Many racetracks have come and gone over the history of the United States. Two from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, come to mind. The first was a Thoroughbred track called Miles Park and the second was a Standardbred track named Louisville Downs.
In 1956, the then-new and relocated Kentucky State Fairgrounds was opened at its current site near Louisville International Airport (Standiford Field). It replaced the old Kentucky State Fairgrounds in Louisville’s West End. In June 1956, Fairgrounds Speedway opened at the old State Fairgrounds as a short-lived venue for harness racing. Then, in June 1958, the racetrack was renamed Miles Park and became a place for Thoroughbred racing.
Miles Park always operated in the shadow of Louisville-based Churchill Downs, with its Kentucky Derby. Miles Park was nothing more than a claiming-race specialist, but nonetheless attracted some well-known jockeys, either on their way up or down.
In May 1964, tragedy struck when a barn fire took the lives of 26 horses. Miles Park had a name change to Commonwealth Race Course in June of 1974, but the end of Thoroughbred racing was near, in February 1975. The racetrack was dormant until September of 1977, when quarter horse racing was tried. In June 1978, the grandstand was destroyed by another fire and that was the end of racing at the old Kentucky State Fairgrounds.
My memories of Miles Park are somewhat vague after all this time, but I do recall traveling to the racetrack with the state veterinarian, Dr. Lawrence J. Scanlan, who was a friend, and betting on races according to the vet’s assessment of how the horses looked in the paddock and warming up. This was a wholly unsatisfactory method and a monetary loser. More adept handicapping could have been done by selecting horses to bet on using random numbers.
I recall being able to talk, up close and personal, with many of the people who worked at Miles Park, most notably trainers and jockeys, such as jockeys Lonnie Abshire and Earlie Fires and trainers Gilbert Phillips and E. B. Turner. One of the Miles Park officials, Edwin Davis, was the brother of a prominent television actor of the day, Roger Davis.
At Miles Park, someone was always willing to provide you with a tip on a “sure winner” that usually did not turn out that way.
Louisville Downs was opened in 1966 by William King, who had few peers as a promoter. The late Stan Bergstein of Harness Tracks of America told me he vividly recalled being at the track’s opening night of racing and how spectacular it was.
Louisville Downs presented harness racing until 1991, when it closed. Today, the Louisville Downs site is owned by Churchill Downs and is used as a training center and occasionally as a simulcasting facility.
William King’s half-mile harness track was an inviting place to spend a warm summer night, with some decent harness racing and a clean physical environment. The Louisville area (and Kentucky) is Thoroughbred-oriented and harness racing at Louisville Downs was always a stepsister to the runners at Churchill Downs, only five miles away.
Miles Park and Louisville Downs were minor league racetracks that nonetheless have a special place in my memory bank. What can you say about a racetrack like Miles Park, where in 1974 the stewards certified the wrong horse as a winner of a race? Some might charge that the fix was in, but if you knew Miles Park, you would be just as likely to attribute the mistake to bumbling at a sleepy haven for low-level racing and unforgettable characters from a time long gone by.
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