Long ago at a small racetrack a group of longtime employees drank some magic potion. Now, this wasn’t just any potion, but it was one that made your wishes come true. They so loved the sport of kings that they would have done anything to see it flourish once again. With the promise of casino-style gaming and massive improvements the game would have larger purses, four-star restaurants, and the sport would grow beyond their wildest dreams. You could even say that it would bring things they never dreamt of happening.
I was wiping the potion from my lips only to find out that it had a bitter after-taste as the new ownership that promised a bright future soon became more distant and disinterested in racing. They were not there to make racing better, but just to use it as a tool to get what they wanted. It was too late to click our heels and find our way home. Our dreams had come true, but just not the way we desired.
The new company rolled in and started doing away with the long-timers who fought, rallied, and wished for the big break. Well, it came, and many are on the outside looking in. The new machine kicked many to the curb. For the few who were allowed to stay they now find themselves in part-time positions with no title or any glimpse of a future. The patrons complain and their voices fall on deaf ears. Players were certain that the new ownership would take racing to a new place. Well, they are, but it doesn’t resemble a racetrack. I am all for change, and sometimes there are casualties of war. But the people have been duped. This resonates from many tracks around the nation who find themselves with strange bedfellows. As I have been reading and listening to many other ideas there is a tale of two racetracks in the Commonwealth of Kentucky that give hope. No smoke and mirrors, and the sport will come first. If you think this is too good to be true just watch what happens at Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park.
Kentucky Downs is the last stop before you make your way into Tennessee. There are BBQ joints, lottery outlets, and bingo galore. Hotels and new restaurants dot the trail as you make your way to a mansion style facility. The building is built on land that was used by gentlemen to settle differences with pistol duels, hence the opening name of Dueling Grounds. On April 22, 1990, a new vision was created by paving the way for the only European-style turf course in the country. Under the guidance and direction of Corey Johnsen, the road for Instant Racing machines made their way into a Kentucky track. You know, the machines that are a cross between a slot machine and a racing game. After much hullabaloo the track is doing pretty well and will offer purses that are 242% higher. Not bad, for a small track in the middle of the country.
Ellis Park is owned by the fan-friendly owner Ron Geary. He is focused on making it work, and on his off days you could find him playing in a handicapping tournament. He was the unlucky fella’ who was informed that he won the NTRA / DRF Championship in Vegas. After further review, and many deep sighs, Geary was informed that a mistake had been made and he finished second. I would have pulled out my hair, but he just shook the hand of the winner as they were taking pictures for the $2 million dollar prize payout. On Friday, August 31 there will be a new chapter written for the “pea patch.” Instant Racing is coming, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts they will find a way to make it happen. There could be a new ownership group as well, as a Saratoga Springs, N.Y. firm has filed with the Kentucky Racing Commision that a new change of ownership may be pending.
Either way, be careful what you wish for… The landscape of racing is changing. They will tear down the buildings that your father took you to on a Saturday afternoon. The days of watching nine live races was everything in the world until the explosion of simulcasting began. Things got bigger, and more races came your way until the facility was open 12-hours a day. A longtime gambler once told me that the dollar only stretches so far. When casinos popped up the fans started making their way to get that instant action, 24-hours a day. Racetracks started dying. Too many races, the competition is greater, and the states put the choke-hold on expanding gambling. The game is upside down and the future of your grandpa’s game is uncertain.