Thanks for the memories
HINSDALE, N.H. -- In the near future, the grandstand of the old Hinsdale racetrack will be pulled down, bringing with it 50 years of sporting history in a structure that once stood as the pride of a town.
Karey Tyler, the owner Tyler Excavation Inc., said his crew has been tasked with demolishing the grandstand and all surrounding structures, and he expects work to be finished sometime in December, weather permitting. He told the Reformer a machine will soon be used to cut the steel beams holding up the once-thriving grandstand in order to help knock it down.
A few of Tyler's workers were on site Nov. 25, with one employee using an excavator to rip away at the sides of the building. The machine's grapple was removing heavy pieces of wood and foam as if they were weightless and fragments of material continuously fell to the ground with a bang.
But this isn't Tyler's first time dealing with the park. As a student at Brattleboro Union High School in the 1970s, he sold 50 to 60 bales of hay nearly every day to horse owners who needed to feed their four-legged athletes.
"Everybody had a horse, but they only had so much room so they could only keep two or three bales of hay in their stall that their horse was in," he recalled, adding that his father told him of a time when the land served as a 100-acre potato farm. "We're just making it disappear. Everything is coming down."
The racetrack, which opened in 1958 as Hinsdale Raceway, was once one of four in New Hampshire. It began as a seasonal track for harness racing but added greyhound racing in 1973. Harness racing stopped in the 1980s and the park became Hinsdale Greyhound Park and OTB, legally known as Hinsdale Greyhound Racing Association, Inc.
SLIDESHOW: Historic images from the Hinsdale race track, here.
Michael Bentley, an attorney, represents Hinsdale Real Estate Development LLC, which purchased the land a year prior to the racetrack filing bankruptcy in 2008. Bentley said the limited liability company was co-owned by Joseph Sullivan III and Carl Thomas until Thomas purchased all of Sullivan's interest. Bentley said Thomas had nothing to do with the operation of the racetrack. The attorney said the racetrack closed and filed for bankruptcy because it ran out of money and its license was going to expire at the end of 2008 and would not get renewed.
Mike Darcy, chairman of the Hinsdale Board of Selectmen, told the Reformer that Thomas acquired all the necessary permits and is paying for the demolition. Darcy has not heard of any plans to construct anything else on the land.
Rick Eastman started competing in harness racing in Hinsdale in 1968, after years working as a groomer and trainer, and did so full-time for about six years.
"It was a great place to bring a young horse. It was a fast track -- limestone and clay," he said, calling the surface ideal for its purpose. "It was banked very well. It never paid really well because it was a small track, but it was to sort of groom horses for (bigger tracks). It did a lot for Hinsdale."
Eastman said the business created a lot of jobs in the town and paid substantial property taxes that contributed to the Hinsdale school system and various town departments. He said knowing the structures were being demolished was sickening to him.
The Concord Monitor reported the racetrack filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which means a business has decided to sell its assets and use the money to pay off creditors. The racetrack, as of December 2008, owed money to between 200 and 999 people or organizations, according to the Monitor.
The business also, at the time of the bankruptcy filing, owed $4,500 to the state, $189,257 to the Internal Revenue Service, $131,800 in town property taxes and $6,600 in other local tax expenses.
Tyler told the Reformer his company got the nod for the job about a month ago and started demolition on Tuesday, Nov. 12. He said he hopes to be done before Christmas.
The grandstand is now a shell of its former self, tagged with graffiti and filled with broken pieces of glass and other material. There are Samuel Adams beer coasters among the debris and race ticket stubs from as far back as 1976. Tyler said people have caused a good deal of damage to the inside of the structure.
Scott Price, of Atlanta, told the Reformer his family moved to Hinsdale in the late 1960s, when his father, Don, got a job as the executive director of the Western New England Harness Horsemen Association, which he said had a small office across the street from the track. He said his father and grandfather also raced at the track off and on for years but his family moved to Michigan in 1976 after greyhound racing was brought in to the mix.
