Traveling down memory lane at Goshen’s Hall of Fame

Jul 3, 2007 7:11 AM

Weary of the world of disputes and discord in racing — of the problems of Internet gaming, of Indian casinos, of states and tracks with and without slots, of the battle for the New York Racing Association, of the small cadre of cheaters who persist in using chemistry, of crass politicians willing to threaten California racing over the fate of a track whose owners want to tear it down — I jumped onto an American flight to Chicago last weekend, then on to Newburgh, NY, and the old Stewart Air Force Base, and drove another 25 miles into the mid 1800s.

Goshen, New York, is today much as it was then, a pretty little town nestled in the past. Its main street, once the battleground between horsemen who thought their trotter could beat yours, is paved now, of course, but it if you listen closely enough you can hear the clatter of hooves from a day when the horse was king.

He hauled doctors to their patients in those days, and delivered groceries and ice and wood and the necessities of life from village to village.

Goshen has a charming little park smack in the center of town, and literally a few blocks away, right on the main street, a racetrack.

It is called Goshen Historic, and it is aptly named. Trotting horses have raced over it for more than 150 years, and still do, particularly on the Fourth of July weekend.

Standing in front of the track, facing the street, is a handsome stone building that once was the private stable of a man named William Cane. He was, like many of the men who came to Goshen to race their trotters, wealthy, and when he died he willed his stable as a memorial to the sport he loved.

Today, millions of dollars later, it is the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, one of the finest sports museums in America, easily available to New York City, just 95 miles south.

On the Fourth of July weekend each year, it conducts high class racing, but very different racing than that seen elsewhere these days.

For one thing, the old wooden grandstand is packed. That’s something you don’t see anymore, except during thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

For another, the stable area is open, and parents and their kids wander through it at will, standing right next to horses being hitched, preparing to race, or getting baths afterwards.

Five miles away is the little hamlet of Chester, with a large obelisk monument standing incongruously among its homes. It honors not a man but a horse — Hambletonian — the progenitor of all harness horses racing in North America today. Harness racing’s biggest race, its Kentucky Derby, is named for him, and is raced annually at The Meadowlands in New Jersey, not far distant geographically but a world apart in flavor and spirit.

The people of Goshen are proud of their heritage. The Hambletonian used to be raced here, over a big mile track called Goshen Good Time that is no more, falling to the inevitable hand of developers.

But Goshen Historic and its spanking modern museum, protected and preserved over the years by the Harriman and Gerry families, is hale and hearty. The Harrimans, of course, were statesmen of major rank, and the Gerry brothers, Elbridge T. Gerry Jr. and Peter, who preside over the Museum and Hall of Fame today, are investment bankers. Their father Elbridge Sr. ran this place as well, and with an iron hand. If the name sounds familiar, check it out on the Declaration of Independence. That Elbridge T. Gerry was the great-great-great grandfather of the brothers, and they are, as they should be, intensely proud of their lineage.

So, last weekend, I sat in the old grandstand, ate hot dogs and drank sodas, visited the stables and renewed old friendships, watched top trotters and pacers race around Historic’s half-mile track, and attended meetings of the Board of Trustees and Screening Committee that vets candidates for the Hall of Fame. Sunday night I sat down to dinner at tables on the lawn of the museum, with 300 or so others, and cheered as this year’s inductees were honored.

Then, buoyant and refreshed after my weekend in the past, I drove back to Newburgh as the sun rose Monday morning, boarded another American flight there, and returned to the west, leaving America as it used to be behind me.