Jockey Tony Black rode his first winner nearly 50 years ago on a long shot whose name has come to symbolize his career: Stand By Me.
He raced his first mount with 52-1 odds on June 15, 1970, at Liberty Bell Park. The young jockey landed in the winner’s circle in his maiden race.
Now Black, 66, wants two more victories before he retires — again. He wants to wrap up a stellar thoroughbred racing career with 5,210 first-place finishes. He says the time has come to yield to younger jockeys who ride faster and bounce back quicker from injuries.
“That I promise you. That’s it,” Black said.
Black, one of the winningest riders in the business, returned last week to his onetime stomping grounds in Cherry Hill at the old Garden State Park site where horse racing once reigned with such legendary horses as Citation and Secretariat and thousands of fans packed the grandstand.
The racetrack closed in 2001 and since then developers have transformed the sprawling tract of hundreds of acres into a bustling retail and housing complex with chain stores, restaurants, and a retirement village. All that remains is a piece of a gatehouse that sits on Route 70 at the entrance to the shopping center.
“It was amazing what racing was in this area,” Black recalled. “For guys like me, the memories will never go away.”
Garden State Park, built by the flamboyant South Jersey car dealer Eugene Mori, opened in 1942. It thrived for years with racing events such as Jersey Derby Day in June 1960 drawing 50,000 fans who bet $4 million. But then came the rise of legalized gambling and televised sports, which became more appealing to bettors.
On April 14,1977, a fire spread quickly through the clubhouse and grandstand. Black, who won the last race before the fire, and other riders were galloping around the track when they noticed smoke. They thought it was a minor kitchen fire and continued racing.
Back in the jockeys’ room, the riders soon realized the fire was raging out of control. They escaped by climbing out a third-floor window and hopping down a descending series of rooftops to the ground. Still wearing their jockey silks, they went to a Holiday Inn across Route 70 and ordered drinks.
“We never thought the place was going to go up in total destruction,” Black said.
The track was destroyed and the property sat vacant until 1982, when businessman Robert E. Brennan spent $170 million to rebuild Garden State as a glitzy horse-racing palace with seven stories and 17 restaurants. While it was flashy and state-of-the-art, it lacked the charm of the old track, Black said.
Black shared memories of Garden State during an event Thursday to mark the latest chapter for the 220-acre site: sleek apartment buildings for 55 and over that are under construction on the grounds. The community of retail, restaurants, and more has been open since 2007 and a new developer recently completed a clubhouse. Currently, 60 apartments are open and 30 more will be available by the end of the month. The Plaza Grande at Garden State Park complex eventually will have 608 units and include condos, said project associate Andy Kaplin.
The streets in the complex are named after famous horses that raced at Garden State. For a few hours Thursday, there was a horse on the property, a retired thoroughbred brought in from a Chester County horse farm. The horse was placed in a gated dog park, where he preferred to munch on freshly installed sod instead of a bale of hay.
“We tried to carry it on because everybody knew the Garden State Park,” said developer John Fasciano, of Tristate Ventures, L.P. “People will relate to it.”
Black, dressed in his jockey silks, welcomed the chance to get atop JW Coop, who was retired in 2016 after a disappointing career with only one win in a dozen races at Parx Racing in Bensalem. Black trotted around the park before dismounting with his signature move — a split.
“It feels just like riding a bike. They say you never forget how to do it,” he said.
Black grew up in Haddon Township and worked at Garden State Park as a stable hand and exercise rider while in high school. His uncle raced there during the 1960s and Black, who is 4-foot-11 and 98 pounds, was eager to carry on the family tradition. His brother, Nick, is a track official at Parx, where Tony Black still races today.
“He would come to the track every morning,” recalled longtime friend Kate Delano Condax-Decker, who worked at Garden State as an exerciser because women were barred back then from racing as jockeys.
Black skipped his high school graduation because his maiden race was scheduled at Liberty Bell Park, now the site of Franklin Mills Mall. The race got scratched and Black made his debut a few days later on Stand By Me.
Black says he believes it was no coincidence that he rode that horse on that day. Over the years, he has been tossed and thrown more times than he can count, suffered broken bones and injuries, and battled back from a drug and alcohol addiction that almost ruined his career.
“It takes a lot of people to stand by me to keep me in this business,” said Black, who is married and the father of four. “I survived a really tough business.”
Black raced around the country, setting records. In 1993, he tied a 1930 record by winning nine consecutive races over two days at Philadelphia Park and Atlantic City Race Course. He has had 33,940 starts and his earnings total more than $63.1 million, making him 105th in all-time leaders, according to Equibase, the industry’s official information site. He raced in the Preakness and two Kentucky Derbies, coming in fourth on Classic Go Go in the 1981 Run for the Roses.
Kelsey Parisi, a horse trainer from Cochranville, Chester County, who transported JW Coop to Cherry Hill, said Black mentored countless jockeys. “He’s a hall of fame jockey, a very personable guy.”
Black called it quits in 2013 after racking up his 5,200th win. But he was lured back into the saddle by an owner who tempted him to race again. He has picked up eight first-place finishes since then. After two more victories, he plans to stay active as a trainer and working with his son, Tony, who owns horses.
“I’m well past the age of retiring as a jockey,” Black said. ” It’s been an interesting career.”