The Happy Handicapper / Summer Racing

Is there anything better than jumping in the “Bet Mobile” and heading to your favorite oval ? – After meeting Bob Summers, I can say that may be one of the top three reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. We all have that big building we loved to visit with program in hand ready to do battle. Was it a large monster of an old track, or a little hidden jewel you had to leave bread crumbs to find your way back home ? Either way, they are worth the trip. – My favorite was summer track  – River Downs.

River Downs was the best summer oval that handicappers loved, or missed an opportunity to visit. – It opened in 1925, and was once called Coney Island race track. Quoting my mother who was a visitor to the races every once in awhile. ” It felt like a race track. The beauty, and the sights and smells only horse racing can bring.” – I doubt if she would have been the advertising director, but it did convey a thought from the heart. – You could hear the horses in the paddock, and the smell of freshly grilled hot dogs wafting through the air. Cigar smoke hung heavy in the air, and the banter of chatter had the feel of the trading floor on Wall Street.

The little gem along the banks of the Ohio river had some of the greats back in the day. Black Gold, Seabiscuit, and a host of others. Riders were either on their way up like Steve Cauthen who rode his first winner there, or the multitude of others who were on their declining days but could still compete with gusto at the little track. – You could say a day at the races was a little taste of something special. If you didn’t read the entries in the newspaper anything could be going on that day. Kinda’ like a little surprise worth the wait.

I made my early treks with family and eventually ventured out to play the races by myself. – I can remember the summer sun blazing down on my face as young man. When a turf race was carded this was a real treat as River Downs had a super turf course. But don’t take my word, those come from the great Laffit Pincay who rode in a stakes race. – The sounds of the late-great Kevin Goemmer brought Derby-like energy to every race. His booming voice could bring chills to your neck as he painted the action with a fine brush. – I can still remember walking to the car and that deep booming voice announced; ” If you had the 1 – 7 – 4, PLEASSSSSSE SIT DOWN !” The $64,000 payoff for the trifecta was a record and many of us stopped on the way to the car hearing the exciting news.

Tracks didn’t even think of fan education. They still had old thoughts of “build it and they will come” as racing was the only game in town at one point. – River Downs was a first that I remember bringing a fun and light way to entertain, educate and examine the game with a lighthearted view. – It was called The Regular Guy Show and was a favorite of many. This was a creation of visionary Cary Charlson who owned all of the video and graphics. – The RGS show was hosted by John Engelhardt, and he loved every second of sitting at a set built to look like a bar, and sometimes it was as the day wore on. He would have a host join him and they would handicap the card as a team. There was no individual accomplishment as if there was a winner or an exacta. It was a Regular Guy winner. – The “Miller Man” play of the day was an old time picture of a man holding a beer keg above his head and a cutout from the video truck that would insert John’s mouth and he would talk in a high pitched-tone of the Miller Man giving out his longshot of the day. – Quite a hoot a first glance, but if you looked a little closer it was the beginning of fan education. People would move around and yak and talk between races until you heard the bumper music playing over the speakers leading up to the next segment. – Fans would stop and watch on every TV in the building and pay attention to the show. – Lighthearted and fun, and true handicapping knowledge from a plethora of guests. – I made my first trip in July, 2003. – It was a couple years later that I became the 1A of the Regular Guy. – John took me under his wing and shared his 30 plus years as a race track public relations man.

As the Regular Guy show evolved into radio shows in the Cincinnati market with John and myself talking horses. The same fun and lighthearted approach was always in play. We would have call-in guests and handicap the big races and the daily card at RD. – These were some of the best years of my early life in racing.  – We always thought of it as a day camp for adults, as this was way too much fun to call it a job.

Last night I was dusting off my cabinet of racing memories. One shelf for every track I have worked. – Turfway Park for 17 years, Keeneland for a year, and River Downs for six years as director of marketing. There has even been a new shelf added as Belterra Park has become the newest additon complete with gaming and top shelf dining. – That little track which ran during the summer months and a brief fall meet was my intro to the races. There are so many people to thank and the fans I have met along the way have made the memories sweeter.

This has been the “Happy Handicapper” talking about what his heart holds dear. Summer racing is magical time where the sun beats down, and tan faced fans walk around the paddock area watching the races. There is nothing better, and if you haven’t made the trip you’ll need to venture out to Belterra Park which stands in the place of old RD. – Enjoy the summer and I’ll be checking back next month to talk about Saratoga, Del Mar, and the run to the Breeders’ Cup.