Yesterday's News

And they were off! Audubon Raceway opened to big crowds, but the future was riddled with false starts

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
July 3, 2005

Audubon Raceway opened for business 50 years ago with high hopes, but its history is as checkered as the tile walls that originally flanked the clubhouse.

It's hard to count the number of times the racetrack has been sold at bankruptcy auction, or the periods it has sat vacant.

Currently, the track is used as a training center. The last races were run in 1993, before M.L. Vaughan tried to move the horse-racing franchise to eastern Kentucky.

Vaughan bought the property in 1988, changed the name to Riverside Downs, and pumped about $3.75 million into it before giving up. In 1993 he conveyed to Ellis Park right of first refusal on the property, and created a restrictive covenant guaranteeing the property would never again be used for pari-mutuel horse racing -- or any type of gambling -- without the permission of Ellis Park. That'll happen about the time horses sprout wings.

So Audubon Raceway-Riverside Downs is no more, and it's a safe bet it'll never come back. It was also known as Midwest Harness between 1975 and 1978 -- but I'm getting ahead of the story.

The harness racing track was originally developed by a consortium led by Evansville businessman Francis G. Stader, which invested about $1 million initially.

About 7,000 people attended the first races on July 4, 1955. "The track was fast, and the fans roared their approval when the opening race started at the beautiful track on the Old Evansville Road," Karl Christ reported in The Gleaner.

The first season of racing ended before an audience of 10,418 fans. During the 24 days of racing, a total of 92,803 people paid admittance, for a nightly average of nearly 4,000. A total of $489,092 was bet that season, for an average nightly handle of more than $20,000.

That doesn't sound so bad for 1955, does it?

But apparently it wasn't good enough. The following year Stader leased the track -- for 10 years -- to a New York securities dealer named G. Everett Parks, who was also connected to tracks in East St. Louis and New Orleans. But, again, I'm getting ahead of the story.

At its opening the track tried to cater to women, in both its decor and its hosting of a fashion show every Saturday evening.

"The Audubon dining terrace in the club house has three walls of glass, giving a good view of the track from any place in the room, and the back wall is of yellow tile with a recessed section for the bar," reported Gleaner society editor Melicent B. Quinn. "Above the bar is painted a mural of a harness race, and trophies on racks flank each side.

"Large black and white tile blocks are used on the two terraces, and the tables and chairs of black and gray wood-grain Formica have black tubular legs.

"Tobacco is planted in planters outside the glass walls of the club house, and the lights of the track are mirrored in the lake in the infield."

Pink plastic flamingoes lined the water in front of the grandstand. Sounds pretty ritzy by 1950s standards.

But enough of the decor -- what about the horses?

"Before each running, the sulkies are led onto the track and they parade in front of the grandstand so the patrons may have plenty of time to examine the entries before placing bets," The Gleaner reported.

"The horses don't start from a standing position," Christ reported. "A car drives the starting gate around the track, and the drivers are responsible for getting their horse up to the starting gate before they cross the starting line. In case some don't make it, the starter riding the gate signals a false start. Otherwise, the ponies are on their way as they cross the starting line, with the gate being pulled to the side of the track."

"The track itself is a wonder of modern engineering," another Gleaner story said. "It is a one-half mile long and is well lighted by huge banks of arcs, which are set at 20-foot intervals around the oval."

Audubon Raceway stood vacant between 1958 and 1964, when it sold for $100,000. It was sold again in 1971, was subject of a court battle that saw it re-open as Midwest Harness in 1975, and was sold in 1978, 1987, 1988 and 1999. A devastating fire that killed 20 horses struck in 1979, and again in 2003 when 22 horses were killed, but that was after the facility was no longer a racetrack.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS