MAYS LANDING - Atlantic City Race Course president Maureen Bugdon remembered climbing up a ladder on the infield last spring and gazing out at more than 11,000 fans who had shown up for Family Day at the races.
"I got all teary-eyed seeing the crowd," Bugdon said Wednesday. "There were grandparents and parents watching with their grandchildren and children. It was just a tremendous atmosphere. I know horse racing is ultimately all about gambling, but there's also a beauty and pagentry involved with this course. That's what made me fall in love with this place over 25 years ago."
That atmosphere will be back again this year. Today marks the start of ACRC's only live racing of 2013, a six-day meet that will be stretched over seven days. Races will be held at 3:30 p.m. starting today through Sunday. The track will not have live racing Monday. It will return Tuesday and Wednesday.
The meet will conclude with the seventh running of the $50,000 Tony Gatto Dream Big Stakes race. The event is named after the late Tony Gatto, who was the beloved superintendent at the course for 35 years.
In order to accomodate the large crowds, ACRC has added a new betting pavilion by the paddock, more concession stands, a full-service bar in the beer garden with high-topped tables, and a new picnic area with umbrellas and tables. The landscaping also has been spruced up.
Most significantly, ACRC created a "Wall of Fame" inside that features pictures from the track's heydey, when it drew 30,000 fans on a nightly basis. The black-and-white photos feature celebrities and dignitaries such as Princess Grace, Princess Caroline, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Willie Mays and Ed McMahon.
Last year, the track drew 11,050 on Sunday - its largest crowd in 25 years.
"We're expecting big crowds again this year," Bugdon said. "We're very excited."
This marks the 67th straight year of live racing at ACRC, but the track has not hosted a full slate of races since 1998. This will be the 12th straight year that ACRC has staged "boutique" meets.
There are 37 races scheduled over six days and an average of 11 horses are entered per race. As in previous years, every race will be conducted on ACRC's mile-long turf course, which is still regarded among the best in the country.
Much of the credit belongs to John Hess, a 63-year-old Absecon resident who is regarded at the track as the "turf czar."
Hess, who has been at ACRC for more than 20 years, spent most of Wednesday perched atop a tractor, which he used to mow the turf in preparation for today's races. Hess took over control of the turf course 14 years ago and does not let anyone else mow it.
During the live meet, the grass is kept between eight and nine inches, about four inches higher than the turf at most other tracks. It's a blend of tall fescue, rye and Kentucky Bluegrass. The seed is called "ACRC Mix" and is regarded as a well-kept secret.
"I've gotten a lot of compliments from jockeys and others over the years and that means a lot to me," Hess said during one of his rare breaks Wednesday. "It makes me at least know that I'm doing my job."
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