I wrote about abandoned racetracks for Poor Yorick.
Here is my slideshow….
…in which I answer questions about Auto-Tune the News.
About memoir, on which I’m working furiously.
What do I tell you about what I found at racetracks while driving across the country?
The obscure horses, the all-male chorus, the privileging of one lite beer over another, the overheard colonoscopy, exactas (boxed), slots, the cursing, the studying, the muttering, the historical markers, the hats, Speedway, the spires, the signs, discomfort, fear of getting caught, the palm trees, art deco, Shoemaker?
Adios. I’m not saying goodbye before I begin but rather the name of the biggest piece of history at the Meadows, a harness track outside of Pittsburgh. The horse not only called the Meadows home, but he was also a champion sire.
I mention this because horse racing is so old and weird that historical references about horses and racing often lead to new lenses about what we see in front of us. In reading an old Sports Illustrated article about Adios, I also learned that Adios was the champion sire in Australia, was owned by Harry Warner of Warner Brothers fame, and that George Washington owned trotting horses. Which is only coincidentally interesting to the fact I saw this shrine to this horse in Washington, Pennsylvania, which was named after George Washington (naming being a type of shrine in itself).
To some degree, horse racing is the ultimate six degrees of Kevin Bacon, with historical figures like Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving, Andrew Jackson, and Henry James, on the same screen as Bing Crosby, the Marx Brothers, and the country legend George Jones. Somehow, at this racetrack turned racino, I was in the shadow of our first president.
I was also in the middle of horse racing’s latest challenge and possible savior. “Racinos”—racetracks combined with casinos–are shaking up the racing world in ways complex and simple. When a casino moves into a racetrack, part of the proceeds goes to purses at the racetrack. Higher purses mean better horses. Better horses mean more money bet. More money bet means more money for everyone, except for bad gamblers. Through its racinos, Pennsylvania is now second in terms of wagering after Nevada, though with New York installing slot machines at Aqueduct in New York City, I suspect that will change.
My trip to the Meadows marked my fourth visit to a Pennsylvania racino: Philadelphia Park (now called Parx), Penn National near Harrisburg, and Pocono Downs near Wilkes-Barre, are the other three.
There are a few commonalities. For one, all the physical plants are clean, well maintained, and new, which, sadly, is often in stark contrast to many racetracks, which were often built decades ago and often only minimally renovated in the last few decades.
At all four Pennsylvania racinos, racing has become less important than casino gambling—in all of the cases, one has to go through the casino to get to the racetrack (though there is an alternative entrance at Pocono Downs). The décor at all four is relatively restrained and modest. The Meadows has a horseracing theme in its main gaming area, which was dominated by slot machines, though there were table games as well. Penn National (or rather the Hollywood Casino at Penn National) has a Hollywood theme, with stills and images of movie stars on the walls and movie posters everywhere. What Harrisburg has to do with Hollywood only the creators can tell us, but the non sequitur of casino construction is a well-established fact—Las Vegas is a center of anachronism.
The dominance of slots over racing serves as a metaphor for the way slots and other legalized gambling become dominant over horse racing over the last 25 years, but it’s also a panacea for horse racing, which needs higher purses to appeal to breeders and trainers, and incentives for breeders, both of which the money generated by racinos provides.
One thing that I noted, and I’ve seen at almost every track I’ve gone to, was the gender imbalance in the racing area. Of the 20 or so people in the simulcast area, only one was a woman (a decidedly better ratio than my recent visit to Laurel Park in Maryland—on a cold, rainy December Tuesday, I counted 65 people of whom only one was a woman.)
I didn’t stay around the well-appointed track and simulcast area very long, placing an unsuccessful bet at Gulfstream Park (which is also a racino) played a few hands of blackjack, and then headed to my friend’s house. Adios, the Meadows, I’ll be back.
Racetracks have many signs: A sample
My next trip was to Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio, which was one of the few tracks I would visit that was running live racing. It was a Monday so I didn’t expect a crowd at the track, and it was true—a hundred or so people were there when I left after the fifth race. But that’s hardly the sum total of who was watching.
I took a seat in the clubhouse, which was neither a club nor a house. Nor was it exclusive but had the remnants of exclusivity, small tables, good location near the finish, bar within the room, relatively quiet. Racetracks have a pattern language, to use architectural theorist Christopher Wallace’s term, a grammar and structure. Beulah Park was the 44th track I have visited, and all tracks have a clubhouse, grandstand, a paddock, a winners circle, and so on, whether they are a small quarterhorse track in Texas (Manor Downs, where I covered horse racing for two years); the Norwegian site for the Norsk Derby (Øvrevoll in Oslo); or famed tracks like Saratoga and Churchill Downs.
