Green Mountain Park: Long Gone. Still Weird

The remains of the Green Mountain grandstand | T. D. Thornton photo


There's an iconic hairpin turn cut into the side of Spirit Mountain on the Mohawk Trail in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, and some 50 summers ago this steep, white-knuckle  portion of Route 2 is where my Dad, hauling a one-horse trailer with the family station wagon, had an agitated Thoroughbred kick open the back door and leap to a near-certain death over the edge of the precipice.

As dusk and state police cruisers descended upon the scene, my father, Paul, asked a trooper to have the dispatcher phone nearby Green Mountain Park in Vermont. He knew the stewards would never believe a trainer telling them he needed to scratch because his horse just jumped off a cliff.

That horse–Box County–not only survived, but miraculously jogged back up the embankment, apparently none the worse for wear. “Just like the Lone Ranger's horse,” my Dad–now 15 years retired from training–marvels every time tells this story.

Yet when he got to the top, Box County could not be coaxed into stepping over the guardrail he had vaulted like the Grand National.

Jockey Bobby Marshman, riding shotgun on the 150-mile journey from Rockingham Park so he could pilot his only mount of the night, volunteered to lead the horse down a nearby path to the valley, where my Dad would meet him with the repaired trailer. Marshman and Box County endured a brutal trek through the woods at nightfall, battling swarming mosquitos and then a menacing pack of dogs before a taciturn farmer wondering what all the barking was about let them take shelter in his barn.

Later in the season, horse, trainer and rider would make a return trip around that notorious sharp curve–minus the steeplechase antics–and Box County would win a bottom $1,500 claimer at Green Mountain, cementing his standing in our family's racetrack lore.

I made that same drive last week on the way to enjoy a few days of hiking in the serene little slice of New England where Massachusetts, Vermont and New York intersect. You can't stop and gawk at the hairpin turn–the Golden Eagle Restaurant & Lounge at the bend has blocked off the parking with orange barriers. But the drop-off wasn't the focal point of my exploration.

I was aiming for Green Mountain itself, wanting to pay respects before a teardown destined to happen once the owner and local officials figure out what to do with the land in the aftermath of a 2020 blaze that gutted the long-abandoned, five-story grandstand and clubhouse. It was one of those weird instances in which I was feeling nostalgic for a time and place I had never actually experienced.


Why Pownal?

Even by early 1960s standards, when operating a racetrack in America was widely believed to be the equivalent of having a license to print money, it is unfathomable why anyone would choose Pownal, Vermont, to build a horse track. To this day, there are still no interstate highways within 35 miles in any direction.

At the time of Green Mountain's 1963 opening, Saratoga Race Course–before it blossomed into the tourist mecca that we know today–sat an hour to the northwest, while Berkshire Downs, a seasonal, leaky-roof outpost in Hancock, Massachusetts, existed 17 miles to the south. The then-vibrant Massachusetts fairs had half-mile tracks in nearby Great Barrington and Northampton, and the region's commercial Thoroughbred circuit at that time consisted of (in pecking order) Rockingham in New Hampshire, Suffolk Downs in Boston, Lincoln Downs and Narragansett Park, both in Rhode Island, plus Scarborough Downs in Maine.

Despite an audacious $6 million price tag (the equivalent of $57 million in 2022), Green Mountain would vie with Scarborough, Berkshire and the fairs at the austere end of New England's racing hierarchy.

Its developers chose a 140-acre boot-shaped cornfield along Route 7, even though the skinny, oblong lot precluded a one-mile oval from being built. The grandstand got shoehorned 300 feet from the flood-prone Hoosic River, and the backstretch ran parallel to active railroad tracks.

A big reason people believed Green Mountain would flourish was because its highest-profile backer, Lou Smith, said it would. A shrewd dealmaker who cultivated an avuncular, charitable persona, Smith had bought the defunct Rockingham during the Great Depression and turned it into New England's showplace track. “Uncle Lou” was the dean of New England racing, and his ideas and political clout carried tremendous weight, even way out in the boonies.

Vermont has always been an outlier, embracing its iconoclastic reputation. Drill down even further, and you will find that Pownal itself has a centuries-old reputation as the state's epicenter of oddity.

Shortly after the town's incorporation in 1761, Pownal was the site of Vermont's only witch trial. In 1789, a traveling minister described the village this way: “Poor land–very unpleasant–very uneven–miserable set of inhabitants–no religion.”

In 1874, it supposedly rained hot stones that then inexplicably rolled uphill in Pownal, and in the 1940s, the town was the home of one of the nation's most sought-after clairvoyants. By 1960, when the town's quarry and cotton mill had gone belly-up and the tannery was well on its way to designation as a toxic superfund cleanup site, Pownal decided to bet its future on Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing after Vermont legalized pari-mutuel betting.

Chad Abramovich, who writes an engaging blog titled Obscure Vermont, in 2020 described the town like this: “Pownal's always done things a bit differently, in ways that seem to almost be a few shades deeper into the mystic that's masqueraded by a rough enchanting landscape…. Some environs look like they have been untouched by modern headways–like you've stumbled into a deep southern Appalachia…. I honestly don't think that this racetrack project could have happened in any other spot in Vermont.”

Off and running…

The May 24, 1963, opening of the two-month Thoroughbred meet was expected to lure 12,000 fans to take in the racing over the unique 13/16ths of a mile oval, which had an inordinately long stretch of 1,106 feet. But only 4,700 racetrackers showed up, betting only about half the afternoon's projected $400,000 handle.

According to an un-bylined (but very thorough) historical account of Green Mountain at the website Race Tracks of Yesterday and Today, business was so bad that employees were being laid off within two weeks and rumors were rampant that the track would fold. Management sliced purses from the promised $1,800 per race to $1,200, shifted from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. twilight post times, then hit on the idea of trying night racing–but there was a catch.

