HORSE RACING has a long but controversial history in Greater Cleveland, beginning with the first settlers of the WESTERN RESERVE. Although betting on the outcome of a horse race was integral to the local sport, its association with illegal gambling and crime gave it a dubious reputation in the area. Nevertheless, horseracing continued to thrive. When on-track betting was legalized in 1933, the State of Ohio became a partner in the enterprise by collecting taxes on the gross betting at each track, and since that time track owners and the state have had to work together to keep the industry viable.

As early as 1827, Water (W. 9th) St. was the popular site of quarter-mile horse races, and later harness racing became a popular drawing card at the Cuyahoga County fair. The first organized harness racing meet was held by the Cleveland Jockey Club 27-31 Aug. 1850 at the Forest City course with purses ranging from $40 to $100. The DAILY TRUE DEMOCRAT decried the gambling observed at the meet and its association with the criminal element, suggesting that harness racing be discontinued permanently. To disassociate themselves from the gaming atmosphere, several prominent Clevelanders organized the exclusive Cleveland Driving Club in 1863 and purchased a tract of land on which to race their horses.

With every track association fixing its own rules and arranging its own meets, no organization of harness racing on a broad scale seemed necessary until the 1870s, when the Central Trotting Circuit (known popularly as the Grand Circuit) was formed. Scheduling yearly meets at its member cities, the circuit held a 7-week racing season at GLENVILLE RACE TRACK with purses ranging from $2,000 to $5000, which attracted the top harness horses in the nation. The Glenville track also was the site of amateur racing sponsored by the elite Gentlemen's Driving Club, which hosted the popular inter-city matinee races there. When harness racing moved from GLENVILLE to the distant NORTH RANDALL track in 1909, its popularity began to wane and did not improve substantially until the 1950s.

Running races became popular with the betting public in the 1920s. They seemed to prefer the speed of the thoroughbred over the moderately fast gait of the trotter encumbered by a sulky, and cheered the intense battle of both jockey and horse to reach the finish line first. The first running of the Ohio Derby, held at the MAPLE HTS. track in 1924, was won by Black Gold. THISTLEDOWN RACE TRACK, established in 1925, survived the Depression to become Greater Cleveland's major running track.

In Cuyahoga County, wagering on the outcome of horse races was not deterred by the prohibitions codified in Ohio law and Cleveland ordinances nor by public criticism. To circumvent the law, local tracks used an informal contribution system permitting bettors to "invest" in the success of a horse and make their own odds for the payoff — the legality of its use was rarely challenged by the county sheriff. The hypocrisy was ended in 1933 when on-track betting was legalized in Ohio, with the state taking a share of the proceeds. The Ohio Racing Commission was formed to make and enforce the rules, regulations, and conditions under which horse racing could be conducted, and parimutuel betting was installed at the tracks, where management pooled all wagers to determine the amount of tax due the state. In 1933 nearly $2 million was bet at Cuyahoga County race tracks, with the running tracks showing their first profit since 1930. As the Depression progressed, however, operational expenses and state taxes made it difficult for tracks to make a profit, although the racing commission increased the number of racing dates to improve the total betting take.

After World War II local horseracing thrived until the 1970s. NORTHFIELD PARK, built on the southern edge of Cuyahoga County, opened for harness racing in 1957. RANDALL PARK and Thistledown, increasingly surrounded by housing and commercial development in WARRENSVILLE HTS. and North Randall, were purchased for their real estate value by shopping mall developer Edward DeBartolo in 1959-60. He replaced the old harness track with RANDALL PARK MALL but continued to operate Thistledown.

Although Northfield and Thistledown dominated horse racing during the postwar period, the racing industry itself faced formidable competition for the entertainment dollar from other sports and recreational activity. When the aging facilities of Ohio's race tracks needed to be upgraded in the 1970s, the politically powerful racing lobby, made up of track owners, horsemen, and breeders, lobbied the state for help. Ohio, anxious to preserve its lucrative source of revenue, permitted tracks to defray up to 70% of the capital costs for improvements such as new track surfaces, grandstands, and barns by using tax money earmarked for the state. Together, Northfield and Thistledown received $4.5 million for the $6.5 million they spent to upgrade their facilities. In 1977 the tracks were profitable; Thistledown had 218 racing dates with an average daily attendance of 4,826 and an average take of $526,546. With 197 dates, Northfield had an average daily attendance of 3,376 and an average take of $317,122. However, in the 1980s poor economic conditions and inflation caused attendance and betting to decline, and both tracks searched for ways to restore profitability. Owners complained about state taxes (about 5-6% of the gross betting handle), and the racing lobby persuaded the Ohio legislature to grant them a $12.4 million annual tax break beginning in 1984. In spite of the subsidy, the average parimutuel betting at Thistledown and Northfield was only slightly better in 1986 than it had been in 1977. The problems continued into the 1990s, and track owners concluded that their only salvation was to establish off-track betting. DeBartolo threatened to close Thistledown unless Ohio approved the legislation, but it was held up by opposition from the harness interests, some of whom believed that the parlors would seriously erode live attendance at their tracks. Finally, in 1994 the state's 7 tracks were permitted to establish one or two off-track parlors that would offer parimutuel wagering via television.

Horse racing has offered one of the few forms of legal gambling in Ohio since 1933, but the tracks have not flourished despite tax breaks from the state, which profits financially from their operation, and it is not clear whether or not off-track betting will help in the future. In addition to competing with other attractions for the public's recreational dollar, local horseracing is threatened by the increasing legalization of casino gambling, with the establishment of Horseshoe Casino (Now JACK Cleveland Casino) in downtown Cleveland in 2012.

Mary B. Stavish

Case Western Reserve Univ.

League of Amateur Driving Clubs, Bylaws, and Yearbooks, WRHS.

Finding Aid for the Devereux Family Papers, Gentlemen's Driving Club of Cleveland Records, Box 54, Vols. 9-11, 12-28, WRHS.

Article Categories