John Wesley Hanes, 62, of North Carolina and New York, is a deceptively soft-spoken man of action who believes in seeing things with his own eyes. As a horse owner and a member of thoroughbred racing's eminent Jockey Club, Hanes knew in a general way that New York's race fans 1) shell out more money than devotees anywhere else and 2) are remorselessly packed into some of the oldest and most inadequate racing plants on the face of the earth. In the ordinary course of things, John Hanes is driven to such tracks as Jamaica, Aqueduct and Belmont in a chauffeured limousine and sits in a private box. A year ago he decided to take a closer look.
WHAT JOHN HANES LEARNED
Instead of a limousine he took the Long Island Rail Road—and rarelyeven got a seat on that railroad's race-track specials: "It was like standing in a cattle car." He decided to skip lunch in town and try the hot dogs in the grandstand.
"It was useless. I never once got to a hot-dog stand, or to a $2 window, or close to a horse—or within range of a comfortable seat."
What John Hanes learned was something nobody had to tell New York's average long-suffering $2 bettor. At the state's four flat-racing tracks last year, 4,501,555 people wagered $374,-479,656 during 196 days of racing, and spent most of their time in masses of fellow horse-players suffering from tired and aching feet, empty stomachs and short tempers. Discontent drove many of them to the parimutuel windows in New Jersey.
John Hanes gave that trip a try, too. "I went down to Monmouth Park one day and made a big discovery: racing fans will put up with an insufferable train ride if they can enjoy the surroundings and conveniences at the other end. Monmouth Park offered comfortable facilities and plenty of room for everybody. No track in New York did."
John Hanes was not the only man concerned over New York racing. Ashley Trimble Cole, chairman of the state Racing Commission, had become as fed up as the sports columnists and turf writers who for years have panned New York's setup in terms that would look scathing even in a prison-reform report. (One name for Aqueduct is Footsore Downs.) Speaking to members of The Jockey Club at Saratoga 13 months ago, Cole threw something of a jolt into America's oldest racing administrative body.
JOCKEY CLUB PRESCRIPTION
Cole told the club, whose members are well aware that theirs is the responsibility for the future of flat racing in New York, to prescribe a quick-healing remedy for local racing ills. "If you gentlemen can't do something about it," warned Cole, "the Racing Commission will find men who can."
This week The Jockey Club gave its sanction to what it hopes will eventually prove to be a guaranteed cure-all—if properly administered by Jockey Club doctors. The men who had made the diagnosis also prescribed the cure. A committee of three appointed by The Jockey Club, they were: John Wesley Hanes, onetime Under Secretary of the Treasury, director of Olin Industries, Inc., the Bankers Trust Co. and Johns-Manville Corp.; Christopher T. Chenery, 68, chairman of the board of Southern Natural Gas Co. and a trustee of Washington and Lee University, and Harry F. Guggenheim, 64, who, though he may never be remembered by railbirds as a director of Kennecott Copper Co. and as president of two family foundations, will take his place in American turf lore as the owner of Dark Star, the only horse to win a race from Native Dancer—the 1953 Kentucky Derby.
$15 MILLION FOR BELMONT
New York racing, suggested The Jockey Club, can best be served if all four flat-racing tracks join hands under the guidance of the club to provide comfort and convenience for all the people who like racing. "In short," says Hanes, "invite them to come racing instead of inviting them to stay home." High points of the proposal made to the Racing Commission for remodeling the operation of the sport in New York:
1. To form a nonprofit Greater New York Racing Association by buying and merging the separate corporations which now own Belmont, Jamaica, Aqueduct and Saratoga. The new Association would spend nearly $50 million now and another $45 million within a few years.
2. To concentrate racing on a big scale at Belmont (completed in 1905 at a cost of about $2 million) by investing some $15 million toward modernizing its plant and increasing seating capacity from 23,000 to 32,000, eventually to 50,000. The mile-and-a-half track (largest in the U.S.) would be reduced, and in the cutback the controversial Widener chute, which gives horses a wonderful racing straightaway and spectators the worst possible view of racing, might be doomed. Much of the work could be finished by next fall, the whole job completed by the spring of 1956.
3. To invest another $3 million in grandstand facilities and improved track conditions at Saratoga.
4. Jamaica to be discontinued as a race track and the real estate sold.
5. Aqueduct to be maintained as an operating track until the modernization at Belmont is completed. Then reconsider plans for another ultramodern track (cost: about $45 million) to go up on the present Aqueduct site.
Proposed capitalization for this whopping transaction would consist of debt and non-dividend-paying common stock owned by The Jockey Club, whose members would have voting privileges to appoint the Association's top officials. Some $27 million would be spent by the new GNYRA to purchase the four tracks (based on an estimated valuation of $8 million each for Belmont, Jamaica and Aqueduct and $3 million for Saratoga). Hanes's committee already has procured an option on over 80% of the Belmont stock and has offered to purchase the stock of the three other tracks. All four existing individual racing franchises would be kept alive and their respective officials remain in office.
The public has not been alone in its grievances about the New York situation. Private management has felt particularly handcuffed because, though the pari-mutuel takeout is 15%, highest in the country, only 4% of this goes back to the track. Thus, while other tracks, permitted by state law to retain a higher percentage of the take, can afford grand-scale improvements (Hialeah threw open a new $2,500,000 clubhouse, Santa Anita added 5,000 grandstand seats and can now accommodate 33,000 cars and Garden State will open a track-sponsored hotel on Oct. 1st), New York is constantly in the throes of a tight pinch. Last year, for instance, New York State gained $32,525,600 from racing, but the four tracks could afford to spend only $1,281,250 on improvements. Over a million was spent at Belmont. Jamaica, amazingly enough, got by the year without spending one nickel on improvements, and investments at the other tracks were necessarily limited to the installation of such safety factors as sprinkler systems in the barns and building bunkhouses for stable help—and little else.
At the same time New York raised its purse distribution to an all-time state record of $9,535,390. It didn't require The Jockey Club's brains to see that the system which maintains racing at a very high purse level in the face of the least sympathetic tax laws is doomed. The new nonprofit proposal will urge the state to receive as taxes such of the income as it desires to take—after the payment of purses, operating expenses, debt service and provision for improvements. "The state, after all," says Hanes, "should be sympathetic to more revenue. Our plan should prove to them that by lowering the percentage of the take the state can get more money—for the simple reason that modern enlarged facilities will attract more people who in turn will bet more money."
LEGISLATION COMES NEXT
The proposal for the GNYRA, after its almost certain approval by Cole and his Racing Commission, will head for Governor Tom Dewey's desk. Best bet is that Dewey will urge the next legislature to give the GNYRA a positive go-ahead. Said Hanes as discussion of the proposal went the public rounds early this week: "Our plan is to see that the country's largest spectator sport should be a happy experience for the public, profitable for the state and comfortable for the horsemen."