Today in Racing History is an occasional feature focusing on some of racing history’s interesting, important, or unusual events.

by Richard Hackerman

April 14, 1977

Flames erupted in Garden State Park’s wooden grandstand during the running of the sixth race as 11,000 patrons rushed out of the track.  Three people died as a result of the fire, including a firefighter, a patron, and an employee.  The fire took only two hours to consume the grandstand.

Jockeys escaped the second-story jockeys’ room by descending fire hoses.  Personal belongings, clothing, and equipment they had thrown out of windows in hopes of saving were stolen by people waiting below.  Some horseplayers waited in line at mutuel windows in the smoke to get paid off on the $3.20 winner.  The fire was fought by 50 New Jersey and Pennsylvania fire companies.  Twenty-two people were treated for smoke inhalation and other injuries at area hospitals.  Though some currency was lost, investigators found $500,000, some of it charred, in an underground vault.  One employee returned $200,000 he saved from the flames.

Bettor Bob Carr described the scene.  The sixth race “finished and we turned around and the smoke was unbelievable,” he said.  “We heard cries of ‘run onto the track,’ but there was a drop, so we went inside, jumped on an escalator and rode the heck out of there.”

Racing was moved for the remainder of the spring meet to Atlantic City Race Course.

Garden State Park hosted some of history’s greatest Thoroughbreds including Whirlaway, Citation, Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Round Table, Kelso and Riva Ridge.  Secretariat won the 1972 Garden State Futurity.   Its signature race was the Jersey Derby.  Its Garden State Stakes and Gardenia Stakes offered some of the largest purses available for two year-olds.

Garden State was rebuilt in opulent style by financier Robert Brennan — later convicted of securities fraud — reopening in 1985. That season’s Kentucky Derby Winner Spend A Buck skipped the Preakness and Belmont instead opting for the Jersey Derby.   Spend A Buck had won two prep races at Garden State earlier that season.  Before the season began Brennan put up a $2 million bonus to the horse that could win the two prep races, the Kentucky Derby, and the Jersey Derby.  Spend A Buck won the Jersey Derby by a neck over eventual Belmont winner Creme Fraiche, and captured a $2.6 million prize, including the bonus, then the largest single purse in American racing history.

Racing’s tide had, however, turned downward and the new Garden State Park failed, holding its final race in 2001.  Today the land upon which Garden State was located is home to shopping centers, condominiums, apartments, townhomes and restaurants.  Costco is now eyeing the sight for a future warehouse location.