Phoenix Trotting Park, An Architectural Paragon, Has Set Out to Win The West!

Hoof Beats Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 12
February 1965
By: Earl Flora

A DIRIGIBLE RIDE, courtesy of Goodyear, over the new multi-million dollar Phoenix Trotting Park vividly presents the true grandeur and beauty of this latest in harness palaces.

Stoic Camelback Mountain and the sprawling oasis that is Paradise Valley went begging in the early January days of 1965 as the chunky little Goodyear blimp changed its sightseeing course to a beeline out over the Arizona desert and James J. Dunnigan's modern wonder of the old west. Now, this is what the airship tourists want to see.

Following hard upon the heels of splendorous Pompano Park's unveiling in southern Florida, the Phoenix Trotting Park is a quick and breathtaking follow-up chapter in the popularity explosion of pari-mutuel harness racing.

At ground level the scene is equally memorable. Two hours before post time on opening night, January 11, cars stopped along the main road and people piled out to view the lighted spectacle some 500 yards away toward the Sierra Estrella Mountains. An Arizona sunset staged its daily extravaganza in the background and a misty blue haze hung low over the quiet desert growth. The trotting park might have been a mirage from another age or another world.

Such old and callous harness campaigners as Bowman Brown, Jr., and Bob Hackett agreed that this was one of the most picturesque sights they had ever beheld. And, for the moment, wished that they could paint instead of write.

More than 12,000 persons attended the inaugural racing card of the Phoenix Trotting Park and it was actually surprising that the parimutuel business from the first nighters 'was as good as it was $130,984. This is a brand new sport to

Arizonians and, more pertinent than that, Jimmy Dunnigan's Italian-styled racing palace offers so many magnificent distractions to an opening night gathering.

One smartly dressed customer at a clubhouse dining table waved nine $2 win tickets at his companions a few minutes before the first race and explained:

"I've got one on each horse. I just want to be able to say that I had a winner in the very first race at Phoenix Trotting Park."

This was the way it was on opening night. It was an occasion-a social occasion and an historic occasion-rather than a time to pour over a racing program or a time to pay close attention to the public address outlining the finesse and artistry of wagering. In a land of wranglers and dude ranches and $1 dollar rides in old stagecoaches, this was suddenly time catching up.

Occupying a square mile of land 20 miles west of downtown Phoenix and backdropped by the White Tank Mountains and the Sierra Estrellas, the Phoenix Trotting Park is a marvel of Italian architecture. The 5,000 seat grandstand (the ramp can accommodate 10,000 more) as well as the main racing strip was designed by Ivone Grassetto, head of Impresa Eugenio Grassetto of Padua, Italy, world's largest architectural firm.

It could be old Rome itself with lions roaring in the arena and Christians trembling in the cellblocks were it not for the many escalators and elevators, the plush warmth of the clubhouse and the several other dining and entertainment facilities, the 50 acre paved parking lot and the awesome torrent of electricity.

Just as important as the grandstand structure to Mr. Dunnigan and other park officials is the 5/8ths mile racing strip which, they proudly point out, is America's first harness track constructed with spiral curves. Such curves may alter driving strategy, they add, and explain somewhat as follows:

Spiral curves allow horses to change directions without slowing or being pulled toward the outside in the turns. Thus a Standardbred can go at top speed anywhere on the course, whether along the hub rail or parked outside. They calculate that drivers should be able to make moves on the turns and this, plus the absence of a "crown" in the track, should mean a better opportunity at the start for horses on the outside. Even those in the No. 8 position. It could also tend to substantially reduce if not eliminate "Indian file" racing, they reason.

Phoenix officials believe further that times should be faster because the horses do not have to let up anywhere on the track and because, with the outward thrust eliminated from the curves, less ground has to be covered. This, they say, has been the experience at Padua, Italy, where the world's first spiral curve harness track was constructed by Grassetto, who is also a Standardbred owner.

Many horses at Padua have trimmed two seconds and more from their previous best times, Grassetto reports. For example, Nike Hanover, 2:03.2 to 2:01.1; Hurst Hanover, 2:04.3 to 2:02; Newstar, 2:02 to 1:59.3; Mincio, 2:04 to 2:01.3; Steno, 2:06 to 2:03, and Gebrasco, 2:06 to 2:02.1. Some of the times were set in races, others against the clock.

In essence, the effect of the spiral curve with proper super elevation is to induce a horse to enter curves without slowing or shifting position.

Best time on opening night was 2:10 4/5, by Earl Butler's Santa Raider in the sixth event, but veteran Billy Haughton, for one, was quick to point out that conditions were far from perfect for any accurate appraisal of the new speed strip. For one thing, horses were making their first start after two and three month layoffs. Secondly, the new surface was aggravated and left heavy by unseasonably heavy rains a few days before the opening.

"It'll be a while yet before we can really tell just how much those curves help," said Haughton. "But my first impression is a good one."

Billy, behind Dutch Bomber in the seventh, didn't make it into the winner's circle opening night, and neither did dash winning king Bob Farrington, who went at it with Lucile Wise, Shafter Diamond and Red Irish. Of the national driving names on hand for the lidlifter, only little Joe O'Brien made it home first-handling Mar Frisco in the ninth.

Those first nighters, who hunch bet the first horse in the first race saw their mental gymnastics pay off. Burrsville, owned by the Noble Farms of Far Hills, N. J., turned his rail position into a neck win over Hi Lo's Request, and to make the occasion a little more colorful for the opening nighters, Burrsville was handled by young Gerry Kazmaier, driving star of Paramount Movies "Fire Away" a couple of years back.

For the clubhouse collector who purchased nine win tickets on the first race, it finally meant an investment of only $1.20 to come up with his "collector's item". Burrsville paid off $16.80.

A second night treat for a gathering of some 4000 was afforded by Farrington, who picked up his first victory of the new year and thus left himself some six weeks ahead of his fantastic record breaking clip (312) of 1964. The national dash winning champ returned to his Ohio training ground immediately after the second night card, however, and will not start again until the Chicago racing season opens in late February.

Harness leaders visiting the Phoenix scene for the opening were readily convinced that the Arizona spa is rapidly becoming one of the choicest winter vacation spots in the land, and that tourists will play a major part in the successful future of Jimmy Dunnigan's new venture.

New residential and industry expansions are already on the drawing board for the Litchfield Park (Goodyear) suburb which is hard by the track. And an example of what type of community it will be can already be found at The Wigwam, a resort collection of beautiful rooms, apartments and bungalows which attracted most of the harness racing officials visiting the track opening. A golf course is part of The Wigwam spread, as is a stable of riding horses which features long or short trail rides into the nearby desert country.

Harness racing's latest frontier, in the land of the Apache and Navajo, is an important milestone in the sport and another monument to the ingenuity, foresight and courage of Mr. James J. Dunnigan.


This article originally appeared in Hoof Beats Magazine, February 1965.

"I've got one on each horse. I just want to be able to say that I had a winner in the very first race at Phoenix Trotting Park."