The Downs : Though Harness Racing's Bustling Sights and Shrill Sounds Have All Faded, Sparkling Memories of the Sport Linger On

The memories are almost as faded as the whitewash on the old buildings. But for those who can still remember, who are able to fine-tune the pictures of yesteryear in their minds, there are visions of ribbon-decked grandstands, Sunday afternoon picnics, charging race horses and cheering crowds.

When thinking of those days at the Downs, some say they can recall the way the hoofs sounded as they pounded the track in the early-morning mist, the way the harness buggies squeaked as they circled the course, and the way the rich smells of alfalfa and popcorn and horses filled the air.

But all that actually remains from those days are a few scattered buildings and some stony, dusty acres of undeveloped land.

Forty years ago, long before there was a Cal State Northridge, when the West San Fernando Valley was inhabited mostly by truck farms and dotted by pioneer suburbanites, Devonshire Downs in Chatsworth was a training center and race track for many of the area's top horses, especially harness horses.

Every Sunday for about 20 years, horse trainers and racing fans crowded into the grandstand at 10001 Zelzah Ave. to witness the victories of such top horses as Dutch Harbor, a winner of $65,000 and 1952 Harness Horse of the Year; Wayzac, a $40,000-plus winner; Meadow Lesters, a top trotter, and All Star, who in 69 races was out of the money only three times.

Hollywood stalwarts such as James Cagney, Mae West, Jay Silverheels (Tonto) and Eddie Anderson (Rochester on Jack Benny's radio and television shows) owned race horses and came out to present trophies and awards. A host of local personalities--such as Maj. Harry Dornan (Rep. Robert Dornan's father), Roger Dalyum (original proprietor of Farmers' Market), Charles Dant (orchestra leader for Judy Canova and Dennis Day), and Tom Brenaman (owner of Sardi's restaurant and host of the "Breakfast in Hollywood" radio program)--also turned out to watch their equine charges race.

"In those days, harness racing was a rich man's hobby," said Bill Luther, who drove and trained at the Downs for about 20 years. "They had the money and owned and raced horses for fun and relaxation."

Today, harness racing is considered a sport for the blue-collars, not the bluebloods.

"Harness racing is now a sport the middle class can participate in," he added. "The wealthy go for the thoroughbreds and quarter horses. But, in the '40s and '50s, only the wealthy owned race horses."

Those days are gone, and with the passage of time, so are any traces of the racetrack at Devonshire Downs, which is the popular name for the 50-acre site north of Lassen Street.

The Matador football stadium stands on the spot where the half-mile racetrack and grandstand once were. Until a couple of years ago, converted barns were used as team locker rooms and exhibition halls. The stalls, which were once leased out to horsemen, were converted into storage areas.

The open fields where horses once galloped are still there, but plans are under way to build dormitories, a hotel and convention center, a 20,000-seat athletic stadium, a 1,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, a 2,050-seat auditorium, an art gallery and many other commercial and educational facilities there.

In 1943, Helen Dillman, a wealthy Valley resident, and Pete Spears, a horseman, purchased the 40-acre Devonshire Downs tract for $80,000. The land is now estimated to be worth $400,000 an acre--or about $20 million for the entire parcel. It is considered one of the most valuable pieces of undeveloped real estate in the Valley.

When Dillman and Spears bought the parcel from the Atwater family, however, most of the tract was just a stony and hilly parcel of land surrounded by orange orchards and walnut groves, and considered an unattractive prospect for development.

"Helen and Pete were the first ones into racing at the Downs, they started the whole thing," said Gertrude Mott Viraldo, whose family had harness horses at the Downs when it opened. "Pete had a horse ranch--long before Devonshire Downs started--in an area that's now known as Panorama City."

Gordon Van Avery, a former harness driver at the Downs added: "Pete was a little bit of a promoter. He trained saddle and show horses and brought them to the Downs. He drove harness horses and he always had something going. He promoted the Downs all the time."

When Dillman and Spears tried to build on the property in 1943, they discovered that the wartime government of President Roosevelt had put a moratorium on all but military construction. To dodge the red tape, they obtained a building permit by agreeing to construct several facilities on the site for the armed forces.

The Army used Devonshire Downs as a dispatch depot and warehouse for military supplies for the remainder of the war. During that time, Dillman and Spears also opened a sizable part of the property to horsemen, and it became a training and boarding center for standardbreds.

"The barn there wasn't a conventional one at all," Van Avery said. "I think they altered the old Army buildings in the interim and made a barn out of 'em."

Around 1945, a harness driving club, the San Fernando Valley Trotting Assn., was established. It attracted harness trainers and drivers throughout the state to the Downs.

Devonshire Downs, however, was more than just a place for horse training, workouts and races. In the nomadic world of horse racing, which kept families on the move from fairground to fairground every two to three weeks, Devonshire Downs became a home.

"During the off-season, we would spend several months there at a time. . . . It was a close-knit group of people," trainer Mary Luther said. "Everyone who lived and worked at Devonshire Downs was like a big family. Everyone knew everyone else.

