Not many things have remained constant in Yonkers for the last 112 years. Sure there are some building’s on the west side that have survived the wreckers ball, one of which dates back to Colonial Times. Yonkers Raceway though has proven in my opinion one very simple notion over the last century, that when something is good, it’s good.
I was given the opportunity recently to take a behind the scenes tour of the Raceway and to see what actually goes on minutes before the start of the Harness Racing action that appears 5 nights a week at the Raceway.
Keeping in a long-standing and simple tradition, of pitting my horse versus your horse against each other to see who’s faster, the Raceway has gone from Thoroughbreds, the likes of the famous and triumphant Seabiscuit that won the 1936 Scarsdale Handicap at the Raceway… or the Empire City Racetrack as it was called in those days, to for the last 60 years, Harness Racing, a 30 MPH jog that excites crowds big or small.
Just to get into the Paddock area of the Raceway requires clearance and signing in, basically promising that you won’t be conducting any illegal activities while back there like fixing the race or anything of that nature…like I know how to do that anyway. It did offer me this excellent view of the 7:1opm race that you just can’t get in the Grandstands…well what’s left of them.
I learned a great deal on my trip to the Raceway, for instance the Jockeys are not “Jockeys”, but “
Riders” “Drivers” ( Thank you Ted!) and that what they sit in while racing are called “Race Bikes”. Talking with one Driver, he told me he races 7 days a week most of the year, traveling to distant race tracks all over New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond.
The “Hay Day” for the racetrack during its Harness Racing life is no doubt long gone but in the 1960’s and 70’s, the track could draw crowds upwards of 20,000 people per night. Nowadays, that number has dwindled, thanks in part to the Casino and other attractions at the facility and because of other means people have to watch the races, but not having to be physically there to see in person who crosses the finish line first.
One of the more interesting aspect of Harness racing is how the horses begin the race, where all of the horses have to line up in the same order side by side, chasing a pace car that well…you get the picture.
The inside of the car is equally interesting! Two people must operate the vehicle, one of them steers the car in the driver’s seat…HOWEVER there are No brakes or gas pedal. The accelerating and braking responsibilities go to the other person who sits in an elevated seat facing backwards. This person watches the horses, to make sure that no one horse gets an unfair advantage over another…while again accelerating and braking at the same time…amazing…at least to me.
The interior of the paddock is run with precision and MAJOR protocol. There is protocol in regard to the entrance and exit ramps that lead out onto the race track. Left is Out, Right is In!!!
This made me think of the hilarious scene in the Movie “Mr. Mom” with Michael Keaton where he drops the kids off at school and forgets that it’s “South to drop off, North to pick up!”
Each horse moves from stall to stall, depending on when they are racing, so as the evening wears on, each horse will move over one stall until it is their time to “ride like the wind”—Woody-“Toy Story”
One more thing about the Drivers, these guys are fairly big guys, especially compared to their “Jockey” counterparts. I mentioned to one Driver if he had ever Jockey’ed and he just laughed at me. I never realized how short those Jockeys are I suppose versus the leaner and taller Drivers.
Like you and I, many of the Horses that race at Yonkers Raceway commute to work and live on farms or other areas outside of Yonkers. I wonder how the horse feels about the daily commute?? Do they use EZpass?
These horses are absolutely beautiful though. It takes a small army of people to care for the horses, whether they do commute in or they are one of the about 80 Horses who live at the Raceway full time. Much care, concern and compassion is put into each and every horse, including pre and post race medical checks, where blood will be drawn from the horse to make sure they are in good physical shape.
With 245 racing days a year, which equals about 2500 races a year, 12 races per night, the Raceway still has found a way to not only survive but to more importantly keep a tradition alive that has been occurring on that very parcel of land for more than a century.
Next time you find yourself there, watching a race with the back drop of a sunset, remember that this is the same exact sunset view other patrons got 100 years ago while watching thoroughbreds rumble down the stretch and enjoying the same exhilaration that we enjoy in the 21st century.
Yonkers Raceway, the year-round facility for Harness Racing is as important to Yonkers as any other structure young or old. There is a tradition here and a constant that people have counted on for years. No matter what is happening in the world, there will be a race 5 nights a week at 7:10pm. Yes the Casino has in large measure helped ensure the Racetrack’s future, but moreover, the proud tradition of Harness Racing in Yonkers lives on for the next generation of Yonkers residents to enjoy!