The National Driving Park, as the new track was called, was built in 1858 on land purchased by the National Horse Association of Kalamazoo (led by U. S. Senator Charles E. Stuart). It was located on a large parcel between what are now Portage, Stockbridge, Cameron, and Reed streets in the heart of the city's Edison Neighborhood. The newly formed partnership of Fredrick Bush and Thomas Paterson constructed many of the buildings on the site, including the grandstands. This was one of the firm's first jobs, and it began a long and illustrious career in Kalamazoo. Over the next three decades the National Driving Park would grow and thrive until it finally closed in the late 1880's.
Racing at the National Driving Park
The Kalamazoo racetrack hosted a type of racing called trotting or harness racing that was especially popular in the United States in the nineteenth century. In this type of racing, the horse is in a harness, and the driver rides behind it instead of on its back like a jockey in a thoroughbred race. Harness racing demands a special type of horse, known as a trotter or a pacer, that has been bred and trained specifically to race in harness. Kalamazoo was also the birthplace of Peter the Great, one of the greatest trotting horses in the world.
The first exhibition at the National Driving Park took place on 15 October 1858. We can imagine that it was a spectacle that many Kalamazooans turned out to see. In those days horse racing was enormously popular. Schoolboys knew the names and records of all the great horses and drivers, and many of their fathers gambled away their wages on the outcome of one race or another. The citizens of Kalamazoo supported their track, and it grew quickly.
The most famous horse race ever to take place in Kalamazoo occurred on 15 October 1859 at the National Driving Park. On that afternoon, in front of a huge crowd, a horse named Flora Temple set a new world record of two minutes nineteen and three quarters seconds (2:19:45) for trotting one mile. The crowd went wild when the official timer announced the news. Many eastern horseracing enthusiasts refused to believe the vaunted mark of the 2:20 mile could have fallen in a small western backwater like Kalamazoo, so they challenged the ruling, stating that the track must have been laid out improperly and that it was not a full mile in length. The debate went on for several years. Finally a well-respected railroad surveyor came to Kalamazoo and measured the track. He found it to be two and a half feet longer than a mile, so Flora Temple's record was made official.