Today marks the 70th anniversary of harness racing at Rosecroft Raceway!
By Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the May 2019 Equiery)
Nicknamed the “Raceway by the Beltway” for its close proximity to Interstate 495, Rosecroft Raceway has been home to top class harness racing since 1949. Built by Standardbred breeder, driver and trainer William E. Miller, the facility cost $800,000 to build and was originally the WE Miller Stables next to the Rosecroft Stock Farm. The track, located in Fort Washington in Prince George’s County, quickly became a gathering place for politicians and socialites.
At the time, The Washington Post estimated a crowd of 12,000 attended Rosecroft’s opening day on May 26, 1949. Sadly, rain throughout the day forced the cancellation of the races. The track’s first night of racing was May 27, 1949, and boasted a crowd of around 6,000. In addition to live racing, Rosecroft held an annual yearling sale during those early years.
By hosting the Maryland Sire Stake Races, aimed at promoting the best of Maryland-bred Standardbreds, harness racing trainers, owners and breeders started flocking to Maryland. Rosecroft quickly became the harness track in Maryland and by the 1950s, saw attendance at some race days at almost 200,000. The Maryland Sire Stakes is still run to this day.
Born in 1876, Miller drove in his first harness race in 1907 at Brightwood Track near Washington, D.C. His love of the sport led to a 50-year career as he raced on the Grand Circuit, county fair meets and pari-mutuel tracks in Maryland and Delaware. He was 70 years old when the Universal Driver’s Rating System named him the nation’s leading driver. He was the first amateur driver to hold that title. At his farm in Fort Washington, Miller produced such top horses as Henry Volo, Pioneer Hanover, Mary Ellen and Hillsota. He died of a heart attack while driving in a race in Delaware in 1954. Miller was elected into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame as an Immortal in 1976.
After Miller’s death, his son John W. Miller took over as Rosecroft’s owner. He retained ownership until his death in 1969. The next in Rosecroft’s line of owners was Earle Brown, who ended up moving into a different position at the track in 1980 when William E. Miller II, William E. Miller’s grandson, took over operations.
Real estate agent Mark Vogel purchased Rosecroft and Ocean Downs in 1987 for $6 million in cash and $5.5 million in debt. In 1989, Vogel bought Freestate Raceway, a third harness track in Maryland but sold it to developers the following year. Vogel was successful in getting the state to grant Rosecroft year-round racing. However, by showcasing races all year long, the excitement of Rosecroft seemed to fade and with it, attendance. Vogel was arrested in September 1990 for possession of cocaine and his company filed for bankruptcy protection.
In 1991, a bidding war for the track was underway between California based businessman Fred Weisman and former NFL player Mark May. Weisman out-bid May and purchased Rosecroft out of bankruptcy for $18.2 million. That same year, on November 23, the grandstand caught fire. A new grandstand was completed by 1993 and cost $3.6 million to construct.
Under Weisman’s guidance, Rosecroft attendance and handle began to rise. In just the first year with Weisman as owner, Rosecroft’s attendance saw an increase of 8.3% and the handle increased by 10.5%.
Weisman died of pancreatic cancer in September of 1994 and the track fell in the hands of his family who were uninterested in being track owners. Cloverleaf Enterprises, a horsemen’s organization, purchased both Rosecroft and Ocean Downs mid-way through the 1995 season for $11 million. Cloverleaf accepted a $10 million loan from Bally Entertainment with the hope that a casino would be allowed at Rosecroft.
Casinos at nearby Delaware tracks were quickly pulling owners and spectators away from Maryland tracks. Rosecroft’s heyday seemed to have faded while its supporters continued to lobby for slots and/or table games During the early 2000s, Cloverleaf tried to sell the track several times. Lawsuits over simulcasting rights scared away several potential buyers. By the time the lawsuits were resolved in 2006, only Penn National Gaming was still interested in the track.
