By Terry L. Hapney, Jr.
The Greenup Beacon
“Situated in a hollow surrounded by picturesque hills, Raceland sets a picture that is refreshing to the view. The new Kentucky race track is a modern one in every detail and rivals the massive tracks of the East. The main racing strip is wide and thoroughly safe, the turns banked in the most approved fashion give evidence of safety for the flying thoroughbreds. The stands and other buildings, the secretary’s office and jockey enclosure are of brick construction.”
And so, a 1924 issue of Chicago’s Daily Racing Form introduced Raceland to the nation, as the “newest of Kentucky tracks.”
Donald Sammons, a local racetrack historian who was raised in Worthington and Ashland, has been studying the history of the track for many years now. During his lifetime, many people have asked Sammons, Raceland’s current police chief, about the history of the city of Raceland. This piqued his curiosity, so he began digging deeper into the rich history of the city’s namesake. In fact, Sammons and other area authors are working on a book about the history of Greenup County that includes a chapter on the racetrack.
The book should be available this spring, according to Sammons.
From 1924 to 1929 Raceland Park, as it was labeled in several issues of the Daily Racing Form from the 1920s, was a horse-racing track located in the small, northeastern Kentucky town of Chinnville, which later changed its name to Raceland to ensure consistency after the Chinnville post office changed its name due to the huge volume of mail that began arriving in the town for the racetrack. The track, according to Sammons, operated for six seasons.
“It is a misconception that the racetrack closed in 1928,” Sammons said. “It was open for seven days in 1929 before officially closing.”
John Oliver “Jack” Keene, the man who would later see a racetrack in the Lexington (Keeneland) area named after him, put an option on a tract of 270 acres of land in Ashland, according to the May 6, 1922, issue of The Thoroughbred Record. The article indicates that the big plus for this land purchase was the nearby transportation facilities—the railroad. Their plan was to build the most modern racetrack possible—a site on which the Boyd County fair would also be held.
Thomas B. Cromwell, a member of Keene’s partnership group, said in the 1922 article that the establishment of a racetrack in the Ashland area would provide the sport to people in the state who did not have access to it.
“With the cities of Ironton, Ohio; Catlettsburg, Ky.; and Huntington, W.Va.; the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky and other close points in Ohio adjacent, the racecourse should prove a great drawing card,” Cromwell said in 1922.
Cromwell estimated that approximately 300,000 people lived within a radius of 30 minutes from the site.
In a Jan. 27, 1923, issue of The Thoroughbred Record, “a complete racing and recreation plant” unlike any other in America was in the works, just seven miles from downtown Ashland and two miles from Russell, at Chinnville. Tri-State Fair and Racing Association owned and managed the track. Keene was taking journalists of that day on tours of the facility. Cromwell had applied for 24 days of racing to be held at Raceland from July 10 to August 4. Work was done to bring the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad to within fifty feet of the grandstand.
Trains would bring racing enthusiasts from Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, Portsmouth, Ashland, Catlettsburg, Russell, Charleston, and Huntington.
The same 1923 article described the track as having been completed.
“It is a beautiful one-mile stretch with a one-eighth mile chute. It is 90 feet wide on the back stretch and 100 feet wide on the curves and the home stretch. From the grandstand and lawn, a race may be seen for the entire circuit. In the inside of the track will be sunken gardens, a lake, bridle paths and flower beds. Around the entire grounds there will be a high woven wire fence such as is used to fence in factories. Honeysuckle and wild roses will in two or three years completely cover the fence.”
According to the article, the grandstand, made of steel and concrete, was designed to seat 4,000 people, at a cost of $110,000. Eight-hundred tons of steel was used in the structure, with plans to include a paved lawn in front of it. As of the 1923 writing, the officials’ residence, located just 500 yards from the grandstand, was already in place, costing $10,000. It was made of “face brick, two stories high” and contained a dining room, living room, kitchen, sleeping rooms, and a club room. “A servants’ house” had also already been built to house the cook, “Aunt” Fannie.
The Thoroughbred Record article indicates that farm houses were razed to make way for the racetrack. Plans were in the works for a paddock, 500-plus stables on the hills behind the grandstand, in addition to housing for the trainers and caretakers. The work was to begin the first week in February 1923, according to Keene. The water tank was planned for “the crest of another hill” to provide water for the entire track. The article described the scene at the track as tranquil, with the hills of Ohio nestled past the river, seen by those in the grandstand. A new “Ashland-Greenup hard road” was planned to pass by the entrance gates to the track. Just to the back of the track were the rolling hills of Greenup County.
Sammons said inside the track it was the most modern of its time; pink and maroon roses were planted all along the fence.
The entire acreage for the racetrack was 350 acres, with the option to buy more property for phase II, Sammons said.
