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Book Review

Suffolk Downs
by Christian Teja
Arcadia Publishing, June 2005, 128 pages, softcover

Most people these days only think of Suffolk Downs as the place where they have the Massachusetts Handicap (MassCap), but this racetrack near Boston has a rich history which is beautifully presented in this book. Written by Christian Teja, the director of public and media relations at Suffolk Downs, this book collects over 200 photographs that span the entire history of Suffolk Downs, starting with the building of the facility in 1935 to the present. Inspired by an exhibit Teja put together for a museum and a website on sporting venues, he collected photographs from many different sources to create a pictorial history of the track and the many stars, both racing and otherwise, who have come and gone at Suffolk Downs through the decades. The result is an entertaining and enlightening walk through racing history.

With a chapter for each decade, starting in the 1930's when the track was built and first opened, you get a great feel of what the track was like and how it changes through time. Presented are not only pictures of the great horses and jockeys who have raced there over the years, but many pictures of the facility, track management and announcers, movie stars, champions from other sports, unusual events, and even the Beatles who played at the track in the 1960's. Other notables that are pictured include Bing Crosby, Rin Tin Tin, Michael Dukakis, and heavyweight boxing champ Jim Braddock who is the topic of the current movie release "Cinderella Man."

Of course the main interest for many fans will be the rare photos of famous horses of the past, and there are plenty of those. Seabiscuit raced there before he was bought by Mr. Howard and became famous so you get a rare look at that era of his career. He was originally scheduled to meet War Admiral for the first time in the 1936 MassCap, but had to skip that due to an injury which lead to their meeting in the Pimlico Special later. He did come back to win the 1937 MassCap and you get quite a few pictures from that including several of his owner and trainer. Other notable MassCap winners that are covered range from Whirlaway (1942) to Riva Ridge (1973) to Cigar who won back to back editions in 1995 and 1996.

The changing face of Suffolk Downs is another intriguing thread and includes aerial views from different decades. When it was built, Suffolk Downs was a state of the art racing facility and the only concrete grandstand in the country at the time. Opening day on July 10, 1935, brought in a crowd of over 35,000 racing fans and large crowds were a regular thing in the 1930's and 1940's with an average attendance of 18,388 for 1945 and betting handles of over $1 million a day. There are several photos showing the effects of World War II, such as the harrows being drawn by draft horses due to gas rationing or the stands deserted during an air raid drill. In the 1960's the track was completely remodeled and the old paddock behind the stands torn out and replaced with more parking, changing the entire look of the facility. The charismatic Bill Veeck took over in 1968 and made many innovations including chariot races and other wacky stunts. There are some interesting photos of the many female jockeys, or jockettes as they were called then, from the 1970's, including one of the girls who set a record daily double of $16,515. In the 1980's the track fell on hard times and was closed after 1989 for two years before re-opening under new management. Since then, they had recovered nicely and built the MassCap back into a premier race that all the current stars show up for. Sadly they have had to cancel the MassCap for 2005 to put that money back into their local races.

This book is an easy read since it is mostly pictures, but you will want to spend some time studying those pictures and the associated text as you take a trip though the history of Suffolk Downs. Any racing fan should enjoy this for the historic photos as well as the understanding it gives you of how racing has changed over the years.

Suffolk Downs has a list price of $19.99 and is available from Amazon.com, local bookstores, or direct from Arcadia Publishing.

Rating:     5/5

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