Recently, my wife and son and I went shopping in Westbury and stopped for lunch. I glanced south at an area on Old Country Road now occupied by stores and housing and smiled as I recalled where Roosevelt Raceway once stood.
We are coming up on the 25th anniversary of the last race run at Roosevelt, June 15, 1988, when a trotter named Majestic Andrew shared a $5,500 purse before an announced crowd of just 3,054.
Roosevelt, which opened in 1940, was the nation's first harness track with nightly racing. My romance with the raceway began in 1973. Hanging out with friends one night between senior year of Holy Cross High School in Flushing and freshman year of college, we decided to go to Roosevelt. In the next four years, we spent many Friday nights there playing the trotters.
I was usually short of funds, but nothing came between me and the $2 window, though I usually bet on losers. The place seemed electric, with crowds often approaching 20,000 on weekends. This was the 1970s. Off-track betting and a new track at the Meadowlands were starting to take their toll, but Roosevelt still rocked. We also went to Yonkers Raceway, but that seemed rundown compared to the palatial Roosevelt.
A couple of times our boss at a Carvel ice cream store in Bayside treated us to the Cloud Casino, a glass-enclosed restaurant above the track. We felt like high-rollers. But usually, the grandstand, with its colorful regulars, was our haven. Who could forget the drivers of the day -- among others, Carmine Abbatiello, Merritt Dokey, John Chapman, Del Insko and the Filion brothers, Hervé and Henri?
It was all fun and entertaining, and not expensive. Dinner and a movie with a date ran $20 to $25. But at the track, where admission was $2.25 in the mid-1970s, if you wagered $2 on all nine races and lost, it cost $20.25 -- a fair trade-off, particularly considering how some of my dates went.
Our group knew somebody who had a stake in one of the trotters. This fellow would let us know when his horse was running really well. One night, about a half-hour before the race, he came over and said, "You have my permission to bet him."
We all bet big. I even went to the $10 window, an exorbitant sum for me at the time. My boss bet $100. We all felt confident as the race started. It looked good for awhile, but our horse was nosed out in a three-way photo finish. Oh, the pain. But a lesson was learned. That's why they call it gambling.
Finally, one Friday, I had my big night. I wagered on Abbatiello's mounts all night and he was hot. I won about $400 that evening. As rocker Tom Petty famously sang, "Even the losers get lucky sometimes." We celebrated with peanuts and beer at the Old Forge Tavern on 35th Avenue in Flushing.
It was sad but inevitable that Roosevelt closed. The track was sold to owners who had no intention of maintaining it for racing, hastening its demise.
It's too bad. Today it would have made a heck of a place for a racino.