“The track had its own jail, 32 betting windows, Coca Cola stands, and young boys from the area were hired to sell peanuts in the stands,” Sammons said. “The betting windows were elevated 90 feet to ensure plenty of air would go through so those in attendance would stay comfortable while betting.”
Sammons also said there was running water at the racetrack prior to it being in most of the homes in surrounding towns at the time. The track also featured nine summer cottages so that horse owners and trainers from as far away as California could stay in them while the track was open.
Sammons said the roads were mainly dirt and gravel in the 1920s, but brick lined the road from Ashland to Russell.
The Record article stated that “going to Raceland automobilists will pass through West Winchester Avenue, out the paved road to Russell and through Russell and its thickly-populated suburbs to Chinnville along the line of the Russell railroad terminals. Two routes are optional from Russell, either across a viaduct over the railroad tracks of the main line or to the left over the new road for a short distance.”
“Traffic was so congested on race days that cars would be lined up from the gate at Raceland to Sixth Street in Ashland, where the Ashland Town Center now stands,” Sammons said. “Traffic would also back up from Raceland down through Russell and across the bridge into downtown Ironton.
Plans were for Raceland to hold up to 25,000 people during each race its first year, many of whom would have to stand along the railing until the additional phases of the track were finished, according to the Record. Keene planned to live in Ashland and serve as general manager of the track. He also had a vision that in addition to the thousands of visitors who would come to the area for racing, hundreds of people would move to the area to live.
Sammons said the second phase was to include a grand hotel with a ballroom, and winter cabins in which owners and trainers would reside while training horses. The soil at Chinnville was sandy and would dry out quickly, enabling owners and trainers to conduct training year-round.
The Marting in Ironton, as well as the Henry Clay Hotel and the Ventura in Ashland, were just a few of a number of places visitors from Cincinnati, Columbus, Portsmouth, Huntington, and Charleston would stay while visiting Raceland, Sammons said.
“The record crowd was 27,000 people,” Sammons said. “The track averaged 15,000 per race day. The writers of old articles from the 1920s predicted that the Raceland Derby could bypass the Kentucky Derby, in terms of success.”
According to several issues of the Daily Racing Form from 1924, the track’s owners referred to Raceland as the “Million Dollar Oval,” to illustrate the amount of money that had been utilized to build the track. The inaugural Raceland Derby, according to the Daily Racing Form and Keeneland magazine, was July 28, 1924, and five horses that had been in the Kentucky Derby ran the Raceland Derby—including Black Gold who had already won four derbies that year. The chance that Black Gold might win a fifth derby drew a record 27,000 people. He ended up coming in third that day behind the horse that came in last in the Kentucky Derby—Bob Tail.
From July through August of each year, racing enthusiasts from all over the Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia region would attend several races per day, Sammons said. Races included the Ashland and Greenup Handicaps, as well as the Irontonian Stakes. The Ashland Handicap was held on opening day and the Raceland Derby was held the following week, according to Sammons.
“Russell, Raceland, and Greenup businesses closed at noon on race day to allow employees to go to the races,” Sammons said. “The first race of each day started at 1:45 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
Prior to the races, those in attendance enjoyed boxing, acrobats, and various shows, Sammons said.
While businessmen of the 1920s had no concerns about closing their doors and allowing their employees to attend the races, concern of a different sort grew, as customers were not paying their bills.
“At that time, customers would charge items they would purchase to their account and then come into the business at the end of each month and pay their bill,” Sammons said. “After Raceland had been opened for a period of time, some customers were no longer paying their bills, due to the fact that they were going to the track and betting all of their money.”
In response, Ironton businessmen formed the Ironton Merchants Credit Bureau to strategically get people to pay their bills, Sammons said.
While many good times were had by the thousands who visited Raceland, labeled by a 1926 issue of the Daily Racing Form as “Beautiful Raceland . . . the Saratoga of the West,” things were not always positive. For instance, severe weather hit the track on many occasions, creating very muddy conditions. In fact, the Aug. 3, 1927, issue of the Daily Racing Form stated that a major storm struck Raceland, destroying two large stables—including one that had been built during the 1927 season. Luckily no horses or people were seriously injured. Another example of the not-so-good times at the track was when California’s C.W. Chappell, a prominent trainer for half-a-century, was killed when he became involved in an altercation between two other individuals, according to the July 21, 1927, issue of Daily Racing Form. Chappell was taken to the Marting Hospital in Ironton where he died from his wounds. The other two individuals were taken to the Greenup jail before being transported to another city for their safety.
While most people who remember going to the track are deceased, stories of time spent at Raceland were passed down from generation to generation. One such story was told by Raceland, Ky., resident Robert Reed who passed away a few years ago. Reed told Sammons years ago that he would, as a small boy, walk horses prior to and after races for 25 cents a day.
