The Golden Age of Atlantic City Racecourse

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. 

Red brick grandstand and tower of Atlantic City Racecourse in May Landings, New Jersey
Atlantic City Racecourse Grandstand (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

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!

Growth Versus Preservation in Evesham

Five years ago on Valentine’s Day 2017, I became the proud owner of my first horse. For the next eight months, I boarded my new black gelding at my trainer’s farm in Evesham, NJ and learned the basic responsibilities of horse ownership.

Evesham or Marlton?

Established in 1688, Evesham Township was incorporated under the Township Act of 1789, making it one of the original 104 municipalities in the state of New Jersey. Most Philadelphians and residents of South Jersey, including myself, know the area better as Marlton. I learned from John Volpa, founder of the Black Run Preserve, that this name came into use in the 19th century when people began excavating and selling marl clay from the region’s soil.

When I drove to Evesham from my office near Philadelphia, I was struck by how quickly the densely developed area suddenly became very rural. I later learned that this dichotomy resulted from Evesham’s location on the border of South Jersey’s suburban sprawl along with its status as a protected Pine Barrens municipality. 

Evesham sits north of my township of Waterford with the Mullica River running along their shared border. Most of Evesham Township, except for the northernmost section, falls within the state pinelands area. These are the management areas within Evesham designated by the Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) along with their descriptions from the CMP website:

  • Forest Area: “This is a largely undeveloped area that is an essential element of the Pinelands environment. It contains high quality water resources and wetlands and provides suitable habitat for many threatened and endangered species. Clustered housing on one acre lots is permitted at an average residential density of one home per every 28 acres. Roadside retail within 300 feet of pre-existing commercial uses is permitted, as are low intensity recreational uses.”
  • Regional Growth Area: “These are areas of existing growth and adjacent lands capable of accommodating regional growth influences while protecting the essential character and environment of the Pinelands. Permitted residential densities range from two to six homes per acre with sewers. Sewered commercial and industrial uses are also permitted.”
  • Rural Development Area: “This is a transitional area that balances environmental and development values between conservation and growth areas. Limited, low-density residential development and roadside retail is permitted. Clustered housing on one acre lots is permitted at an average residential density of one home for every five acres. Community commercial, light industrial and active recreational uses served by septic systems are also permitted.”

The Black Run Preserve and the Promenade at Sagemore

The Black Run Preserve, a 1300 acre nature preserve, is located within the Rural Development Area as was my trainer’s farm. Yet the Regional Development Area of Evesham is also home to the Promenade at Sagemore, a self-described “lifestyle center” with a “dazzling collection of upscale boutiques, high-end retail stores, and restaurants set amidst beautiful landscaping, calming water features, and architecture.”

Hopewell Bald Eagle

I eventually moved my horse to a farm in Shamong, but I also moved to Waterford with the natural attractions and developed amenities of Evesham close by. Driving to my vet’s office through Evesham’s Rural Development Area late one Friday afternoon, I spotted a large adult bald eagle feeding on a carcass in a field along Hopewell Road with a pair of turkey vultures waiting their turn. Unfortunately, I left my DSLR at home and only got a cell phone shot. Still, it was my first shot of an adult bald eagle in the wild. And it was right there in Evesham, near the bustle of rush hour traffic on Route 73 and the calm of Black Run.

Cell phone photo of a bald eagle feeding on a carcass while a pair of turkey vultures await their turn
Bald Eagle in Evesham (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Shamong and the Burlington County Pine Barrens

In September 2014, almost a year after my dad passed away, I started leasing a chestnut mare named Bella at an equestrian facility located in Shamong township very close to Medford and Tabernacle. Up until that time, I never heard of Shamong. Little did I imagine that it would become my home away from home.

I leased Bella for a year until I needed to take a more active caregiving role for my elderly mother, necessitating a move by me from Philly to Brigantine in October 2015. Even though I now lived an hour away from Shamong, I loved the farm where I rode and continued taking riding lessons there. The scenic drive along Route 206 through the Burlington County Pine Barrens between the farm and the White Horse Pike balanced the longer commute.

Red-tail Hawk Keeping Close Watch over Route 206

In June 2016, I found a new job closer to where I now lived, and my familiarity with Shamong helped me to connect with my new boss who grew up and still lived in the township. Now a director at a healthcare company, he reminisced about being a kid in the Pine Barrens and  collecting pieces of bog iron with his friends when he was a boy.

A Pine Barrens Education

After my mom’s passing in late 2017, I found myself at a crossroads with the choice of staying in Brigantine, moving back to Philly, or starting a new life close to Shamong where I now boarded a horse of my own. I spent much time in Shamong, surrounded by an active riding community that offered many opportunities in my sport of dressage, but I knew very few people outside my circle of equestrian friends and very little about the larger area.

