring, the fresh concrete was covered with black polyethylene plastic sheets to conserve moisture as well as to simulate steam curing methods. [25]

All of the concrete structural members (except the floor and roof slabs) were post-tensioned using a system called Prescon. The pre-cast pieces have a compressive strength of 6000-psi, approximately three times the normal strength of concrete used in more conventional buildings.

The roof of the grandstand was supported by a series of main roof girders. These hollow, V-shaped girders measured 8 by 8 by 105 feet, and were considered "lightweight" at 120 tons. They allowed the building to achieve unusually long cantilevers of 39 feet for the seat girders and 32 feet for the roof girders. However, the cantilever at the roof level reaches a remarkable 44 feet with the attachment of the front fascia units.

The hollow roof girders were also part of the track's innovative heating system, which kept the spectators warm during the winter months. Phoenix Trotting Park was not built with air conditioning, as it was never intended to be a year-round facility. The track did house a fully air conditioned restaurant, which operated year-round.

Operation

Opening Night Race in January 1965
Opening Night Race on Jan 12, 1965

The Trotting Park opened on January 12, 1965 to a crowd of 12,223 attendees.[18] That first night, more than $130,984 was wagered at the gleaming new facility.[19] The park received a great deal of press coverage and was featured in Sports Illustrated magazine and in The New York Times. It was also featured on the cover of Harness Horse magazine and Hoof Beats magazine. Things were off to a great start, but it wasn't long before the park's luck changed.

Closure

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.[9]

There are a number of reasons why the Trotting Park was unsuccessful:

  1. 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.[9]
  2. Remote Location - Located far from downtown, the Trotting Park was not easily accessible as its construction predated Interstate 10 by twenty years.
  3. Cost Overruns - Construction of the park soared far beyond expectations, giving the owners little room to make a profit.
  4. Competition - Located in North Phoenix at 19th Ave and Bell Road, Turf Paradise (opened in 1956) 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.[20]

Today

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.[21] The parking lot was used as an automotive swap meet called "AutoSwap USA" in 1991.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] Roles Inn of America owns the land upon which the Trotting Park is built.

The Future

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.

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References

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 A Glass Enclosed Palace for the "Sport of Kings. (Feb 1967). Unknown magazine scan, 69-71.

25 Horsey Set Gets New House. (Nov 1964). Unknown magazine scan.


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