Evolution of a Small Town Gambler

Gambling had a mystique that took place in back rooms or places your Mom wouldn’t approve. Rooms filled with smoke, profanity the second language, and if a lady was there she was tending bar or waiting on tables. Men could be found from every walk of life, and was the only place where you’d see the plumber talking with the Mayor. These were the days for those who wanted to make a bet. No such thing as simulcast wagering, and getting on a plane to fly to Las Vegas was a dream for many. Horse racing was the main action and certain places would take action on sports. – If you wanted to bet the Kentucky Derby you had to drive to Louisville and fight the over-flow crowds. Or if you had a “guy,” you could call and make a bet by phone, or head over to a local bar or VFW to the back room. Racing Form’s on tables, smoke hung thick in the air, and listening to stretch calls of the races on a small radio. If you were a small town gambler it couldn’t get any better.

The thought of every track on T.V. screen was a Las Vegas dream, and many never made the trip. Why ? – You had the ability to get your action by picking up the phone. Horse racing was a love of many in my family. We would make the big days at local tracks or venture out and catch the last three races after they stopped collecting for parking. The a.m. dial would hold the key to many tracks. You were listening to WNOP for live call of the last race from River Downs, or dial up WHAS and catch the Churchill Downs. My dad and I spent many afternoons around 4:00 pm listening for the “Call to the Post” bugle. It was the signal for theater of the mind to begin.  – Mike Battaglia, Kevin Goemmer, or Paul Rogers would bring the action live through the small speaker of a radio. It was won at an amusement park as a prize from a pie eating contest. That little white radio was the time machine that took you from the living room to a great spot against the rail to have the best seat in the house. The announcer would paint the action as you leaned closer to see the horses in your mind’s eye. These were the best of times.

During college I would excuse myself from a boring class and jog out to the car to hear the stretch call from Keeneland on WLAP. They came on at 20 after and 20 to the hour, and you would be treated to Mike Battaglia calling races for the radio as there was no track announcer. – I made a $20 bet which was way over my head, and when my horse drew off and paid $28 to win. I started the car and drove the 78 miles to Lexington to catch the last four races. – Yeah, I didn’t think it could get any better.

Slowly and surely the simulcast wave landed in my area. Betting on other tracks began and you could wager on the last two races from Arlington after the conclusion of the River Downs live racing card. – Inter-state wagering kicked up and you were allowed to bet a single in-state track with 30 minutes between races. The process was starting to flourish and gone were the days of the small town bookie and listening to a single live race with heaving breath.

Race tracks went from the blue-collar boardroom to the red carpet venue. Every track worth it’s salt had a state-of-the-art Race Book. You could watch and wager on every track around the country and the action would run from noon ’til midnight. – It felt like heaven had landed in my backyard and for a horse racing fan there was nothing better. – This went on for years and slowly the landscape changed. Casinos would eventually make their way into the market and bring Las Vegas minutes from your door step. It seemed like a short window from no real action to a saturation of the local markets. As the glitzy casinos grew and showed the betting public the Vegas look of making a bet. The tracks started to decline in handle. They had been the only game in town and were the heavyweight champ of making a bet. But they didn’t keep up and slowly you would see some of your favorite ovals fade into history. Places like; Ak-sar-ben, Bowie, Beulah, Calder, Great Lakes Downs, Hollywood Park, Pinnacle Race Course, River Downs, and Rockingham to name a handful. Some were gone forever and others were re-built as racinos with the guiding hand of the giant casinos. – Racing didn’t invest in the future and the complacency led to closures or grand opportunities for wagering professionals to rejuvenate the old track into a new destination. – Nothing lasts forever, and even the Mona Lisa is fading away.

I was too young to be a part of the casino action that held saw in many parts of the country. – I began after the local casino craze, and betting the horses was a simpler time. Glued to the radio, listening to the announcers transport you to the center of the action for the best seat in the house. You were right there on the rail basking in the sun as the Thoroughbreds would thunder down the stretch. I can still hear the bugle playing on the a.m. radio as my Dad and I would stop and be a part of the action.