What separates track from track is the quality of the horses, the participation of the patrons, as well as less tangible elements like the reputation of the track, which is more complicated than it sounds. Manor Downs and the Meadows are on no one’s list of elite tracks, but the Manor Downs Futurity was a prime prep for the All-American Futurity, the quarter horse version of the Kentucky Derby, and the Meadows hosts any number of crucial harness races (including one called the Adios).
As was true at the Meadows, the population at Beulah Park was mostly men and almost exclusively men over 50. As at most tracks, the conversation is inevitably about horses one didn’t pick. One nearby patron kept saying, “I would have had it if I boxed it” (betting horses so that any combination of them will provide a winner. It’s often pretty expensive to do).
One of the questions one might have is: why live racing in Ohio on a Monday afternoon in January? The former general manager of Beulah, Mike Weiss, explained it quite simply–much of the income from gambling comes from simulcasting and Monday is traditionally a dark day for many racetracks. “It was based on running when a lot of tracks weren’t running,” Weiss said.
Running on Mondays and Tuesdays, combined with the Beulah Twins, two blondes who achieved international fame handicapping, to some unexpected rewards. “At one point we were one of the most of popular tracks in England,” Weiss said.
Simulcasting, where people bet money at the track on the racing at other tracks, and advanced deposit wagering (ADW), where people bet online with an electronic bookie, are the source of a considerable amount of money to tracks. In much the same way that baseball and football fans off-site drive each sport’s popularity, so does off-track betting, with the caveat that most horse racing fans, though not all, want to be able to bet on the races they watch.
That’s the tricky thing about horse racing as a sport—it’s impossible to separate the gambling from it, which adds another layer of complication in trying to understand it. Not only are horse racing reporters not forbidden to bet on horses, there are betting windows in many track pressboxes. Arguably, the leading horse racing reporter in the country, Andrew Beyer, is the also the author of one of the most popular innovations in handicapping, the Beyer Speed number, which weighs track conditions with horses’ performances. While fantasy sports have begun to affect fans’ views about NFL football, it’s not enmeshed in the same way as horse racing.
I might have been witness to one of Beulah’s last seasons or perhaps even its last. After the bartender steered me to Weak American Light Beer A that was for some reason $2 cheaper than the other Weak American Light Beer B, she told me that the owners were thinking of moving the track to Dayton to be closer to avoid competing with planned their planned casino in Columbus. That sounded crazy to me—how do you move a track—but another patron, who had previously cataloged every failing the track has or had seemingly back to the Eisenhower Administration, said the track might move merely miles from his house in Dayton. Later, I read that Penn National, the owner of Beulah, was actually thinking of moving it to Youngstown.
A move would be a loss, even if horse racing continued in Youngstown; the discussion itself shows how casinos are the tail wagging the horse.
From there I drove to Cincinnati, or rather its Kentucky suburb, Florence, to check out Turfway Park, a racetrack that hosts the Spiral Stakes, a Kentucky Derby prep.
When I woke the next morning and looked outside, I realized I could see Turfway from my window. While Turfway was running, I unfortunately happened upon it on a dark day when even simulcasting was closed.
I told the track’s press person I would like to visit anyway, and I found the track open when I did an urban hike through the parking lots of Sam’s Club and Dick’s Sporting Goods to the racetrack, which was now surrounded by a Target, a set of movie theaters, and a Mexican restaurant. The whole area was an Interstate pod, with hotels, chain restaurants, and big box stores.
My feeling looking at it was that developers had their eyes on Turfway, seeing it as a potential housing development, condos and such, proximate to Florence, Kentucky, but more importantly to Cincinnati. The track had closed before—according to the track’s website, this is actually the second track that was in this general location. The first, Latonia Downs, was sold to Standard Oil of Ohio (add John D. Rockefeller to the list of horse-related national figures).
The history of racetracks within city limits is one where tracks disappear for more lucrative uses. In Austin, Hyde Park’s iconic Speedway denoted the street on the way to the racetrack, which closed in the early twentieth century when progressives blocked gambling all over the country, and tracks like Austin’s closed (in this case becoming a subdivision and then de facto graduate school housing).
