Connecticut has had a long history with gambling, from harness racing to greyhounds to jai alai and on to the casinos. In its day Charter Oak Park, near the Hartford/West Hartford line, attracted big crowds and big names in harness racing. After a highly successful first year, in 1874, The Courant ran a lengthy story.
"The feeling among horsemen has been one of satisfaction with the accommodation provided for stock, and the treatment they have received personally," the 1874 Courant story said.
The amenities were appreciated too, such as the "music of the Colt's band of 25 pieces ... that never played better before."
Even the police force got high marks for "acquitting itself handsomely all during the races. Not a case of pick-pocketing was reported, showing that these gentry knew they were being closely watched. This is almost unheard of in the history of horse gatherings."
Seems getting a cold one was not a problem, either. And the prices, like we experience at today's sporting venues, seemed too high, at least from the Courant story.
"The refreshment rooms under the grandstand were liberally patronized, not withstanding the high prices rendered necessary by the temporary nature of their arrangements. The lager beer man probably did the liveliest business. Somebody has figured that he would have to sell 7,000 or 8,000 glasses to pay his rent. There is not much doubt that he did it judging from the crowd around the stand yesterday."
The first meet was four days, Aug. 25-28, 1874, and the final day the crowd estimate was 12,000-15,000.
Over the years the top horses and riders all competed here.
In 1878 at Charter Oak the horse Rarus came within a quarter of a second of the world record he had established in Buffalo, N.Y. He was scheduled to be back the next year. A Courant story in 1929 that looked back at track history noted "a large crowd of trotting enthusiasts from every point in New England assembled to watch the champion. The disappointment of the crowd was great when the officials announced that Rarus would be unable to appear as the great horse had been sold only a few hours before his scheduled appearance for $35,000."
That, by the way, is about $700,000 in today's dollars.
The horse was bought by Robert Bonner, at one time an apprentice printer who had learned the trade at The Courant before heading to New York and, as the story said, "amassing a fortune as publisher for the New York Ledger."
Bonner apparently was trying to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case, the Vanderbilts.
"When Bonner's health became impaired he was advised by his doctor to buy a pair of horses," The Courant wrote. "Moved to jealousy by the fashion in which Commodore Vanderbilt and others prominent in New York society brushed by him with their fast trotters during his rides this former newspaperman traded the steady going tenants of his stable for faster horses acquiring Rarus when his attempts to secure Goldsmith Maid failed. In later years Rarus was reinstated as Bonner did not race his horses."
Bonner, who at one time owned about 50 horses, and Rarus both are in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y.
Bonner was so well-known that a 1897 New York Times story said, "Years ago it was said that with the exception of General [Ulysses S.] Grant and P.T. Barnum, Robert Bonner was known, by repute, to more people than any man in America."
By 1883 the first big purse — $10,000 — was put up for a race. The directors of the track had balked at such a purse, but Morgan G. Bulkeley, then treasurer of the track who would go on to become the first president of baseball's National League and governor of the state among other things, said the race would go on. He said he would be personally responsible "for any loss incurred." At the time, a $5,000 purse was deemed a large purse.
The first harness race filmed was July 5, 1897, at Charter Oak by the Edison Manufacturing Co., a large crowd there in hopes of watching the great trotter John R. Gentry attempting to break the 2-minute mark to set a record, yet it was not to be. Still, through the years, many of the horses now enshrined in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame raced here, including John R. Gentry, Goldsmith Maid, Directum I and Little Brown Jug, now the name of the most prestigious pacing classic for 3-year-olds.
About 40 years after Charter Oak closed in the '30s, there was talk of a thoroughbred race track in Connecticut in Middletown just south of the Cromwell border to be called the Sawmill Brooke Race course and built on 360 acres. That Middletown site had moved ahead of a proposal in Wolcott. But in the end, the Middletown proposal fell through when Ronald H. Mooney could not come up with the necessary financial backing. His license to build the track was revoked in 1978.
Middletown actually had some harness racing itself, at Crystal Lake, starting in the '30s. So did the Danbury Fair.
By the '70s Connecticut was heavily into jai alai and dog racing.
Hartford Jai Alai opened May 20, 1976 and attendance that year was 1,369,739. It closed Sept. 5, 1995. But, as noted in a story by Bob Clancy in The Courant in 2001 when Milford, the last of three jai alai frontons in the state, closed, "[Hartford] never fully recovered from the 1988 players' strike. By 1994, two years after Foxwoods Resort Casino opened, the average daily attendance and handle had dropped to 679 and $92,179. There was no off-track betting on Hartford games."
Bridgeport Jai Alai opened June 1, 1976, and closed in 1995, when it was converted into Shoreline Star Greyhound Park. Milford Jai Alai opened May 5, 1977 and was the last to close, in 2001, Clancy noting the downfall: "Even with OTB, daily handle was less than one-third of what it was in the glory days — before the two casinos. Average daily attendance was sometimes less than 300. State law prevents simulcasting in the fronton."
Foxwoods Casino opened in 1992 and was followed by the Mohegan Sun Casino in 1996.
By 2005, Plainfield Greyhound Track also was gone, Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs writing, "A track that averaged 4,877 patrons the first year and had a handle of $125.3 million the second year averaged 183 people and had a handle of $9.7 million in 2004. There were crowds of about 100 over the winter ... A once-proud facility, a place to have a fine meal and a night out, slowly, methodically was brought to its knees."
`"The casinos killed it. What else?" patron Al Attardo of Plainfield told Jacobs. "And the state didn't do anything about it. It's sad.''
Wrote Jacobs: "As far as the folks who love Plainfield Greyhound Park are concerned there are two rats in their history: JL Rat, who won an amazing 120 times in 166 starts, and Gov. Lowell Weicker, who signed an amazing exclusivity agreement with the tribes in 1993. He fried the frontons. He euthanized dog racing."