"That doesn't mean we weren't competitive. We were. But, we still remained friends. In fact, over the last 40 years, Bill and I have kept friendships with a lot of the people who were at Devonshire Downs then. Most of these people we've known since we were little kids. It was a family affair."

Indeed, the Luthers and the Motts are examples of how inbred life at Downs was. Mary Luther, who was the third generation in her family to train standardbreds, grew up at the Downs and at one time had the distinction of being the youngest horse woman on the West Coast Circuit. Her father, Raymond Mott, was a harness trainer along with his father, George Mott, who trained harness horses for more than 50 years.

Mary's mother, Jean Mott, was the secretary for the Palomino Pony Registry, editor of Palomino Parade magazine and host of "The Old Horseman," a radio show on KGIL. Her sister, Gertrude, who, like Mary, grew up at the Downs, married John Viraldo, a harness horse owner.

And Mary, whose maiden name was Mary Louise Mott, met her husband of 31 years, Bill Luther, at Devonshire Downs. Bill Luther's step-father, Don Urquhart, was also a harness trainer.

The Motts and the Luthers were among the first families to set up stables at Devonshire Downs when Dillman and Spears made the property available to horsemen.

In the beginning, it was a modest operation, with only a few dozen stalls and half a dozen families. Within two years, though, it had grown substantially. There were 40 stalls, about 20 regular trainers and weekly races.

The weekly Sunday afternoon races, called matinees, began in 1946 when some of the harness drivers, tired of riding round and round the track on Sundays with stop watches in their hands, started to compete against each other.

"At that time, everyone in the family participated and it was fun," John Viraldo said. "Now, harness racing has become a business and that family aspect of it has disappeared."

Gradually, the matinees became popular; up to 600 spectators would gather along the rail to watch the trotters and pacers rush round the track, kicking up clouds of dust that settled on the bordering eucalyptus and pepper trees and shirt-sleeved sulky drivers.

"The matinees stand out most in my mind," Gertrude Viraldo said. "It was so fun and exciting. The atmosphere was very friendly, like one big family. Although the Valley wasn't real populated then, a lot of people showed up at the Downs, which was out in the middle of nowhere, just to watch the races."

The drivers didn't race for money in the matinees. Instead, they raced for trophies, ribbons or, more often, bags of horse feed. The betting, if any, was strictly private between owners and trainers, drivers and some of the spectators.

By 1946, the Downs had attracted many trainers, who established public stables. Henry Thomas, a well-known harness trainer who also worked at tracks on the Eastern seaboard, had some of the Down's most successful horses, including Harry Dornan's horse, Dutch Harbor.

Van Avery, who kept a stable of about 10 horses, trained and drove. He had Senator Horn, Worthy Jane, Pepper Bingen and Model Aire--probably one of the better known standardbreds at the Downs--among others.

Like many at the Downs, Van Avery was introduced to horse training through his family.

"My grandfather talked about it and my dad carried the dream with him always," Van Avery said. "When I bought my first horse, I paid $500 for him and promised the owner another $500 if the horse won anything."

The owner eventually got the other $500.

Urquhart and Luther established their stables at the Downs in 1946. Over the years, it varied from 10 to 25 horses, and when Mary joined Bill in training his horses, the couple broke away from Urquhart and established their own stable.

Some of the Luthers' better known pacers and trotters included Nita Axworthy, Sky Chief Dalyum, High Tone Woolen, Big Bo Counsel, Vesta Bengin, Kings Counsel and Hamilton, a highly-touted pacer.

In addition to driving the horses he trained, Bill also drove harness horses for his brother-in-law, John Viraldo. One of Viraldo's best horses was a trotter, Meadow Lester, who won eight straight races in 1959 at the Bay Meadows racetrack. Some of Viraldo's other horses were Mr. Victor, Mr. Perry, Miss Mint, Brave Hanover, Pensive Knight and Dempsey.

Viraldo, who has done everything from grooming to owning horses, was dedicated to his steeds. When he'd ship his horses by rail to the racetracks at Saratoga, Lexington or Arlington, or when he'd pack them in a van to travel the fair circuit, Viraldo would travel with them--right with them.

"I'd get in the rail cars or the back of the vans with them," he said. "I would watch them, take care of them. I really enjoyed it. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything."

Other owners and trainers, who came to the Downs in the mid-1940s, included Clyde and Kevin Tisher, George Lane, Barney and Eleanor Rubin (San Fernando Valley land developers), Herman Throne, Bill Vitile, Clifford Fox, Ruth and Dick McGonigle, Al and Marge Heiring, Bud DeWitt (part owner of Northridge Lumber Co.), and Tommy Lane.

"Most of the trainers there were pretty close," Van Avery said. "They were mostly regulars, who trained there all the time. There were not a lot of outsiders."

The Western Harness Racing Assn., which is now the governing body for harness racing in California, traces its roots to Devonshire Downs. The association held its first meeting there in 1946. Many of the early officers in Western Harness worked at the Downs.

