This is the first part of a six-part series counting down to the 2016 NHL Winter Classic. These are tidbits you might not know about the game site (Gillette Stadium), the culture of its primary tenant (New England Patriots), or the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry itself.
Before Gillette Stadium was built, or its predecessor, Foxboro Stadium, the site where the 2016 Winter Classic will be held began its life as a horse racing track. In 1947, movie theater magnate Elias (E.M.) Loew, horseman and race promoter Paul Bowser, and racing secretary Ed Keller opened Bay State Raceway on September 1, 1947. It was built equidistant between the cities of Boston and Providence on U.S. Highway 1. 12,000 people attended the first night of racing and the track’s $55,523 handle broke the record for a new track on its first day of operation. The harness racing track it featured many modern amenities, including lights for night racing. However, some of the barns and buildings were still not completed. Those were finished in time for the Spring meet in 1948. Many people might remember the big neon billboard on Highway 1 outside the track that had the horse’s legs moving and the carriage wheels turning and the harness drivers’ arm moving the whip. The welcome sign was there for years to greet race fans that often times numbered over 10,000 a night. The all-time handle at Bay State Raceway was $737,838 in 1969, and its most attended race day came when 16,006 patrons gathered there in 1970. Then professional football came to Foxborough. Loew donated a part of the track’s site to Billy Sullivan, owner of the American Football League’s Boston Patriots, to finally build a stadium his team can call home (That part will be further explained in Part 2). In 1976, Loew sold Bay State Raceway to Boston sports personality Ed Andleman and greyhound racetrack owner Ed Keelan. The track renamed itself as New England Harness Raceway, but unfortunately there was a problem. The Patriots’ new stadium was actually built on track property. Had racing occurred, the New England Patriots would have started the 1976 season in Pittsburgh against the defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers. From there, it want all downhill. Poor gate revenue and even poorer outside investments reportedly made by Chuck Sullivan saw the track fall into serious debt. The track went into bankruptcy in 1986 and was closed in 1987.
In 1985, Kraft Group president Robert Kraft and business partner Stephen Karp acquired a parcel of land adjacent to the racetrack and stadium in an attempt to buy the New England Patriots from the Sullivan family. In 1988, the Sullivans did sell the Patriots…to Victor Kiam for $84 Million. However, the land in which Foxboro Stadium was on still belonged to Kraft. In 1990, Charles Sarkis, CEO of Back Bay Restaurant Group and owner of Wonderland Dog Track in Revere, Massachusetts, persuaded the Massachusetts Racing Commission to reopen New England Harness Raceway, this time as a thoroughbred/standardbred venue. The renamed Foxboro Raceway reopened in May 1992, with the track open to thoroughbreds during the Summer and standardbreds in the Fall. In 1992, Kiam sold the Patriots to James Orthwein, a member of the Busch family, who wanted to moved the Patriots to St. Louis after Bill Bidwill moved the St. Louis Football Cardinals to Arizona in 1987. Robert Kraft made it adamant that the Patriots would not be moving anywhere as long as Foxboro Stadium was around. Orthwein would eventually sell the Patriots to Kraft in 1994 for $172 Million. In 1996, Kraft bought Foxboro Raceway for $16 Million in the hopes of building a new stadium for the Patriots. The last race at Foxboro Raceway was on August 18, 1997, and the track was closed for good. The track stood vacant for three years until it was finally razed to make way for the construction of the Patriots’ new home, Gillette Stadium.