To improve my drive, a friend suggested an alternate route using Atsion Road, which took me past horse farms, Atsion Lake with its log camping cabins, and a place called Pinelands Adventures that offered kayak lessons. This intrigued me. Kayaking was an interest of mine, but I never had time to pursue it until now.

I visited the Pinelands Adventures website and found they were not just a kayak outfitter. As an initiative of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, they offered educational programs focusing on the region’s history, culture, and ecology, providing a perfect opportunity for me to spend the summer exploring. I took a series of tours and trips throughout 2019, most of them guided by former Director of Education John Volpa:

  • John McPhee’s Pine Barrens, a guided tour of the sites covered in McPhee’s classic book.
  • A hike on the Batona Trail to Apple Pie Hill where we climbed to the top of the iconic fire tower.
  • Journey Between Two Rivers, a hike between the Mullica and Batsto rivers.
  • The Mullica River 101 guided kayak trip led by John, who instructed me in various paddling techniques.

I met Barbara Solem, author of Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, when I accompanied her on the Ghost Towns of the Pine Barrens tour, based on her book. She told me she also led the aforementioned McPhee tour before John took it over. The first stop on both these tours was Atsion Mansion built by Philadelphian Samuel Richards.

Atsion Mansion

Richards was an iron industrialist who, like fellow Philadelphian Joseph Wharton, left an indelible mark on the history and culture of the Pine Barrens. Nineteenth century business magnates such as these shaped the region into an important economic center for iron, glass, and paper manufacturing. The Industries in the Pines tour focuses on this post-industrial history. Jeff Larson, long-time Pine Barrens resident with extensive knowledge of the area, led this tour along with the Pine Barrens Habitats tour, which offers a deep dive into the diverse ecosystem of the Pines. Jeff is a professional musician and music teacher who has also composed music with a Pine Barrens theme, released on two albums: Leeds Devil Blues and The Barrens.

Jeff informed me that tourism and agriculture such as cranberry farming are the primary present day economic activities in the Pines. The Cranberry Farm Tour led by National Park Service biologist and Ocean County College adjunct professor Steve Luell provided an overview of the production of this important crop, and its connection to Ocean Spray.

New Friends and a New Life

Five years after Bella started me on a life-changing journey, I made new friends, most notably fellow writer Barbara Solem, and learned the Pine Barrens offered more than met the eye. A week before Thanksgiving in 2019, I moved into my newly purchased townhouse in Waterford, less than 20 minutes from my favorite farm in Shamong. Amazing how a Hanoverian/Quarter Horse cross mare thought to be too old to be much use could still make a difference.

South Jersey Horse Country

Horses have been my passion since childhood. I’m not really sure why. My family was not involved with horses unless you count my father’s father. Pop-Pop loved visiting and betting on the Thoroughbreds that ran at local racetracks during his retirement years. He died doing what he loved at Delaware Park when I was about four years old. After collecting his winnings from a successful bet, he sat in the grandstand with his friends and died there from a heart attack. I remember being at our shore house in Brigantine with my mother waiting for my dad to join us on his day off when we heard the news. Perhaps that connection made me take special joy in passing the Atlantic City Race Course, its name displayed in flowers, in Mays Landing on our weekly summer trips to the shore.

Splitting my time between a city and a barrier island made riding and working with horses a challenge but not impossible. I took riding lessons when I could and joined the Philadelphia Saddle Club in Fairmount Park, doing pleasure riding along the beautiful Wissahickon Creek. Annual rituals for me were attending the Devon Horse Show and Dressage at Devon in the Philadelphia Main Line. Watching dressage inspired me to pursue riding more seriously, and I found the Pine Barrens of South Jersey offered numerous opportunities to do so.

In February 2017, while shopping for my first horse, I saw an ad with the heading “Big, Beautiful, Brave” for a black Oldenburg gelding located at a farm in Chesterfield (Burlington County).  My trainer at the time wanted me to see a Paint mare she found for sale located in nearby Plumsted (New Egypt) just over the Ocean County border. As an afterthought, we arranged to see the black horse the same night. The mare turned out to be unsuitable, but the gelding was something special. Big, indeed, at just a hair under 17 hands tall, but a true gentle giant with strong dressage bloodlines that impressed me, good gaits that impressed my trainer, and an unflappable temperament that impressed both of us. A couple weeks later the big, beautiful, and brave black horse named Felix became mine. I took him to Dressage at Devon for the breed show in September of that year after which we began participating in dressage in the Burlington County area. 

Felix and me, Dressage at Devon, September 2017

Fittingly for a state with the horse designated as its official animal, New Jersey has more horses per square mile than any other state, a close-knit equestrian community I am happy to be part of, many horse farms devoted to diverse riding styles (dressage, jumping, Western, and endurance riding to name a few), and beaches and vast forests for pleasure riding.

My boy Felix on the left and his friends enjoying an Autumn day in the Pine Barrens