Skip to main content
Original Issue

Back In A Blaze Of Glory

Destroyed by fire, New Jersey's Garden State Park has been lavishly rebuilt by bustling Robert Brennan

Does the name Garden State Park cause a small light to go on in your memory? If not, don't be dismayed; even staunch racing fans have largely forgotten the old track in Cherry Hill, N.J. that burned to the ground on April 14, 1977. It has been eight long and controversial years since a fire raged through the wooden stands, twisting the steel underpinnings into grotesque shapes. Now, phoenix-like, a new Garden State has risen from the ashes. Billed as the "Racetrack of the 21st Century," Garden State opened on April 1 with a gala evening of entertainment and racing. Spotlights illuminated the night sky, banjos strummed in the glass-enclosed grandstand, violins played in the seven-story-high clubhouse. The crowds at the concession stands were five and six deep, and traffic near the track got so bad that the main gates had to be closed for an hour.

Just after midnight, almost as if scripted, 4-year-old Hail Bold King won the feature race, the $156,800 Genesis Handicap, in a canter. Hail Bold King's rider was Bill Shoemaker, the world's most famous jockey. The colt's owner is Robert Emmet Brennan, 41, the builder and prime mover of the new Garden State Park.

Only dreamers ever imagined that the site off Haddonfield Road would house a racetrack again. During the years before the fire, Garden State had begun to resemble a once-proud lady who could no longer put her makeup on straight. A race-fixing scandal was uncovered, attendance declined and patrons no longer found the track a comfortable or friendly place to visit. The 1977 fire occurred during the running of a racing card and took only two hours to consume the grandstand. As the riders escaped the second story jockey's room by shinning down fire hoses, personal belongings, clothing and equipment they had thrown out windows in hopes of saving were stolen by people waiting below. With smoke wafting through the building, horseplayers waited in line to get paid off on a $3.20 winner.

The new Garden State was built by broker, horseman and one-man band Brennan at a cost he estimates to be $170 million. If that figure is accurate—and Brennan's reckoning in financial matters has often been questioned—his commitment to racing is close to the combined recent purchase prices of the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Garden State is attempting to lure the best horses to its inaugural meeting, particularly 3-year-olds on their way to the Triple Crown races. Two weeks ago, the track drew 14 entries to the $200,000 Cherry Hill Mile, run the same day as Aqueduct's Gotham Mile, and the convincing winner was Spend A Buck, second among 2-year-old colts in money won in 1984. This week brings the $300,000 Garden State Stakes, an event to be staged on the same day as Aqueduct's $250,000 Wood Memorial.

The big move, however, comes with the $1 Million Jersey Derby on May 27, nine days after the Preakness and 12 days before the Belmont Stakes. The pots for those two Triple Crown races are $350,000 each, but the conditions of the Jersey Derby call for an added $1 million bonus to any horse winning that race plus any two of the following: the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby. A horse sweeping the three Garden State races plus the Kentucky Derby gets a $2 million bonus.

The bonus scheme is an attempt to lure the Kentucky Derby winner away from the Preakness and, inevitably, steal some of the Triple Crown's luster. The move quite naturally has Pimlico's management up in arms, and Churchill Downs is reportedly considering litigation against Brennan and Garden State. The New York Racing Association, which runs the Gotham, the Wood and the Belmont, is said to be displeased, too.

Money, of course, draws top horses, but Garden State must also draw people to make it a success. A decade before the fire, Garden State was one of the nation's top tracks in both attendance and betting. Its 1966 meeting averaged 19,865 fans per day and $1.85 million in betting handle. By 1976 those figures had dropped to 10,645 and $1.36 million. So far this month the new Garden State has averaged 14,434 and $1.4 million.

Certainly the new track is beautiful. The paddock is actually a huge atrium visible from all levels of the grandstand and clubhouse—from seats, dining tables or overhanging balconies. Glass elevators whisk patrons to the various levels of the track. The posh Phoenix (get it?) dining room on the top level can accommodate 950 customers, and on a clear night it affords them a view of the Philadelphia skyline. There are bars everywhere, and the fans can follow race action on the two huge matrix boards in the infield, one of which can produce "more than 30,000 different colors." Welcome to the track of the 21st century.

