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In the early 20th Century, there was a movement afoot to end the growing gambling industry in the United Stats. Along with prohibition, society was turning to more virtuous leisure activities that didn’t include drinking, gambling, or other vices of man. It was at this time that many of Connecticut’s thriving horse racetracks began to close. In addition, the advent of the automobile, especially those early race cars, began to push out the horses, to use their dirt tracks for the new-found sport of speed! Cars went much faster than horses, and the crowds loved it. Anyone living in Newtown in late 1970s could still hear the auto races, being held at the Danbury Fair, until its close in 1981.
Danbury Fair Racetrack
Many of the early horse racetracks in the state were built around the agricultural fair, which included many animal attractions and shows starting in the 19th Century. One of the earliest racetracks was built at the Danbury Fair, which started as a smaller exhibition in 1821, but began as an annual event in 1869. The first auto race was held on October 6, 1908, at the Danbury Fairgrounds, using the dirt horse track, a half-mile oval used until 1939. In that year, the track was shortened to a fifth of a mile and paved for the midget-car racing.
According to connecticuthistory.org, “By 1929, horse and auto races were the fair’s two most popular attractions. The horse races took place on the track for the first five days of the fair, and the auto races on Saturday, the last day of the fair. In 1946, a banked speedway replaced the horse track and held midget automobile races. That same year, administrators added a marine speedway for boats. The speedway eventually accommodated stock car races, which drew huge crowds.”
Newtown Fair Racetrack
Sometime I’d like to go back into The Newtown Bee archives and dig up more history from the Newtown Fair since there is little about it on the internet. But, you can find a piece of it, part of the 1935 aerial survey of Connecticut, in the book by Dan Cruson, Newtown 1900–1960, which clearly shows the remains of the track. The fair, held annually from 1896 to 1906, included horse races on a large oval that extended behind what is today Taylor Field behind Hawley School on Church Hill Road. They may have even held some auto races on the dirt track, since by the turn of the 20th Century faster cars made for some spectacular racing.
Poquonnock Race Track
If you visit connecticuthistoryillustrated.org you will find a few historic photographs of early horse racing in the state. One caption reads, “Spectators watch harness racing at Poquonnock race track, Fort Hill, Groton. Men stand beside the dirt track in the foreground. On the opposite side of the track, behind a wood fence, are other spectators, including women. Some watch from carriages or wagons and others from a low observation tower.”
And ctexplored.org tells us, “Poquonnock Race Track was located in the small town of Groton, Connecticut. At that time the town did not have a nightclub, theatre, or moviehouse, but in 1892 a race course opened at the base of Fort Hill, in what is now a leafy residential area. Though founded by local enthusiasts and breeders who wanted to race their horses, Poquonnock Race Track quickly became one of the most professional and well-kept racecourses in the country. The track was half a mile long and 50 feet wide, and there was a grandstand capable of holding 600 people. The racetrack was also used for bicycle racing, and later on auto racing.”
Trotters At Charter Oak Park
One of the most popular racetracks was the Charter Oak Park which opened in 1873 in Manchester. The mile-long racetrack built for harness racing — where a jockey sits in a two-wheel sulky attached to the horse by a harness — featured trotters. There was also an amusement park called Luna Park and the Connecticut State Fair, which was held annually for two weeks on the grounds.
Today, photo finishes are mandatory in horse racing, in case of a tie, or close win by a nose. But at connecticuthistoryillustrated.org we learn that, “One of the earliest surviving instances of this was a harness race in 1889 at Charter Oak Park. In it, the gray stallion Alcryon is plainly visible beating the great trotting mare Geneva S. and the favorite Nelson, on August 28, 1889.”
Branford Park, a horse-racing half-mile dirt oval track in New Haven, held one of the first auto races on July 25, 1899. A few remaining auto race tracks in the state started as horse race tracks, such as Stafford Motor Speedway, at the Stafford Springs Fairgrounds, built in 1892. It ran its first auto race in October 1934.
There are still fairs and fairgrounds sprinkled around Connecticut from Bridgewater to Brooklyn to Woodstock. The horse races may have faded from the fair tradition, but other horse events can still be seen such as draft horse and pony pulls, horse shows, and even pony rides.