"The expense of maintaining a large stable area for horses was no match for the lower overhead of the greyhounds. At first the two sides evenly shared the racing dates but pretty quickly the dogs took more and more dates from the horses until the inevitable end," he wrote in an e-mail. "I remember hearing, but not really comprehending, my father's talk about the dogs and how bad they would be for the horses. I just remember some new students arriving at school from places like Florida, and being conflicted because these new friends were associated with the dog racing industry that would ultimately play a big role in our family's decision to relocate to Michigan."
Price even said the local high school got the nickname "Pacers" from the type of harness racing that took place at the track. He said he has fond memories of going to watch his grandfather, Raymond "Red" Price, and father race horses.
"My grandfather always said that Hinsdale's racing surface and half-mile track was excellent and fast. If we did not attend a race because it happened to be on school night and we were too young, my grandmother would always stop by on her way home to (Winchendon, Mass.) and give each of us kids a dollar from her wagering winnings," he said.
Price said the racetrack always seemed to give an identity to the small town, which he said was otherwise mostly known for a state liquor store that straddled the state line. He told the Reformer he read about the closing of the racetrack on a friend's Facebook profile. He remembers having some great meals at the clubhouse's restaurant -- and Tyler even said it served up the best prime rib in the area.
Don Price, who now lives in Williamston, Mich., said the Hinsdale track was once part of a thriving harness racing industry and many well-known racers actually got their start there. He said harness racing's death certificate was signed as soon as the New Hampshire legislature passed a law permitting greyhound racing in the state.
"It would eventually eliminate harness racing because of the economics of operating a greyhound track instead of a standard track," he said, adding that harness racing was soon outshadowed by thoroughbred racing. If you look at harness racing, the only people with a passion for it are the horsemen [riders]. But thoroughbred racing has got the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown races."
Eastman said the harness racing industry is way past its golden age, as Foxboro (Mass.) Park was torn down in 1997.
"(The Hinsdale track) is just another one going by the wayside. It's too bad," he said. "Ordinary people can't make a living at it now. But for a lot of people, that's all they knew."
David Calef, who worked as the Hinsdale track's unofficial spokesman from 1992 to 2008 and is still close with Sullivan, said greyhound racing is a dying breed.
"It's a sport that has just lost popularity," he said, adding that there are no greyhound racetracks in New England any longer. Calef served in numerous other roles, including operations manager at the racetrack, over the years.
Calef, speaking for Sullivan, said his friend purchased the racetrack from his father, Joseph Sullivan II, in the early 1970s and resurrected it from near-bankruptcy. Despite Sullivan's magic, Calef said, the business kept running into financial crises and Sullivan declined every opportunity to sell because he believed in it. The business was eventually forced into Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
"In talking to him, he's delighted it's coming down and thinks it should have been torn down two or three years ago now," he said. "The problem is ... it really did get badly vandalized. Nobody took care of it. It just got into very bad shape. If I was a resident of the town or an official of the town or a Walmart official or employee, I would not be happy to see that sitting there. And now the land is more valuable to anyone interested in purchasing."
Calef also wanted to dispel some of the rumors he has seen on the Internet regarding the racetrack's treatment of its animals. He told the Reformer he was president of the local chapter of Greyhound Pets of America before taking a job at the track. He said the racetrack, during his tenure, reduced the number of annual euthanizations to about 15 per year through various techniques, including working with adoptions groups across New England.
Calef said greyhound racing got its start in a time when the dogs were not believed to be suitable pets.
"The urban legend was that they were vicious animals and couldn't be trusted in a home -- and part of that was because they wear a muzzle when they race," he said. "But they're actually one of more gentle animals there are. I've had three myself.
"Dogs (at other tracks) were euthanized if they retired -- and there was no attempt to place them in homes," Calef told the Reformer. "And we changed all that, unless they were seriously injured or seriously ill."
SLIDESHOW: Hinsdale Race Track Demolition, here.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.
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