This Saturday (March 23) Yonkers Raceway will kick off the George Morton Levy Pacing Series. It is a prestigious event for Open side-wheelers that was initiated at Roosevelt Raceway in 1978.
The competition goes for six weeks, culminating with the$200,000 final (and consolation) on Saturday (April 27).
Whereas most people are cognizant of the series and many of the horses that have competed in it recently, I fear that many of those same individuals are unaware of the man the race was named for.
Simply put, George Morton Levy is the father of modern-day harness racing.
He was born in 1888 in Seaford, N.Y. After graduating from high school, he attended NYU, graduated at 20 and passed the state bar exams one year later. He then began a criminal law practice in Freeport, N.Y.
|Photo courtesy of the author|
|George Morton Levy, the namesake of Yonkers' G. M. Levy Pacing Series|
To say Levy was a colorful individual would be an understatement. He was never one to walk away from a cause he believed in and became known as a litigator who was hard to beat. It was his relentless will and vision that made him a key figure in the push to put pari-mutuel laws on the books in New York back in 1940 and open the way for the phenomenal growth the sport saw over the next several decades.
Levy believed that “if a thing is exciting, if it happens at night and if it moves, New Yorkers will bet on it." It was on that premise that Roosevelt Raceway was born. It started on the site of a former auto racing track that used to host the Vanderbilt Cup, near Roosevelt Field where Charles Lindbergh began his fabled solo flight to Paris in 1927. The property was first leased in 1939 by Levy and a group of investors and became known as the Old Country Trotting Association.
The group ponied up $125,000 to reconstruct the old auto track and grandstand and Roosevelt Raceway was born. Veteran Hambletonian secretary Al Saunders was hired to find enough horses to race and veteran announcer Clem McCarthy was in the booth.
The track opened on Sept. 2, 1940, with a crowd of 5,000 which bet a total of $40,742. When the first season ended, losses mounted to $51,685.
The next year, more track improvements were added and that pushed them $225,000 in the red. Financial instability would continue before Levy’s dream finally became a reality.
In 1957 a new 50-acre, $21 million racing plant was opened dubbed “The Dream Track” by many because it brought to life everything a racetrack could have been, and more. The new facility offered trackside dining for 1,700 patrons, parking facilities for 15,000 cars, an air-conditioned grandstand, a state-of-the-art tote board and room for up to 60,000 fans.
Levy was a pioneer in more ways than one. Besides introducing pari-mutuel harness racing under the lights, he also steered the sport away from "heat" racing in overnight events, was the first to use the mobile starting gate exclusively and instituted the "form sheet" program that clearly laid out the past performance of each horse.
Levy died in 1977 in Freeport, just six miles from where he was born and just a short drive down the Meadowbrook Parkway from Roosevelt Raceway. The first edition of the race to bear his name occurred the following year.
Although his frame was diminutive, his legend is grand. During his life he was described in many ways, but the best description was “winner”. Whether it was his law practice, his racing enterprise or his golf game, he always seemed to come out on top. It was that winning attitude that took a countryside pastime and made it a Gotham success.
Click here to watch New York pacing legend Skip By Night and Ted Wing defeat Miller’s Scout and Buddy Gilmour to win the 1982 edition of the Levy, as described through the dulcet tones of Jack E. Lee.
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