SC Rewind: When Crowds Were Huge

In the latest issue of Rewind, Robert Smith looks back on 1973 some 50 years ago. In this post, he recalls the enormous presence that horse racing had in the spectator sport world at the time. Also included are a number of old photos of the huge crowds that attended live races years ago.

When some of the live attendance statistics for the previous year were released in early 1974, some interesting facts and figures were included. These statistics come from Triangle Publications, publishers of The Daily Racing Form, a tabloid newspaper founded in Chicago in 1894. (Note: It still exists and is in its 127th year providing bettors with statistical information on past performance.)

We are number 1
Headline from Harness Horse magazine 1974

In 1973, horse racing continued easily as the country’s No. 1 spectator sport. This was the 22nd year in a row that this has happened. For the purposes of their statistics, Triangle Publications combines attendance at thoroughbred and trotting events. Year-over-year registration wins of 2,737,177 brought the total to 76,752,572 people who attended a race card (or at least part of one). It should be emphasized that in 1973 777 more racing days were held on thoroughbred and trotting tracks than in the previous year. That fact alone created quite an advantage.

Although I don’t normally devote too much space to Thoroughbred racing, I will include a pertinent comment related to today’s topic. This is quoted from an article in Harness Horse magazine which contained many of the facts and figures quoted here.

“Among the many records set in thoroughbred racing in 1973 were total annual attendance – 47,234,843 – and attendance in one day of 134,476. The latter was set up at Churchill Downs as the Superstar Secretariat won the 99th Kentucky Derby en route to the first Triple Crown triumph in a quarter century.” On another occasion that year, nearly 100,000 fans attended Belmont Park to celebrate the Triple Crown – to see victory.

Below are some attendance figures for 1973 for various sports

Horse racing – 76,750,000
Car racing – 46,000,000
Football (college & professional) – 43,600,000
Baseball – 42,150,000
Basketball (College & Pro) – 35,000,000
Hockey – 21,000,000
Greyhound racing – 15,000,000
Football – 6,000,000

Roosevelt Raceway, 1960

The modern record for attending a live trot race was set in 1960 at Roosevelt Raceway in Long Island, New York, when 54,861 people showed up to watch that year’s International Trot. For many decades it was customary to publish daily attendance figures along with the Mutuel handle. That stopped some time ago, except on rare occasions.

photo gallery

The photos below show the crowds that regularly turned up in the early days of trotting. These photos were taken at different locations and times as indicated when information was available. I don’t think any of the photos were taken in 1973.

Large crowd at Roosevelt Raceway
Large crowd at Roosevelt Raceway watches the start of a race. date unknown.

Niatross in Greenwood
Scene at Greenwood Raceway in 1980 when Niatross raced there.

Thorncliffe Park, 1929
On opening day in May 1929, a very large crowd gathered at Thorncliffe Park in Toronto. This would have been a gathering for thoroughbred racing.

Blue hoods
Here’s a big gathering at Blue Bonnets in Montreal showing a full house. This great old track was often filled to capacity and beyond.

Blue hoods
The Charlottetown Driving Park could attract a fairly large audience for its size. As shown above, some people even went to the track to get a good look at the action. I think that was recorded almost 80 years ago.

Start of a Gold Cup & Saucer race
Here’s a recent photo taken at Gold Cup & Saucer Night at Red Shores Racetrack Charlottetown Driving Park. This annual event is something of a throwback to a bygone era and still attracts a huge crowd. Photo by Frances Lund

Quote for the week: “Nothing can dim the light that shines from within.” – Maya Angelou

Who is it?

Who Is It photo question

This photo was taken about 50 years ago and this guy was able to attract a lot of people everywhere he showed up. This was a gathering at Roosevelt Raceway where fans asked questions of the drivers. Who is this fellow?

Who else is it? #1

Who else is it photo question

Turf author Spencer Ross interviews a driver at Roosevelt Raceway some 45 years ago. Who is this gentleman in silk?

Who else is it? #2

Who else is it photo question

Can you identify this fine fellow? The only hint I’ll offer is that he’s slightly out of his normal “territory” based on the photos that usually appear in the weekly rewind quiz section.

Final Comments: Huge crowds at trotting races are undoubtedly a thing of the past and will likely never return. It is an unfortunate fact of the passage of time. The following is a quote from a 2011 Rewind, also about the days when the crowds were big.

“I can vividly remember the day when attending live races was a ‘big deal’ and caused a lot of excitement as people rushed to arrive on time, buy a program, get a good seat (and trying to stick to it) and for course the first order of business was to bet the daily double. There were times when one person from a group would leave earlier than the others and put “dibs” on a row of seats with a blanket or newspaper to make sure everyone was seated. A A few months ago I was present at what is now known as live racing and there were so few people there and it was so still and lifeless that a guy not far from me said, ‘I feel like I’m in the church; it’s so quiet in here.'” – RMS

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