The evening of August 31, the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators played at the Yankee Stadium; they drew 22,938 customers. That afternoon, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants had played at Ebbets Field; they drew 14,222. The same evening, 20 miles out from the city in suburban Westbury on Long Island, 43,547 New Yorkers came out to watch the trotters and pacers at the new Roosevelt Raceway. Only twice during the month did a professional baseball game in N.Y. attract more fans than that same day's racing at Roosevelt.
These figures are not offered to suggest that harness racing is replacing baseball as the national pastime. What they do indicate, however, is that a sports promotion which caters to the comfort of patrons, which provides first-rate entertainment and which uses clever showmanship to display its wares, will prosper in the face of the stiffest competition. The new Roosevelt Raceway is a $20 million extravaganza of color and air conditioning, of plush restaurants and convenient snack bars. In its five levels and 300-acre expanse, every conceivable requirement long sought by the racing public has been incorporated by Architect Arthur Froehlich. Behind huge plate-glass windows, sheltered, heated and air conditioned, there are some 3,000 seats for general-admission ticket holders, on a first-come, first-served basis. An additional 28,000 can follow the races in completely enclosed areas by watching five 24-and 48-foot-square closed-circuit television screens. Another 1,250 can dine in the three-tier Cloud Casino and see the races, live. For all of these and the 30,000 others the track can accommodate, it is never more than a few steps to the mutuel windows.
But more important than all of this, more important than the 14,000-car parking lots and the 5,000 trees and shrubs that decorate the plant, or the banks of elevators and escalators that preclude climbing of steps, more important than all the steel, cement and foam rubber is what the Raceway has done and is doing for the sport of trotting. Creature comforts are fine; what about the racing?
When Roosevelt first opened in 1940, on the site of Charles Lindbergh's take-off for his solo flight to Paris, harness racing was largely a county fair, crossroads dirt-track sport, supported by wealthy aficionados and attended by farm and small town enthusiasts. It is simple fact that every one of the innovations which transformed it into a major league attraction was conceived, tested and promoted at Roosevelt. Nighttime racing, a program of dashes instead of heat events, the starting gate and all the changes that resulted from these pioneer efforts are the reasons why, in the years since the war, every statistic connected with trotting has tripled and quadrupled many times over. The betting handle has gone from one million to half a billion, purses from $2 million to $20 million, attendance from a few hundred thousand to more than 10 million. There were, of course, many men who kept the sport alive and growing from its inception in Colonial times. But it remained for a crackerjack lawyer—a country lawyer at that—to realize its potential and lend it the promotional genius that put it in the big time. This is Roosevelt's George Morton Levy, a peppery, brass-voiced little gamecock of a man who, at 68, has more bounce than many of the trotters and pacers that skip over his dream track. Levy founded Roosevelt by cajoling a few innocent friends into risking their loose cash, putting in everything he had and going into hock for the rest. He and they have prospered mightily—and so have the drivers, trainers, breeders and everyone else connected with harness racing. From the first, Levy insisted on the best in racing. Today the training track at Roosevelt would be a matter of pride as a racing strip at many another plant. The new half-mile race oval is a model of footing, banking and drainage, covered with the track's own special soil from its acreage in Riverhead, N.Y. More than a thousand barns, conveniently arranged and spotlessly kept, ring the area. Roosevelt's own photo patrol, first at any harness track, provides judges with films of a race taken from two angles—home and back stretches—within three minutes of its conclusion. In accommodations for the press and for horsemen the new track is second to none in the country.
Roosevelt's racing policies are tailored not only to the interests of the public but the needs of horsemen—which is one reason why the track seldom fails to get cooperation from the men who own and train horses. This is in sharp contrast to some other tracks, where management's preoccupation with profits has embittered horsemen and driven them into boycotts. While the Grand Circuit of trotting (a series of major stakes around the country) has concentrated on colt racing, Roosevelt has specialized in bringing together older horses in invitational events—like last week's $30,000-added trot for horses which had previously not raced against each other because of eligibility requirements. These invitationals include the $25,000 National Pacing Derby and American Trotting Championship, the $15,000-added Harness Writers trot and pace and the Juvenile Championships. At the same time Roosevelt regularly stages so-called "baby races" without betting and for $500 purses, for 2-year-olds who cannot otherwise gain racing experience.
Biggest race of all on Roosevelt's card is the $50,000-added Messenger Stake, named after the forebear of all American harness horses—Messenger—who was brought to this country from England in 1788 and is buried only a few miles from the track, in Locust Valley. This year's Messenger, to be raced October 25, will be worth more than $100,000, the richest purse on the night circuit. That figure—$100,000—is roughly the amount George Levy was able to raise back in 1940 to launch Roosevelt.