The theme for next year’s Lines on the Pines is Horses in the Pine Barrens. Linda Stanton, the festival founder, asked me to contribute an article for a book she’s preparing on the subject. I initially was going to write about the history of Atlantic City Racecourse. As I researched the subject of horse racing in the Pine Barrens, however, I found that the famous McKee City racetrack was only the tip of the iceberg. Leading up to the festival, I’d like to share a few posts based on my research starting with a little summary of the life and death of Atlantic City Racecourse.
Opening in 1946 about 15 miles from its namesake city along the Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing, Atlantic City Racecourse was founded by wealthy Philadelphian Jack Kelly. The original shareholders included Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. Kelly’s daughter Princess Grace, a teenager when the track opened, became an Oscar-winning actress and married Prince Rainier of Monaco. Grace frequented the track throughout her life. The dirt track was one mile and an eighth. The inner grass course was a mile. Together with northern New Jersey’s Monmouth Park and Garden State Park just outside of Philadelphia, Atlantic City Racecourse formed New Jersey’s “Golden Triangle” of horse racing.
The track drew the sport’s leading owners such as Calumet Farm and C.V. Whitney as well as their greatest horses. Allaire du Pont, a member of the prominent Du Pont family, sent her gelding Kelso, a grandson of Triple Crown winner Count Fleet foaled at Claiborne Farm, to win his first race at Atlantic City in 1959. The victory launched a legendary career in which Kelso became Horse of the Year five times from 1960 to 1964..
Bred and owned by Claiborne Farm, Hall of Famer Round Table was the1958 Horse of the Year, Champion Grass Horse three years in a row, and Champion Handicap Horse two years in a row. He won the United Nations Handicap, the track’s most important race and one of the premier international turf races, as a three-year-old in 1957 as part of an 11 race win streak. He also won the 1959 United Nations Handicap.
Other races included Philadelphia Turf Handicap, Margate Handicap, and Miss America Stakes. The 1956 champion handicap mare Blue Sparkler, a Jersey-bred owned by Monmouth Park president Amory Haskell and foaled at Haskell’s Woodlawn Farm in Middletown, won the $100,000 Atlantic City Handicap against male horses.
Hall of Fame Champion racemare Tosmah compiled a seven race win streak as a two-year-old in 1963, which included the Mermaid Stakes at Atlantic City. Later in her career, she twice defeated colts, including Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair.
Winners of the World’s Playground Stakes included Hall of Fame Horses of the Year Dr. Fager, who also won the United Nations Handicap, his only race on grass, and Spectacular Bid.
Jack Kelly died in 1960. When Bob Levy took the reins in the 1960s, he conceived of the Matchmaker Stakes, a unique race for fillies first run in 1967. In addition to purse money, the first three finishers won a breeding service with one of three top Thoroughbred stallions.
The Electric Factory group in Philadelphia staged a three-day music festival at Atlantic City Racecourse in 1969, from August 1st to the 3rd, two weeks before Woodstock. Over 100,000 people descended upon Atlantic City Racetrack, bringing traffic on the Black Horse Pike to a halt. The Atlantic City Pop Festival featured the Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Little Richard, Santana, Joni Mitchell and others.
Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone, the only female rider to win a Triple Crown race (the Belmont Stakes) won the 1982 and 1983 riding titles at Atlantic City. The United Nations Handicap became the Caesars International in 1990 thanks to sponsorship by Caesars. The premier race still drew top horses from around the world such as American champion Lure and Canadian champion Sky Classic, both members of their countries’ Halls of Fame. Another horse that made headlines was the not so great Gussie Mae who had the distinction of winning his first race at Atlantic City after losing 85 times.
In spite of this rich history, the track began to decline in the 1970s due to a variety of factors. It closed for good in January 2015. Be sure to attend Lines on the Pines in 2023 and check out the following sources for more information about the history of horse racing, particularly in South Jersey!