Straus’ Place Remembering racetracks

Zack Bacon riding Grand Cherokee, Sam Padilla riding Sauxsoe, Don Proctor riding Suntana and Marcus Chet Delorme riding Mucho Mite try to catch Don Herber riding Dudon as they make their way around the final turn Sunday at Pari-Mutual Horse Races at the Brown County Fairgrounds in Aberdeen. Herber and Dudon won the race. Photo by Dawn Dietrich-Sahli taken 5/17/09.

By bill straus

We’ve all seen the old abandoned racetrack just off I-10 west of Phoenix.  The Phoenix Trotting Park was built in 1965 by James Dunnigan Sr. of New York but was closed the next year for a variety of reasons. It was used for an explosion scene in the 1998 film No Code for Conduct but has lain fallow since then. Because of its location, and because so many of us who drive to San Diego pass it on the way there and back, it’s become one of our city’s most recognizable architectural icons. I just read a few months ago that it will be demolished by the end of the year. That got me thinking. After all, it’s not the first racetrack in Phoenix to close down. And having worked at a couple of racetracks in my life, I find their history to be somewhat fascinating. Here’s what happened to some of the other racing ovals…

As in most states, horse racing was a cornerstone of the Arizona State Fair from the very beginning. The original wooden grandstand, built in 1905, was replaced in 1936 by the one still standing today. Like the Trotting Park, this location was featured in a film – the 1956 Marilyn Monroe movie Bus Stop.  Racing – both auto and horse – was popular at the fairgrounds up until the early ‘60s.

Sportsman’s Park was a 160-acre facility that dominated the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Osborn Road. It was built in the late 1930s and was actually located pretty far north of the city in those days. Sportsman’s Park was primarily used for harness racing, but included other breeds as well. It closed in 1950, but the structure remained for a few years. I still remember seeing the big white fence along Seventh Avenue when we drove by that area. I was only a toddler back then.

Shortly after WWII, J.H. Patterson opened the Ingleside Turf Club Racetrack at the corner of 62nd Street and Thomas Road. Around 1950, Patterson was approached by James Herbuveaux and the two partnered to form Arizona Downs Racing. The track was renamed Arizona Downs. Racing continued at the eastside track until 1957, when operations moved to the relatively new Turf Paradise at 19th Avenue and Bell Road.

By then, those were the only two groups vying for race days and it only made sense to share the one facility, with Arizona Downs leasing it for their meet. That relationship ended in 1981 when Turf Paradise squeezed Arizona Downs out and the latter was dissolved. Turf Paradise is still around after 61 years.

There were other kinds of racetracks, too. Manzanita Speedway was the Valley’s auto racing jewel from 1951 until Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) was built.  “Manzy,” as it was known, was located at 34th Avenue and Broadway Road and closed in 2009. Beeline Dragway, on the Beeline Highway (of course!) in Mesa was our local drag strip from 1963 until 1975. Phoenix Greyhound Park closed only a few years ago (as did the greyhound tracks in Black Canyon City and Apache Junction), but still stands at 40th and Washington streets.

At one time or another, we had racetracks in almost every corner of this Valley. And for at least some of us, the memories linger to this day.