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Who came up with downs?
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - by Tim Bojarski

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Did you ever wonder how racetracks got their names?

For the most part, the first half of most track names are self-explanatory. A moniker taken after a city or local landmark is common practice for just about any venue.

But what about the last part like downs, course, park, or raceway? The etymology of these terms is interesting and deep-rooted.
 
The term downs comes from Great Britain and Ireland where around the year 1500, horse races were held on grassy plains before formal race tracks were built. These grassy areas were known as downs. Later, after real tracks were constructed (usually on the same sites) they named the track and kept the downs in the name. Probably the most famous track there was Epsom Downs which originated around 1661 and became famous for the big race they started known as “The Derby." 
 
There was a lot of influence from the racing scene in Europe leading up to the formation of the most famous track in the U.S. (Churchill Downs) when it opened in 1875 and undoubtedly the track name and race at Epsom had some impact too. By the way, The Derby was named after the 12th Earl of Derby, who won a coin toss with Sir Charles Bunbury for naming rights. Just think, if it came out tails, the race on the first Saturday of May might be called the Kentucky Bunbury now!
 
Oddly enough it seems that over the years, the term downs has been more closely related to harness tracks than Thoroughbred. I have 14 current on my short list including Batavia, Colonial, Dover, Flamboro, Fraser, Georgian, Indiana, Kawartha, Northville, Scarborough, Scioto, Sudbury, Tioga and Vernon
 
The term "course" started long ago because (once again) before formal tracks were built, the path a race was supposed to follow was laid out with markers. These courses were not always oval; in fact many times they were horseshoe-shaped. So it’s fairly easy to understand the root of that one. Saratoga Race Course is one of a handful of tracks that still use this description in North America today, although it is still quite commonly used in Australia and England.
 
"Park" is another easy one to figure out because in the 1800s most horse tracks were built in and around parks that offered other leisure time activities such as baseball, tennis and swimming. So for instance, if there was a recreational center named Ideal Park, and a racetrack was built in or near it, the track would simply take on the same name. One exception would be some locations added the word “driving” before park. There are plenty of tracks from both breeds that utilize park in their name today.
 
Finally, "raceway" is another commonly used name for harness tracks and it most likely goes back to the Harlem River Speedway track near Highbridge Park in New York City in the 1890s. It started out as a 2-1/2-mile long smooth driving lane along the river that attracted gentlemen with fine horses who would come out to impress their ladies with their steeds' speed. Early on sulkies were not permitted, but eventually they did turn up and (as boys will be boys) challenges started to take place. So it turned the speedway into a raceway and that term has certainly stuck with the trotters through the years.


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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.


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Hoof Beats Magazine The forum of Hoof Beats bloggers, featuring some of the best writers in harness racing: New York writer Tim Bojarski, handicapper Frank Cotolo, Tom LaMarra, Harness Racing Communications’ Ellen Harvey and Ken Weingartner, and Hoof Beats’ T.J. Burkett.
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