As a kid growing up in Arlington in the ‘80s, there were two things about my city that puzzled me: Why did my also-grew-up-in-Arlington parents sometimes refer to the highway near Arlington Stadium (the forerunner of today’s Globe Life Park) as “the turnpike” (and just what exactly was a turnpike, anyway?)—and also, why did they sometimes talk about “the old racetrack”, yet I never saw anything that looked like a racetrack when we drove around town?
As I got older, I figured out that the turnpike my folks were talking about referred to a now-vanished toll road that eventually became what we know today as the section of I-30 that runs through Arlington. That was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as unraveling the mystery of the old racetrack—better known as Arlington Downs—and my further discovery of Arlington’s secret past as a glamorous gambling destination.
Recently, as I was doing research on old Arlington cemeteries for another blog article, I discovered that the 89th anniversary of the birth of the racetrack was approaching. So in honor of one our city’s most interesting eras, let’s take a quick look at the story of Arlington’s famous racetrack:
Arlington Downs was the creation of Texas cattle rancher and oilman William T. Waggoner, who opened the facility on Nov. 1, 1929 on the site of Waggoner’s livestock farm, the Triple D. Sources indicate that the racing venue seated anywhere from 6,000 to 11,000 spectators and cost two or three million to build, which by my calculation translates into at least $35 million of today’s dollars. In other words, Arlington Downs was a pretty pricey project—particularly considering it was located in Arlington, which was then a small farming and cotton-ginning community.
Waggoner was a well-known racing enthusiast whose affinity for the business of gambling was authentic indeed. You see, at the time the track opened, pari-mutuel betting (the kind of betting that goes on at horse races) was in fact illegal in Texas, which meant that Waggoner had to position Arlington Downs as a venue for civic events and prize races—not a gambling destination— while simultaneously working furiously behind the scenes to lobby for a favorable change in state law. His gamble paid off when the Texas legislature legalized pari-mutuel in 1933, and over the next few years, Arlington Downs quickly became a top-tier gambling and racing hot spot, drawing thousands of visitors, famous jockeys, and thoroughbred horses from around the country—along with gangsters, celebrities and other colorful figures who flocked to town to gamble at both the legal racetrack and Arlington’s not-so-legal casino at Top O’ Hill Terrace. The track also played host to the Texas Derby, which was viewed as a premiere “tryout” race for the Kentucky Derby back in the day.
Sadly, the glory days of both Arlington Downs and Waggoner’s involvement in the project would prove short lived. The oilman succumbed to a stroke in 1934, only a year after he brought pari-mutuel wagering to Arlington. By 1937, less than 10 years after the track opened, state lawmakers did an about face and repealed pari-mutuel in Texas, effectively putting Arlington Downs out of business as a racing destination. The track was sold and converted into a rodeo and car racing venue for the next couple of decades before it was demolished to make way for development in the late 1950s.
How to experience Arlington Downs today:
The racetrack is gone, but you can still experience the history of Arlington Downs at one of my favorite place in Arlington, The Fielder Museum. Ask my friend Geraldine, the museum’s director, to share her stories and photos from the racetrack’s brief heyday.
You can also go see a historical marker on the site where the track once stood at 300 Six Flags Drive in the Arlington Entertainment District.
Lastly, check out Top O’ Hill Terrace. The former casino and the racetrack are puzzle-piece parts of an intriguing timeframe in Arlington’s past, and you can really connect with the feeling from that era when you take a Top O’ Hill tour.
Additional historical posts: