The Luckiest Guy in the Grandstand

I went to a local casino for dinner and watched my gal at the blackjack table. I enjoy watching for the most part, and on occasion I’ll pull out a $20, and play some video poker. I  know about odds, double-downs, and what the percentage of a “bust-card” is for the dealer. But it’s not for me. I’m happy with a program in my hand and heading down to the paddock. That’s gambling for me, and I guess it always will.

If you’re lucky enough to read about some forms of gambling, it is usually referred to as “gaming.” – This is the sanitized word for making a wager, and enjoying a form of entertainment that is second to none. When I read the word gaming, I get this mental image of that papery product they stock in the restrooms for your “sanitized” protection. I have had the pleasure of seeing some really unique race tracks. Some good, some bad. But in the end they are memories I’ll never forget. – They still use the word “gambling,” and they make no bones about the incredible action you will take part.

River Downs – Outside of Cincinnati was a gem of a track. It had a 7/8th’s turf course, and a dirt oval that favored speed. I made my first visits as a child with my parents and grandparents. It was a fun-in-the sun type place where I have enjoyed a million memories. When I had the opportunity to work there, it was like a dream come true. It will soon be replaced by the new Belterra Park, and I am looking forward to the new future of racing in the area. I guess I’ll make new memories with my son as we enjoy an ice cream in the summer sun.

Latonia / Turfway Park – Same story as River Downs, as this circuit ran in the winter-spring. It was great to have racing circuit 10 miles away from home, and my first day at work was in the parking lot. I can still see Bernie Walt driving his mount to be the first to have his picture taken in the winner’s circle under the new Turfway Park banner. I was lucky enough to make my way through the ranks, and had a good position with the track. If I live to be 100, I’ll remember sitting in the grandstands with my dad watching these majestic animals. I made countless friends, watched my horse win his first race there, and felt the many photo finishes that started a grey-hair garden on the top of my head. I had the wonderful opportunity to learn about working with the public, doing radio and TV handicapping, and teaching others about handicapping. Turfway Park holds a special place in my heart.

Keeneland – When I first walked in as a high school student, it had the feel of a magical place. I enjoyed the racing so much I didn’t care if it was Polytrack or dirt, just as long as I made the first race. I used to skip my last class at Northern Kentucky University and drive down with my friend. We always made the double, and there was something special just driving through the gates. Many years later, I would have the opportunity to work there for a time. For me, it felt like the New York Yankees had called me up to the big leagues. It didn’t matter how long it lasted, but the magic was that I was a part of something I loved and admired. When you love something, and you have a chance to work in that environment, you are the luckiest person in the world. – If Heaven has Thoroughbred racing, I bet the track will look a lot like Keeneland.

Churchill Downs – The rich history bit me like a snake. I claimed my horse there as he won the last race. – The track closes the day with the playing of ” My Old Kentucky Home.” – That was one the happiest moments of my life. Some years later, I was working at Turfway Park. I was part of a weekend racing show, and my partner had secured the opportunity for us to close the season “live at the Derby.” I was high up in the press box where the best-of-the-best have written articles that have circled the globe. When the show was about ready to begin, I tossed my written intro, and spoke from the heart. It was my first Derby, and I had the best seat in the house doing what I love. – I’ll remember doing that show for the rest of my life.

Add in the country-fair setting of Kentucky Downs with the only European undulating turf course in the nation. The “Big A” was a great trip. Some of the guys from Turfway flew up to see a Sunday night football game, and we had a big day at Aqueduct. Seeing the one-of-a-kind Arlington Park will give you a glimpse of big league Chicago racing. There are so many things to see, I suggest you go about an hour or so early just to walk around. I was on a business trip to Chicago, and the others knew how much I loved racing. They didn’t know anything about it, but if it was half as good as I spoke, it must be a good time. Walking into Sportsman’s Park was a little eerie, as it was dark and dank, but still offered a fun night of harness action. Mountaineer Park was the perfect place to visit, as the simulcast boom had just happened and it was one of the first tracks within driving distance to offer my first taste of a racino. I enjoyed going to the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. We watched the races at the foot of the majestic San Gabriel mountains. One of the best meals I ever had was at The Derby. I tried telling my girlfriend about the origins and vision of the great George Woolf, but you have to love racing in your heart. I walked around the same corners as celebrities from era’s gone by, and thought about how neat it was to eat at the home of the “Iceman.” I made so many trips to Hoosier Park, Indiana Downs, Lebanon, The Red Mile, Louisville Downs, and Beulah Park. I would need a book to tell you all about the many memories from these little tracks.  As I make plans to visit other tracks and see the one-of-a-king beauty of racing has to offer. I take a deep breath, and think about lucky I’ve been. The history, the beauty, the pageantry, and the precious memories that will last a lifetime. I wonder if there is anyone in the world that has ever thought that about a casino?

 

2 Responses to “The Luckiest Guy in the Grandstand”

  1. Hackett says:

    Spot on reflection! My “cherry busting” was the 2001 KD and the weather and racing was perfect – from Thursday to Sunday. We had seats at the start/finish for Thursday, Millionaires Row for the Oaks and on the rail at the start of the first turn for The Derby. We parked across the street from the entrance and was invited to hit the backside on Thursday morning to watch the workouts (4:30am). We mingled with ex-exercise riders, celebrities, businessmen, and politicians – all there for the same reason: to be part and appreciate the spectacle laid out before us. However, my fondest memory from that trip was the dinner at a local steakhouse where I got to overhear Baffert and his jocks cutting up and discussing their mounts and strategies for their races during the weekend – a true insiders look into the pageantry that is horse racing! Just as your article explains, this is when and how I became hooked on “the ponies”.

  2. Ed says:

    Hackett –

    It sounds like we both had a great introduction to racing. It’s been a joy for me, and no matter win or lose. I’ve never lost that “first love” in my life.

    Just reading where you parked, your seats, and the mingling with others. – I can see you had one helluva’ trip !

    Best of luck, and thanks for dropping us a line !

    Ed

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