Maryland passed a slots bill the following year but Rosecroft was not one of the locations granted a slots permit. Penn National pulled out from buying the track. Cloverleaf suspended live racing at Rosecroft in 2009 and officially closed the track on July 1, 2010, after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Penn National came back into the picture in January 2011 when it bought Rosecroft for $10.25 million. The plan was to push for table games and a casino but the necessary enabling legislation failed. Penn National was able to reopen Rosecroft for simulcasting in August 2011 and the next year, live racing returned to Rosecroft.
The track was then sold to The Stronach Group in May 2016 for an undisclosed amount. By purchasing Rosecroft, The Stronach Group added a harness track to its Maryland Thoroughbred tracks at Pimlico and Laurel.
The William E. Miller Memorial race was created to honor Rosecroft’s founder and has attracted such notable horses as Cam’s Card Shark, the 1994 Horse of the Year.
During Miller II’s ownership, Rosecroft was awarded one of the inaugural Breeders Crown races. The Breeders Crown was a series of traveling races aimed at showcasing the best 2-year-old and 3-year-old horses in North America and Canada. Rosecroft hosted the 2-Year-Old Pace of the 1985 Breeders Crown, won by Robust Hanover. Rosecroft continued to host Breeders Crown races for the next five years.
During Vogel’s last year as owner, the Messenger Stakes came to Rosecroft. Part of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Pacers, it was run every year until 1994. Highlights include Western Hanover winning the Messenger Stakes in 1992. He went on to be the richest horse of the year and won two out of the three Triple Crown races that year and was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2002.
With the closure of Freestate Raceway, the prestigious Potomac Stakes found a new home at Rosecroft. The race generated $1 million plus handles on several occasions. However, in 1993, Rosecroft officials decided to suspend running the Potomac Stakes, along with the Lady Baltimore, The Terrapin, The Turtle Dove and The North American because decreasing handles made it difficult to cover the purses for these races. The Potomac Stakes, renamed the Potomac Pace, made a triumphant return to Rosecroft in 2015 and has been run every year since.
Through Rosecroft’s 70 years of harness racing, several top pacers and trotters have been seen on the historic track. Current track records are held by trotter I Like My Boss and pacers All Bets Off and Nuclear Breeze.
I Like My Boss, owned by V. Kirby, set the all-age trot record at 1:53:3 on October 22, 2017. On July 9, 2007, J. Morand’s Nuclear Breeze set the track record for all-age pace at 1:48:2. Nearly ten years later, All Bets Off, owned by M. Kakaley, matched that record on November 22, 2016.
From its beginning with Hall of Famer William E. Miller, Rosecroft has been the home of many champion horsemen, and this year’s 70th anniversary is no exception.
Frank Milby of Easton is looking to secure his third consecutive driving title at Rosecroft this year. During last year’s fall meet, Milby earned 46 wins, just two wins ahead of Russell Foster. Foster, also from Easton, is looking to take that top spot this season. Foster was the co-leading driver for the 2016 Rosecroft Spring Meet.
As of March of this year, it is Jonathan Roberts of Clinton who had a two win advantage over Milby! Roberts holds multiple driving titles at Rosecroft and currently has logged over 3,000 career wins. Fellow driver and sister Megan Roberts earned her first training win at Rosecroft on November 17, 2016.
Timmy Offutt of Frederick started driving when he was just 17, which is not unusual in the harness world. Since then, he has secured nearly $2 million in earnings as a driver and is getting close to reaching the 600 career wins mark.
After working his way up and down the East Coast circuit, Kenny Scholtzhauer of Easton has put down roots at Rosecroft and has earned multiple Trainer of the Meet honors. He also received a Secretary’s Citation from Maryland Department of Agriculture in 2015.
Born in Sweden, international driver Henrik Lundell is now at Rosecroft after learning the harness racing trade in Sweden, France and Italy. He moved to the U.S. in 2004.