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Far From Belmont: In Shrub Oak the Ponies Did Run

When people think of harness racing in the area today, Yonkers Raceway is what probably comes to mind first.

However, back at about the turn of the century, a time when Yonkers was first opening for business, Shrub Oak already had a track of its own.

Located where the Taconic Parkway now intersects with Route 6, the track attracted farmers from the area who wanted to prove they had the fastest horse by competing in "amateur" races. Horses from the more established tracks of Syracuse, Hartford and Goshen also competed in professional races in Shrub Oak that matched them with competition of their caliber.

The track, a regulation half-mile oval built in 1890, was the idea of Charles W. Carpenter. He was a horse breeder and owner of Sunnyside Farms, which housed between 20 and 30 broodmares along with some colts and was located across the road (now 6) from the track.

According to Yorktown historian Doris Auser, it was believed Carpenter, who had acquired the 212-acre estate some years earlier from a John Conklin, built the track to exercise and train some of his own stock. Carpenter housed his horses in about a dozen barns and stables on his property.

Written accounts say oxen were used to drag stone to help level the land when constructing the track.

With a large horse population in the area in the late 19th-century before the advent of the automobile, farmers challenged each other with their horses and were allowed to use Carpenter's track.

By 1896, the track was a popular place to visit for area residents. Races were held on Saturday afternoons with a carnival-type atmosphere. The programs were known as the Matinee Club because no purse money was offered. It is not known if the races were held more often than once a week.

It is known that no official wagering occurred on the races. At other tracks during that time before the start of pari-mutuel betting, bookies were allowed to set up shop and patrons could look for the best price on the horse they wanted to play.

The only betting done at the local track, however, was done illegally, Auser said. Farmers would bet perhaps $5, challenging another horseman as to which animal would be faster. Other spectators may also have wagered with one another on the outcome of the races, she noted.

During the height of the track's popularity, which peaked between 1896 and 1912, a grandstand was built to accommodate judges and dignitaries. Other spectators would line the road or climb up on embankments to try to view the event.

Shrub Oak resident Elizabeth Anderson, who moved to the area when she was about 15, noted recently that she vaguely remembered the track and said many people today would probably never believe there was a track at the site.

"People didn't go to the track like they would go to Belmont today or anything like that," she said, adding in the track's latter years competitive racing was gone and horses from Sunnyside and other farms would merely train in the mornings or late afternoons, sometime racing against each other.

According to press clippings, during its hay-day, the half-mile track saw mile races average about two and a half minutes, well above today's standard of about two minutes or slightly less on same-sized tracks.

Auser linked the decline of the track with the surge in automobile use, which meant fewer horses in the area.

Construction of the Taconic State Parkway finally brought an end to the track in the mid-1920's.

Just before the time of Carpenter's death in 1925, Dr. John C. Bohrer, a New York City surgeon purchased Sunnyside Farm. However, shortly after the purchase, the new parkway ran right through the property, not only eliminating the track but reducing the farm to 150 acres.

Elizabeth Vario, Bohrer's daughter who lives in Chappaqua today, said she had fond memories of the area, to which she moved along with her parents when she was about 14.

"Way back when my parents had the farm, Shrub Oak was very provincial," said Vario, whose mother worked for Carpenter for 13 years.  "Even though it was only 48 miles from New York City, it was like another world. It was real honest to goodness country."

Vario said she recalled a sliding gate on rollers to accommodate the horses who were starting a race.

Although originally from New York City, John Bohrer bought the farm, whose name he changed to Stone Ridge, because he enjoyed the rural environment and he had a sense about farming, Vario said. She explained some of the natives in Shrub Oak at the time were not happy that a man from the city would come in and buy such a prominent property.

But "he was a very, very, wise man about the land, animals and farming," she said.  

Still, as the years progressed, troubles began to plague the property. In the late 1940's, Vario said, someone set fire to the stable, destroying part of a barn.

Later, construction of Route 6 went through part of the remaining property. The property was sold in 1969, following the death of Vario's mother, and the house was converted into an antique shop for a while.

Today, nothing stands on the remaining portion of the property that is not highway, Vario said.  Except to visit friends, she no longer cares to visit the area, she said, because the building of Route 6 put an end to the farm that was the site of so many family memories.

"It just broke my heart," said Vario.

Source: Martin Wilbur, North County News, June 22 - 28, 1988, Bicentennial Section 1788-1988

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