Decades after the last horse crossed the finish line, Pownal is haunted by an old racetrack
Jim Winchester turned his white pickup truck off Route 7, drove across the railroad tracks, and pulled into a big, flat field, the site of a former horse racing track.
“So all this property is hot-topped,” Winchester said to me, sitting in the passenger seat. “On the right here is solar panels, on the left is the Hoosic River.”
Winchester came to town when the track opened in 1963, to work the starting gate.
Today, the parking lots are completely covered by grass and small trees. In the middle of the field is the grandstand. It was gutted by a fire two years ago, and its metal bones loom above the wasteland of overgrown pavement. We look at it through the windshield.
“This area here was a kitchen,” Jim said, pointing. “Harry Stevens was a concessionaire here. They sold pizzas. They sold beer. They sold everything you want to sell, hotdogs, hamburgs. And then the top — the top was a clubhouse.”
In a lot of small towns in Vermont, the signs of bygone eras are subtle. You might drive past the empty parking lot of a once-bustling restaurant. Or a brick apartment building that used to be a factory. Or a church that hasn’t seen a congregation in years. These are small clues that suggest a time when things weren’t necessarily better, but they sure were different.
Here in Pownal, there’s a hulking ruin. Or, as Jim Winchester put it: “It’s a goddamn dinosaur.”
Pownal is a small town in the southwestern-most corner of Vermont, touching New York and Massachusetts. About 3,500 people live there, and the population has remained stagnant for decades. The town has the eighth highest unemployment rate in the state. It takes about 10 minutes to drive through it on Route 7, and on the way you’ll see a couple motels, a few stores, and a Dollar General.
But in the 60s, there was the racetrack. "Oh, boy," Winchester said. "The heyday of the track was good. It was good, it was good. Racing was good, everything was good."
A small corner of Vermont might seem like an odd place to build a racetrack, and it kind of is. But in those days, horse racing was one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Vermont lawmakers saw the kind of tax revenue a racetrack could bring, and in 1961, they legalized gambling on horse racing.
(As Sports Illustrated put it in a headline, “VERMONT HAD TO TURN TO THE TRACK WHEN IT DISCOVERED THAT YOU CAN'T SUPPORT A STATE ON MAPLE SYRUP.”)
Pownal opted in. Their textile mills and tannery and limestone quarries were either gone or on the decline, and the town was as close as possible to wealthy gamblers from out of state. Pretty much right away, some guys from New Hampshire and Massachusetts came and bought 144 acres. They built a racetrack and a grandstand and huge parking lots.
But it was made by outsiders, for outsiders, and feelings among the locals were mixed at first.
Jockey Kenneth Pruden came to town in 1963, the year the racetrack opened.
“Everybody thought the racetrackers were coming in to ruin Vermont. [They thought] we were going to have prostitutes, we were going to have gamblers, we were going to have shoot-outs and I don't know what-all,” Pruden said.
But before long, locals warmed up to the racetrack. It brought jobs and an increase in tax revenues. School teachers worked in the windows selling tickets. Farmers brought in hay from the hills. To get more business, they even started having races on Sundays — which was a big deal at the time.
“At some point, I think almost everybody in my family worked at the track,” said Sue Caraman, who was 12 when the racetrack opened. Her dad worked security there, and her mom worked in the cafeteria. Her brother was a valet for a jockey, and her sisters had jobs in the clubhouse. When Sue was 17, she started walking horses for a trainer. She loved it.
"I still love horses," Caraman said.
At the track, she would walk around and listen to the clip-clop of horses' shoes, and smell the dusty smells of hay and manure and grain.
Meanwhile, jockeys like Ken Pruden would get dressed, meet their horses in the paddock, and make their way to the starting gate.
Jim Winchester would head over there too. On his way, he’d look at the people talking in the grandstand. Wiseguys smoking cigars, locals in shorts and T-shirts. What he loved most was how many kinds of people came to the races.
“Millionaires own horses. A guy's got holes in his shoes. It's a blending of people. It’s the greatest industry in the world, as far as coming together with rich and poor, and somewhere finding a middle,” Winchester said.
The crowd would get quiet when he began to load the horses into the starting gate.
“Everybody's got a sweaty ticket in their hand. The fans are tense, you're loading the horses. There’s a lot of screaming. Jockeys scream, ‘No, no, no, no chance, no boss, no, no, no,’ you know,” he recalled. “And then you press the button, and they're off.”
As far as race tracks go, Pownal’s was minor, and never wildly successful. Still, it ran, and so long as it ran, the town revolved around it.
But soon, other tracks started to have Sunday races, and the gambling scene changed. In 1973, Pownal’s track was sold to new owners who downgraded it to greyhound racing. The track got quiet.
“Nobody had to saddle a dog or anything,” said Sue Caraman, who went from walking horses to working as a teller in the betting window. “They just let them out and let them run. And they were very quick. They were very quick races.”
The dog racing continued until the early 90s, when the track closed entirely. Then Pownal itself got quiet.
“[There’s] a lot less traffic, a lot less business, a lot less income,” Caraman said. “A lot of people lost jobs when the track closed. And I don't think that ever got really replaced.”
That wasn’t for lack of trying.
After the track closed, a local businessman named John Tietgens bought it at auction for a stunningly low bid. He tried and failed to revive horse racing, and even went in with a developer from Las Vegas to propose a casino. There were occasional events, like car shows, and in 1996, a Lollapalooza concert where Metallica was the headliner.
But those petered out. By the time Tietgens sold the property, his family says he was glad to get it off his hands.
Developers floated all kinds of ideas over the years. Things like a housing site, a biomass plant, a business center, renewable energy projects. Some solar panels materialized, but for one reason or another, nothing else ever happened.
Today, the property is owned by an entity called Green Mountain Race Track, LLC. The group’s managing partner, Stephen Soler, did not respond to interview requests.
In September 2020, there was a fire in the grandstand that police called suspicious. The building was a total loss.
“They tore all the windows out, the front part of the building burned,” said Ken Pruden, who you can still find in Pownal these days. He has a thick blue binder full of photos from his time as a jockey.
Sue Caraman is also still in Pownal. When she drives up on the back roads, she can look out and see the burnt-out shell of the grandstand, sitting in the middle of a field.
“I think it's very sad that the track’s not here anymore. And there's nothing down there. You know, if they had done something else with it, but there's nothing there,” she said.
There wasn’t much to Pownal before the racetrack came, and there hasn’t been much since. Whatever skepticism it was met with at first has long been replaced by a gaping sense of something that used to be — a time when tax revenues were up, when there were jobs in town, and when all kinds of people from all over the place came to watch the horses run on a Sunday afternoon.
And despite the decades of failed development attempts, people in Pownal insist that something could happen at the old racetrack.
“Anybody with any plan, anybody with any intelligence knows what to do with it. I don't. But someone does,” Jim Winchester said.
He left the track after it shifted to dogs, and he and his wife Nell opened a store across the road in 1979. They sell sandwiches, beer, and cigarettes. He’s 86 years old now, and still works there. He sees the abandoned racetrack almost every day.
Winchester is convinced that all it would take to revitalize Pownal is the right person, the right plan, and the racetrack.
“It's a diamond in the rough,” he said. “But someday it'll happen. Probably not my lifetime.”
As the racetrack slowly deteriorated over the past several decades, Winchester became its unofficial historian. His store is something of a museum — there are photographs on the wall, showing scenes from the track. In the back room he has old programs, and a book full of yellowing newspaper clippings. You’ll see them if you go and visit.
Winchester can tell you anything about the property — except what’s going to happen next.