Garden State Park and Racetrack

State Highway 70 East & Haddonfield Road

Garden State Park opened in 1942 after delays caused by raw material rationing at the United States’ entry into World War II. Due to the seizure of 30,000 tons of structural steel by war authorities, developer Eugene Mori mostly constructed Garden State Park’s ornate Georgian-style grandstand of wood. Limited amounts of steel came from the demolition of New York City’s elevated railways. Despite this inauspicious start, “the Garden,” as it was known, was officially out of the gate.

In its heyday, it would host some of the finest thoroughbred racehorses in the nation at the signature Jersey Derby. Its Garden State Stakes for two-year-olds offered one of the largest purses available to juveniles. Legendary horses raced at Garden State Park included Whirlaway, Citation, and the great Secretariat on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in early 1972 in the Garden State Futurity.

Garden State Park’s success sparked a wave of entertainment-oriented growth and development in the formerly rural community of Delaware Township, New Jersey (now Cherry Hill Township). Mori followed his achievement at the racetrack with the construction of the Cherry Hill Inn on the site of Abraham Browning’s Cherry Hill Farm (at Route 38 and Haddonfield Road); and in 1967 the Cherry Hill Lodge, also on Route 38 to the east of the Cherry Hill Mall. Soon to follow in 1961 was the Cherry Hill Shopping Center (today’s Cherry Hill Mall, the first enclosed shopping mall on the East Coast) and the super-luxurious Rickshaw Inn with its legendary gold-plated roof, which was situated on Route 70 opposite Garden State Park.

Diagonally across Route 70 on the map in then-Delaware Township was the Latin Casino, adjacent to the Rickshaw and the Garden. This dinner nightclub hosted legendary acts like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liberace, Cherry Hill Estates neighbors Al Martino & Frankie Avalon and more; before closing due to competition from casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Followed later by Atlantic City Race Course and Monmouth Park Racetrack (1946), Garden State Park became a crucial part of what was called the “Golden Triangle” of New Jersey racing.

The racing triangle would lose a leg on April 14, 1977, when a fire raged undetected at Garden State Park in the Colonial Room restaurant’s kitchen during a racing program. Despite no functional firefighting system, the wooden grandstand would last long enough to allow more than 11,000 patrons and employees to escape the inferno. At 4:45 p.m., the walls and massive roof overhang of the grandstand gave way to the flames and reduced the structure to a smoking ruin. Despite the flying embers very nearly igniting The Rickshaw Inn across the street and the wooden barns & stables on the backstretch, the damage was contained to the massive grandstand complex. Three lives were lost in the fire – one patron and one employee were later found in the rubble – and one fire officer (McWilliams) died of a heart attack on-scene. But, the very next day, the vault with the previous days’ “take” was opened, with the money intact; while outside on the track, horses continued to train..’

Despite the stables on the east side of the track remaining open for training, Garden State Park no longer held races until securities trader Robert Brennan financed construction of a new $178,000,000 steel and glass grandstand which opened on April 1, 1985. The first race that day followed the schedule from the day the original track burned. The track, running night programs, would provide racing for standardbred harness racing as well as thoroughbred racing. The grandstand also had on the Clubhouse level The Phoenix Room, which was a large banquet hall that hosted events year-round.

On May 27, 1985, Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year winner Spend A Buck won the first Jersey Derby at the new Garden State Park, having earlier the same year won the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes, both at Garden State Park, and also the Kentucky Derby. The $2.6 million purse, including a $2 million bonus put up by Brennan for winning the four races, was the largest single purse in American racing history up to that point.

One of the more infamous tax breaks the facility enjoyed was an (all-but) exemption from the onerous municipal and county property taxes, because it was categorized as a “farm.” It qualified for this special exemption because it “produced over $500 per year in agricultural products” — horse manure!

Despite a welcomed return, Garden State Park never re-acquired its glamorous past. Over 16 years, the track suffered from the apathy of New Jersey horsemen and New Jersey state officials, and unrestrained competition from the Atlantic City casinos. The final straw came when Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman vetoed legislation that would have permitted slot machines at New Jersey racetracks, a measure that possibly could have saved the Cherry Hill landmark.

On May 3, 2001, 2,000 fans came to see the last racing program at Garden State Park. After 58 years, the Garden ran its last race.On October 30, 2003, with the property sold to Realen-Turnberry for a mixed-use ‘town center’ redevelopment, demolition started on the grandstand often referred to as a masterpiece. By late March 2004, all that remained of the racecourse was the original 1942 gatehouse on Route 70. The gatehouse still stands and is slated to be renovated as part of a planned off-track betting facility at the site. Eventually, the site became the location of a shopping center.

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