If you ask most people to name the first three things that come to mind when you mention Nashville, I would venture to guess the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame might top the list. But any mention of a harness track would probably not come up.
|Photos courtesy of the author|
|A postcard of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, which first held harness racing in 1906.|
The Volunteer State does not come to mind when discussing harness racing nowadays; however, Tennessee has a long and storied history--not only with Standardbreds, but with many breeds over the last 200 years. In fact, it was held in higher esteem than Kentucky when it came to Thoroughbreds until after the Civil War, which depleted its breeding farms to assist the cavalry.
The earliest track in the state goes back to 1805, pre-dating Goshen, N.Y., and was established by the future president of the United States, Andrew Jackson. The Nashville Race Track was located on the bend of the Cumberland River at Clover Bottom, in an area known today as MetroCenter.
|The Tennessee State Fair grandstand, which could hold 7,000 people.|
As interest in racing grew, more tracks hit the scene in and around the city. Probably the longest operational and one of the most famous harness tracks was located on what would become the site of the Tennessee State Fair, just a few miles south of Clover Bottom.
Originally known as Cumberland Park, the track opened in 1891 and was located just one mile south of the city. It was built specifically as a harness track and boasted an ornate grandstand that could hold 7,000 people. The first state fair was held in 1906 and harness racing was a prominent draw of the event. The trotters were a fixture at that track until the late 1950s, when a deal with the car racers (who frequently used the track) was reached to convert it to an auto-only venue.
With the growth in popularity of that sport in the south at the time, it was converted to a half-mile paved oval in 1958 when it began to be a NASCAR series track.
|Edward "Pop" Geers, a Tennessee native that pioneered the "bike-wheel" sulky.|
In 1965 the grandstand and several other fairgrounds buildings were destroyed by fire. A new grandstand was built and later the speedway was lengthened after the 1969 season. It is now called Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville and is a major stop for several classes of car racing.
So where most ghost tracks are no longer there at all, this one is still active for cars, on the same site where many early Standardbred stars once competed.
Probably the most historically relevant star who is closely associated with the state was Ed “Pop” Geers.
Geers was born in Lebanon, Tenn., which is about 32 miles east of Nashville. He came to Nashville in 1874 to work the stables for John Harding at Belle Meade Plantation. He eventually found his way onto the Grand Circuit and trained the horses of C. J. Hamlin and Village Farm in Buffalo, N.Y., for many years at the turn of the 20th century. When that farm dispersed, he went back to his home state and settled in Memphis.
|The harness track is now Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, which hosts several classes of auto racing.|
His career would eventually make history in the sport for several reasons. Geers was the first man to use a pneumatic “bike-wheel” sulky, breaking away from the wooden high-wheeled carts that had been used up to that time. He was the first man to break the 2:00 barrier with a pacer named Napoleon Direct (1:59 ¾). And he won thousands, in excess of $1 million lifetime and held world trotting records at a mile, 2 miles, 3 miles, other distances and several pacing records. His charges included equine nobility like Mattie Hunter, Hal Pointer, Brown Hal, Star Pointer, Nightingale, St. Frisco, The Harvester, Anvil, Dudie Archdale, The Abbott and Little Brown Jug.
Geers died on the track in a racing accident at the age of 73 during “Pop” Geers Day at Wheeling, W.V. His horse went down and he suffered a fractured skull after being trampled. He gained consciousness briefly and said “I had a fall,” then closed his eyes and died.
“The quiet man from Tennessee”, Edward Geers, exemplified the quality of horsemen that had come out of that state and raced so many times at ovals like Cumberland Park; the most notable ghost track in the state.
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