“Never anticipating to run night Thoroughbred racing, there were only enough lights to cover the 5/8-mile harness track,” the racetrack blog explained. “Three more towers were hastily erected and after a month, on June 24, Green Mountain was running under the lights….. From there things started to pick up, so much so that the planned fall harness meet was scrapped and another Thoroughbred meet would be run.”

Standardbred racing finally debuted in 1964, and Green Mountain trudged along while gaining an offbeat reputation for trying out new concepts. At a time when daily doubles were as exotic as wagering got, the track was among the first to adopt the multi-race Twin Double, and later the Big Perfecta.

But Green Mountain's biggest innovation occurred in 1968, when the Vermont Racing Commission–despite religious objections–granted permission to conduct Sunday racing, unheard of on the East Coast at the time. Enjoying an “only game” monopoly for several seasons, buses from as far away as Philadelphia delivered a huge influx horseplayers up Route 7 every Sunday, winter or summer, harness or Thoroughbred.

Emboldened by the Sunday crowds, Green Mountain staged its first-and-only running of a marquee race–the $15,000 Green Mountain Gold Cup H.–on Oct. 12, 1969. New York-based trainer H. Allen Jerkens shipped in Misty Run for Hobeau Farm, and Ron Turcotte wired the four-horse feature aboard the 3-10 favorite, lopping three full seconds off the track record for 1 1/16 miles.

But Uncle Lou Smith died that same year, and Green Mountain backpedaled as off-track betting dawned in New York in the early 1970s and rival New England tracks added Sunday racing and expanded to year-round schedules.

The Rooney family that owned the Pittsburgh Steelers and several Eastern tracks bought Green Mountain in 1973, keen on ushering in what at the time was thought to be the “next big thing” in pari-mutuel betting–converting the track to also conduct greyhound racing.

For bettors, the greyhound action was billed as non-stop (races every 12 minutes on marathon day/night programs). For Green Mountain management, the overhead costs were ridiculously low ($3,000 in nightly purses for dogs versus $14,300 for Thoroughbreds). On Sept. 24, 1976, Green Mountain received national publicity for becoming the first track in the nation to host three breeds of racing at the same venue in one calendar year, and it was widely (but wrongly) predicted that many other major tracks would follow suit.

No one realized it at the time, but 12 days earlier, Green Mountain had staged its last-ever Thoroughbred program. Jockey Thomas Arroyo fell from his horse and was trampled in the fifth race on that Sept. 12 card, but his death received scant notice in the press because all the attention was focused on Green Mountain's “going to the dogs” ad campaign.

Five miles of heated copper tubing got installed underneath the new quarter-mile configuration so 18 kennels of 40 dogs each could race uninterrupted through the winter. Green Mountain management gave Thoroughbred racing the boot as soon as the calendar flipped into 1977, and the harness horsemen were told to get lost the following year.

Green Mountain persisted for the next 15 years as one of the lowest-level greyhound tracks in the country before ceasing racing for good in 1992. The property changed hands several times and hosted outdoor concert festivals like Lollapalooza during the 1990s, but eventually fell into disrepair and became a magnet for lawless behavior.

Over the decades, souvenir hunters carted off anything worth taking and locals smashed what was left, careening through the grandstand on all-terrain vehicles and setting interior bonfires during all-night drinking parties. One such blaze on Sept. 16, 2020, is believed to have been responsible for the massive conflagration that took 10 fire departments from three states to extinguish.


Fast-forward to the present…

Prior to last week, the only previous time I had driven up Route 7 was in 2005, when taking the scenic route from Boston to Saratoga. The stable area had still been standing at that time, and the property was under heavy video surveillance with numerous trespass warnings prominently posted.

Last week, I first saw that the stables had been razed, replaced by a solar panel farm. What had once been the horsemen's entrance on Lovett Cemetery Road was blocked off by concrete barriers, but you could still drive into a portion of the 8,000-car-capacity customer lot about a mile farther up on Route 7.

A couple of battered vehicles were parked at this entrance, and one perturbed graybeard sitting behind the wheel of a lopsided pickup returned my nod of greeting with a scowl and a shake of his head that subtly signaled “no.” I got out and walked over the barriers that kept you from driving over the railroad tracks, then stepped through a series of rusted chain-link fences that had long ago been cut open and/or were falling down. The asphalt was choked with a jungle of weeds and small trees, studded with shards of beer-bottle glass.

I  stepped around a final bend in the road and there it was–the skeletal, rust-flecked shell of the green-and-white grandstand, its massive, plate-glass front windows shattered in a crazy grin of broken, jagged teeth. I figured I was standing at about the top of the homestretch, although it was hard to tell for certain where the racetrack had once ended and the viewing apron began.

I had yet to see a single “no trespassing” sign, and that was going to be my excuse if anyone in authority questioned my presence in the building. But before I could step forward for some interior exploration, I caught a flash of movement along the back perimeter, and got the distinct feeling I was being watched.

I stayed put and snapped a few photographs. Then I looked through the magnified viewfinder and caught a glimpse of three sketchy folks over by the far tree line waiting to see what I'd do next.

Getting caught trespassing into a condemned building might be the least of my concerns if I went inside, I deduced. It was dusk, I was a solo interloper on other people's turf, and I had taken everything of value out of my car and was carrying it with me because I hadn't trusted that unsettling guy in the truck back where I had parked.

I've made some colossally bad decisions at racetracks in my life and saw no reason to add to the list. I took one last, long look at the verdant mountains framing this eerie Thoroughbred relic, knowing that I would likely never have the opportunity to be in this spot again, and left.

I figured Box County had used up my family's allotment of Green Mountain good fortune back in the early 1970s, and I saw no reason to press my luck.

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