The old Garden State was also quite a place—before it turned shabby, that is. It didn't get built without a struggle. Construction began early in 1942, soon after the U.S. entered World War II, and the materials consisted mostly of wood and some steel acquired when New York's Third Avenue elevated subway line was torn down. The track opened on July 18, 1942, and because of wartime gas rationing, management soon was hiring horse-drawn vehicles to bring patrons to the track from bus and railroad stations. The most popular way of getting there was to ride a hay wagon and do your handicapping as it moved slowly along.

Top-flight horses raced there. Triple Crown winner Whirlaway carried 130 pounds as if it were no more than a sprig of parsley while winning the 1942 Trenton Handicap. Between his 1948 Preakness and Belmont Stakes victories, Citation dropped in and tipped his cap to four opponents as he won the Jersey Stakes. Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Round Table, the best three horses from the top crop of 3-year-olds ever, ran against one another in the memorable '57 Trenton. Bold Ruler won not only the race but also Horse of the Year honors. Nashua, Carry Back, Mongo, Quill, Idun, First Landing, Cicada and Riva Ridge all swept down Garden State's stretch to victory. The largest purse Secretariat ever earned ($179,199) came not from one of his Triple Crown triumphs but from the Garden State Stakes at the end of his 2-year-old season.

New Jersey is a different state today than it was in the old track's heyday. The nation's most densely populated state, it now has more gambling per square mile than any other. Last year, Atlantic City's 10 casinos had a "gross win" of $1.9 billion, while the state-operated lottery sold $848 million worth of tickets. It's impossible to move in almost any direction within a 200-mile radius of Cherry Hill without bumping into a racetrack of one kind or another. Let's count them: Aqueduct, Atlantic City, Belmont, Bowie, Brandywine, Charles Town, Delaware Park, Dover Downs, Freehold, Freestate, Harrington, Keystone, Laurel, Liberty Bell, The Meadowlands, The Meadows, Monmouth Park, Monticello, Ocean Downs, Penn National, Pimlico, Pocono Downs, Roosevelt Raceway, Rosecroft, Timonium, Waterford Park and Yonkers Raceway. Garden State brings the total to 28, a staggering number at a time when many track operators admit that, for the most part, they are dog-paddling to keep their heads above water.

Brennan has jumped into the fray with verve, imagination and the backing of 50,000 stockholders. Not only has he rebuilt Garden State from ashes but, at the end of December, he also took control of nearby Keystone at a cost of another $37.5 million. He intends to pump from $7 to $10 million more into the Bucks County (Pa.) plant until, as he says, "it becomes one of the finest tracks in the nation." While Keystone is only 10 years old and has been a profit maker, it could use some refurbishing. "Just wait and you will see a Keystone you never imagined before," Brennan says. In the three months since Brennan's takeover, he has upgraded the quality of the horses, increased purse money, hired more cleaning help and increased the promotional budget. As a result, Keystone has experienced a boomlet. Attendance was up 5%, and the betting handle was up 8%.

Television viewers around the country have seen Brennan many times on the commercials he stars in for his First Jersey Securities brokerage house. He's the guy with the blond hair and sparkling blue eyes who flies a helicopter over Grand Coulee Dam or stands by a lock of the Erie Canal and says: "What is the promise of America? Opportunities, not guarantees." Brennan holds that "television is the single best carrier pigeon of the 20th century." First Jersey Securities, which he started in 1974, now has 35 branch offices, 1,200 account executives and more than 350,000 accounts. (Yes, he does fly his own helicopter.) An athletic-looking 6'1", Brennan has boundless energy. When he talks, his hands move in expressive gestures, and when he talks about horse racing, Garden State, Keystone or mares in foal, his voice rises. And, yes, he knows about racetracks.