In addition to the summer horse racing, Raceland also played host to boxing matches, dances, and circus events. Special promotions were held during racing months like “Ladies Day,” during which women were admitted free.
“A special train for ladies ran free of charge from Russell to Raceland and back,” Sammons said. “People would bring their blankets and picnic dinners and enjoy time with their families.”
It is a misconception that the Great Depression caused the demise of the track, Sammons said.
“The state of Kentucky had a fee in the 1920s that required the track to pay $2,500 per day to race,” Sammons said. “That’s what closed the track.”
In addition to the fee, the track had the expense of the payout. The organization that ran the track—Tri-State Fair and Racing Association, according to Daily Racing Form articles from the 1920s—became behind on its state taxes so the state came in and took the money that was available. At that point the track could not make its mortgage payments so the bank foreclosed.
In a Dec. 4, 1965, article published in The Blood-Horse, P.T. Chinn, another of Keene’s Raceland partners, said, in 1962, that “Jack Keene built, without a doubt, one of the finest race tracks I ever saw. Built it in the wrong spot, however. After a few seasons it went bankrupt. A man came in and bought the lumber from the seats, another party got the stables, and that’s all there was to it.”
After leaving Raceland in 1929, Keene tried to open a track using hundreds of acres he owned just outside of Lexington. His financing fell through, according to a 2005 issue of Keeneland magazine, but other investors purchased the property from Keene, and decided to use his name with the opening of what is now known as Keeneland.
After the track officially closed in 1929, some businessmen from Ashland and Covington formed Raceland, Inc., and leased the site for one year. They attempted to keep it going by featuring exhibits, carnivals, and smaller-scale racing. In 1930, plans were in the works for James Ashworth of the Kentucky and Tennessee Improvement Company to purchase the property and turn it into an amusement park. He also wanted to hold a Tri-State fair there, complete with a midway, rodeo, and livestock shows, Sammons said.
“This was when the Great Depression swept the country and that was the end of the Raceland racetrack as it had been known.
Keene tried to reopen the track in 1933 by putting together a group of investors, because the state fee had dropped to $500 per race day, Sammons said. The Dec. 23, 1933, issue of the Blood-Horse stated that Keene secured an option on the Raceland racetrack with the intent he would reopen it. Keene spent two days in Ashland, Ironton, and Raceland and had found that the conditions in the area had improved, and residents of the area were eager to see racing return to Raceland.
“I am very much encouraged,” Keene said in 1933, “and will now undertake to raise the money to exercise the option,” the article stated.
However, Keene could not get the required financing to do so, Sammons said.
During the 1937 flood, the former racetrack was used as a shelter for area residents impacted by the floodwaters, according to Sammons.
Sammons said the Bonzo family purchased the property in 1937 and the stands were torn down. Keeneland magazine stated that E.R. Bonzo purchased the property for $45,000, and the metal and other materials were sold during World War II, earning Bonzo just enough money to recover his purchase price. In fact, according to Sammons, some of the houses in what is now known as Poplar Highlands were built with the bricks from the Raceland racetrack buildings.
The June 5, 1943, issue of The Blood-Horse stated that John Oliver Keene, who was born in 1870, died from a heart attack on May 27 of that year, after having collapsed at the fairgrounds in Detroit. His funeral was held two days later in Lexington, and he was buried in the family plots at Keeneland, with five generations of his family members.
Seven or eight racetrack buildings are still standing, Sammons said, including the jockey clubhouse that is just to the right of U.S. 23 as motorists head to Greenup from the city of Raceland. Across U.S. 23 stands an apartment building that was also an original racetrack building. Keene’s house also still stands. It is a home with lots of windows, built so Keene could sit at his desk and see the entire track.
On May, 26, 2004, a dedication ceremony was held to commemorate the installation of a historical marker for the Raceland race track; the marker is located a mile past the Raceland-Worthington High School gymnasium (heading toward Greenup) on new U.S. 23, just to the right of the highway. Worthington resident Don Elswick was the chief fundraiser for the marker, representing the Greenup County Historical Society.
The Raceland Derby Classic, held yearly at Raceland-Worthington High School’s “Ram Arena,” pays tribute to the city’s racing heritage in the form of a high school basketball tournament.
“If the Raceland racetrack were still in operation today, there wouldn’t be a Worthington, Wurtland, Flatwoods, or the other smaller cities in this area,” Sammons said. “It would be more like Lexington here.”
(Special thanks to Donald Sammons, Don Elswick, Robert G. Miller, Greenup County Judge Executive Bobby Carpenter, and Ann Rash in the County Judge Executive’s office for their assistance with this story.)
Terry L. Hapney, Jr., Ph.D., is a professor in the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Marshall University, and an eastern Greenup County native. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.