On Nov. 2, 1947, under the backing of a group called the Southern California Horse Exhibitors, the Downs was also opened to quarter-horse racing. Under the direction of Albert D. Gianni, majority stockholder and president of Southern California Horse Exhibitors, a grandstand was built and concessions and accommodations for 20,000 persons and 4,000 automobiles were installed.

Gianni's group planned a weekly card of seven races: three sprints of 330-yards for quarter horses and four harness events. A new straightaway track was constructed for quarter horses, in addition to some renovation on the half-mile harness track, which was raised about 30-feet on end to accommodate the banks needed for the sulky races.

In 1948, the state announced it was buying what was then a 40-acre site for $140,000 as a permanent location for the 51st District Agricultural Fair. The primary function of the district, which encompassed most of the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, was to hold fairs and expositions.

The district's first general manager, Max Schonfeld, enjoyed horse racing; he added 60 horse stalls to the existing 40 and continued the weekly harness and quarter-horse races.

"Max was quite a character," said Andy Stodel, a former district manager. "He liked horses and could make a profit on anything. Max wanted to bring in pari-mutuel wagering, so he could make some money, but he found out he couldn't do it because it was against local ordinances. Instead, he built up the racetrack, added stalls and rented them out."

For more than 20 years, the annual San Fernando Valley Fair was held at the Downs, offering lavish exhibits of homemade jams and cakes, 4-H club projects, locally grown produce and livestock. There were rodeos and numerous horse competitions including a harness division, saddle division, thoroughbreds, quarter horses, jumpers, stock and cutting horses.

By 1959, a few thoroughbred races were tossed into the weekly programs of harness and quarter-horse events. Another driving club, called the Devonshire Downs Driving Club, had begun under the direction of president Barney Rubin.

When the 51st District was abolished later that year, however, the state Department of Finance assumed control of Devonshire Downs. Under the supervision of the Department of General Services, the stables in the three barns were rented out to individual horsemen and in the off-season, the Downs was home for more than 200 standardbreds.

In 1968, the Downs was the only remaining training track for harness horses in Los Angeles County. The track, however, had become rocky and disheveled, without enough money to pay maintenance crews to keep it in shape. Dirt, mud and dust covered the stable area and nearby exhibition halls. Its run-down appearance symbolized the approaching end of an era.

"It's quiet and not so colorful out there now," former Sen. Lou Cusanovich (R-Sherman Oaks) said at the time. "The excitement of weekly races and yearly fairs are gone."

And within a matter of a few years, so was the racetrack.

In 1971, Valley State College, which now owned some of the Devonshire Downs property, began studying modifications of the racetrack for possible use in college programs. The 22 1/2 acres that didn't yet belong to Valley State College split the old racetrack right down the middle, with 1,125 feet on 18000 Devonshire St. and 880 feet at 10001 Zelzah Ave.

A horse-owner association charged that the college was ousting its members from the Downs' stable and track facilities in favor of future commercial operations. The group circulated petitions throughout the area calling for reconsideration of the issue.

Yet, despite the efforts of the horsemen, removal of the race horses began in late April, 1971, and was completed within a couple of weeks. Officials said the removal was necessitated by economic conditions.

"The college didn't receive any state funds to support maintenance or property upkeep," said Charles A. Manley, Director of Facilities, Planning and Management. "It told us then that until such time as the college constructs exclusively educational facilities, it must pay for the area (upkeep) itself."

In stabling race horses, college officials said, they were losing money--as much as $30,000 a year. Moreover, officials claimed they had received numerous complaints that the track was not being maintained in a fashion comparable to Hollywood Park or Santa Anita--or even other fairground tracks. Furthermore, officials said, the Downs' stables had a high vacancy rate.

"The only reason there have been vacancies in the stables," said Wesley Fuller, president of the Horseowners' Council in 1971, "is that the Downs management didn't do the job it was supposed to. There once was a waiting list, but when maintenance people started directing all their energy toward operations at the front gate, such as the weekly swap meets, everything went to pot."

College officials countered with economic arguments. They said a consultant had been brought in who said it would cost about $49,000 to get the track in good condition and another $25,000 annually to maintain it. The Downs only grossed about $25,000 in the early '70s. The 101 horse stalls rented for a mere $22.50 a month each.

So, on May 3, 1971, the last race horse was removed from Devonshire Downs.

"After the college took over and built the Lassen dormitories," Bill Luther said, "we never went there again."

Those who did return found the Downs had changed considerably.

"I've driven by it in the last few years," Van Avery said. "And the area had changed so much, I couldn't believe it. There were so many buildings where there were once big, open fields and behind the fields, thoroughbred farms. I hardly recognized the place. I'm not even sure I could find it today.

"Poor old Pete Spears," Van Avery continued, remembering the man who had helped to start it all back in the early '40s. "You know, he would be turning over in his grave right now."

Why? At the thought of his racetrack and stables having been replaced by a college football stadium and dormitories?

"No," Van Avery said, laughing. "If he knew the land was now worth $20 million."

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