He didn't learn about them from aristocratic forebears, either. There was no standing around the sales rings at Keeneland or Saratoga waiting for the chauffeur to take him off to pony class. Brennan learned about horses the old-fashioned way: He bet on 'em.

In racetrack terminology, he is Under The Fence from Newkidontheblock by Walter Mitty. "When I was 10," he says, "I used to take a bus, then the subway from my home in Newark over to Aqueduct and sneak under the fence. I loved racing. It got to me. Being a New Jersey boy, I also went to Monmouth Park and Atlantic City. There were no off-track betting shops around then, but as I grew older I found my own: a bookmaker. The only track I never got to in my own state was Garden State Park."

Brennan, one of nine children born to Henry and Agnes Brennan, grew up in a five-room apartment on South 17th Street in Newark. As a youngster he took jobs delivering both the morning Star-Ledger and the afternoon News. He also collected old newspapers, scrap iron and tin cans and sold them to junkyards. Brennan graduated from St. Benedict's Prep in Newark and went on to Seton Hall University in South Orange. The monks at St. Benedict's must have taught him well because last year he donated $5 million to the school. "They personified a sense of commitment that others lacked." he says. "They inspired me." Upon the death of his wife, Henry Brennan studied for the priesthood, was ordained at the age of 65 and, until his death last August, was a chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital in Milwaukee.

Young Bob Brennan scooted through Seton Hall in two years by going to both day and night sessions to earn an accounting degree. He also sold classified ads for the News, where he met Willie Ratner, a boxing and racing writer for the newspaper. "In the afternoon," Brennan says, "we would stand together and read the results as they came over the racing wire. It was quite an experience for me, and I learned a lot about racing from Willie Ratner."

In 1965 Brennan joined the New York accounting firm of Haskins & Sells and stayed three years before moving on to a small brokerage firm, Mayflower Securities. He opened First Jersey Securities with some $300,000 in loans from 20 people and put out his shingle in a Red Bank, N.J. office furnished with two rented chairs and a desk.

Brennan entered racing in March 1980 by buying a pair of 2-year-olds in training at the Florida Breeders' Company sales at Hialeah. He paid $40,000 for one of them, a colt, and named him Schride. The other, a filly, cost $20,000 and was subsequently called Newkidontheblock. The second name seemed sensible enough, but the first baffled people, particularly when they saw SCHRIDE inscribed on the T shirts worn by Brennan's stable help. It is Brennan's acronym for success. "It stands for the creed I use to guide my business and my life," he says. "Each letter stands for a specific characteristic that I try to follow."

Ready now? And-a-one-and-a-two-and-a-three:

S is for self-confidence. Recognize how truly special you are.

C is for courage. Be a risk taker.

H is for honesty. Don't take credit for other people's success

R is for responsibility. Be accountable for your own actions.

I is for impatience with yourself, not with others.

D is for determination. When you're exhausted, drive harder.

E is for enthusiasm, the greatest moving force in a human being.

The horse, however, was a bum. Poor Schride never won in 10 starts. Lacked certain things—self-confidence, courage, honesty, responsibility, determination and enthusiasm. In Newkidontheblock, though, Brennan had his first winner. That was in '80. "She was running on a cold September night at The Meadowlands in a 12-horse field," Brennan says. "While they were all maidens, the 11 other horses had more experience, and some looked pretty good.

"This was a big thing for me. I had paid $20,000 for this horse, and I was going to go for it. So I went up to the windows and bet $2,000 to win on her. She went off at 33-1. She was 12th most of the way. They open up into the stretch, 11 horses in front of her, but then something miraculous happened. Moses himself appeared at the Meadowlands that night—he parted the crowd like the Red Sea. Down the middle comes Newkidontheblock, wins and pays $68. I walked away with $68,000 on the bet and I said, 'Boy, this is a terrific business!' " Newkidontheblock never won again.

That same September Brennan bought 28 yearlings for $1 million, and soon after paid $875,000 for seven more horses. From that group came Hurry Up Blue, who won the Donn and Gulfstream Park Handicaps the following winter. By January 1981 the very new kid on the block had bought $7 million worth of horseflesh, as well as two farms. Brennan's Due Process Stable went from $125,647 in earnings in 1980 to $2,082,772 in 1983, making his outfit the third-biggest money-earner in the nation. Nothing Brennan's horses did between the white rails, though, shook up the business quite as much as Brennan himself did in 1981 when he offered shares for sale on the stock market for International Thoroughbred Breeders Inc., the Brennan-controlled company—he's chairman and majority stockholder—that now owns more than 300 breeding horses and Keystone and Garden State tracks.

"The things that I went through were amazing," Brennan said one recent morning in his Wall Street office. "People said I was going to destroy the game. I was in the paddock at Hialeah one day in 1981 after we had announced we were going to put shares of ITB on the market. Leslie Combs II came over, put his arm around me and said, I know you mean to do well, but this whole idea of public ownership is bad for us. It is not going to be good, and it is going to fail. Don't do these kinds of things; you ought to check with us....' "

Combs is the founder of Kentucky's fabled Spendthrift Farm, one of the world's most prosperous breeding operations. Two years after Combs's speech to Brennan, Spendthrift put shares on the open market. "I got a big kick out of that," ITB's chairman says. "The image that racing has gotten is that of a bunch of old men who go to the track and sit around all day and do nothing. That isn't the truth at all. Racetracks can be fun if the owners work at making them fun.

"Last June I went out to see the Belmont Stakes. It was a gorgeous day. I had one of my sons with me and the card was absolutely brilliant. We were returning to my box with hot dogs and Cokes when the usher came over and told me that hot dogs and Cokes could not be eaten in the box section at Belmont Park. He said that if I wanted to eat the hot dog, I would have to go somewhere and stand behind a door. Or I could go up into the Trustees' Room and have a full lunch and sit there all afternoon. I was flabbergasted. Do you think baseball would be run that way, or football?"

To be sure, Brennan himself has caught some heat over the way he runs things. For years First Jersey Securities was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. A cover story on Brennan, titled "The Golden Boy," in the July 16, 1984 issue of Forbes had this to say about his success with First Jersey: "A picture emerges of a clever and apparently legal system for fobbing off shoddy and overpriced merchandise on a not very well informed public." In 1979 and 1983 the SEC accused Brennan and First Jersey of various illegal practices. Last year Brennan signed a consent decree not to violate securities laws, and the SEC dismissed all charges against him and his company. Upon signing the decree, Brennan, still professing his innocence, said, "I'm as happy to comply with that as I am to agree not to beat up old ladies."

Brennan's own racing stable is called Due Process because, as he has often said, "It was originally intended to be my own private, silent statement of outrage against what I perceive to be a total lack of due process and the administrative bureaucracy in our government which, as a businessman, drives me up a wall."

Through it all, Brennan breezes on. He failed in a recent bid to buy Monmouth Park, but Garden State is open, Keystone is doing well and Brennan is making noises about buying New York's Off-Track Betting Corporation. He claims he can guarantee $50 million a year plus a percentage of the profits to New York City alone—a big improvement on the $39.5 million OTB contributed last year.

The return of Garden State has already caused tremors in nearby Maryland, a state with few amenities at its racetracks and high racing taxes. According to the Baltimore Evening Sun, Brennan has "the Maryland racing industry quivering like a newborn colt." For his part, Brennan professes to be afraid of nothing, even though reopening Garden State is a gamble. As Brennan often says, "Scared money never wins."



Eight years ago, Garden State was aflame; now Brennan is master of all he surveys.



[See caption above.]



Tiers of fans can peruse the horses in the paddock without having to set foot outside.



On opening night, Brennan's Hail Bold King won the feature race to remind the crowd of 27,053 who's the boss at Garden State.



In the historic '57 Trenton Handicap, Bold Ruler led Gallant Man and Round Table to the wire.



Brennan's motto may inspire the boys at St. Benedict's, but it didn't help Schride.



Newkidontheblock won only one race for Brennan, but it was a big one that earned her a lasting place in her owner's heart—and on his farm.