I am always nervous roaming around and taking photographs, but I do it anyway, because I think my passion for the sport is transparent, and with it, I could talk my way out of a difficult situation. So with the track closed, I was a bit worried about finding things suitable to shoot, but I found a way into the apron (the area in front of the grandstand) and took pictures of the grandstand, winner’s circle, various signage, and anything that I thought was a deliberate attempt to encourage patron behavior by being “classy.”
Why do I care about classy? I’m looking at the track through a few perspectives, and one of them is class. Racetracks all have the infrastructure of classy—separate seating sections, ornamental touches, landscaping–even the less fancy ones.
Even with the track closed for the day, there were riders on horses on the track, and some people watching them run. At one point, someone walked toward me, and I worried about being “caught,” but he walked by and went to the rail, to look at the horses.
I initially didn’t plan to visit the home of the Kentucky Derby, but it was only a few miles out of my way, and it seemed silly not to. As it turned out, it was an enlightening visit.
There is no doubting the track’s stateliness. It’s almost as old as Saratoga, probably the longest continuously running sports venue in the country, and Churchill is quick to point out the Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously running sports event, with its first run in 1875.
My usual idea at a racetrack is to go inside and wander around, but nothing was open but the Kentucky Derby Museum, and they wouldn’t let me into the track. I iniitally decided not to pay the $14 for the tour and museum, so I went outside to take pictures of the outside of the racetrack.
Churchill Downs is very much an urban track, and so it was fun to circle the track to see what neighborhoods were around it. I took a few photos, and getting back to the parking lot, I thought better of leaving without looking at the track and went back to pay my entrance fee. I was glad I did—the museum is wonderful, with exhibits that both celebrate the social side of the derby, its history, and more importantly, how you engage the sport. I was thrilled by the museum and also a little frustrated—why couldn’t the whole sport be more like that? “Thoroughbred racing is fun. You can have a great time with it,” said Lynn Ashton, executive director of the museum. “Racetracks could do other things than they do, and I have no idea why don’t.”
A few days after my visit, Ashton and I chatted on the phone about the history of the museum, and some of the issues regarding horse racing, which she approached as somewhat as an outsider.
“I’m not a horse person, and I’m not a museum person,” she said. Like me she had noticed, few women there are at tracks, except for places like Saratoga Race Course. Last year, I went there and charted the demographics and the way people dressed, and found that in the few days I was there, there were as many women as men.
“Saratoga to me is just a different animal,” Ashton said. “I wish I could see here what I see at Saratoga. You go there and every day is exciting. Our crowds are the old guys.”
Part of the reason that’s true is simply practical. Older people are more likely to be retired, and Saratoga, Del Mar in San Diego, and Gulfstream near Miami are near vacation destinations. Churchill and the other Kentucky tracks are not near tourist destinations, though Churchill did have its museum and the associated tour (plus the Louisville Slugger tour, as Ashton noted).
An employee who had been to dozens of derbies gave the tour, which doubled as a promotional spot for coming to the derby, but his stories were entertaining. What was also interesting was the man’s concern in trying to get young people to the track, worrying that the few times the derby ran at night, the track was crowded with young people, but he didn’t see any racing fans being made.
He was also in favor of slot machines at the racetrack, noting that their absence was hurting racing in Kentucky. He even pointed out to us where these slot machines would likely go. Even at Churchill Downs, home to the most prominent racing event in the country, there was nervousness about the future of horse racing.
This is probably where I should say how much I notice casinos’ increased presence on this trip, especially compared to my previous trips across the country. They are almost everywhere, and they get their audiences better than horse tracks do; they make people feel comfortable in the casino, selling the experience of consuming rather than just gambling.
But Churchill Downs gets it too, playing on its history as a way of selling its present. That’s the way Saratoga and Keeneland work too using tradition as a base for entertainment.
I drove on toward Nashville, trying to get to Kentucky Downs before nightfall, so I could take photographs of the track. Google Maps put me in downtown Franklin, which was cute but didn’t have a racetrack. It was after this I started looking at the program’s satellite view to confirm the presence of an actual racetrack, easily recognized in images as the big oval with buildings surrounding it.
Finally, I reached the track just after sun set. I took a picture of the entrance sign and entered.
Kentucky Downs is a European style track, which means one with only a grass track. There were more people here than anywhere but the Meadows, for a variety of reasons. It was simulcast season, but the track has a weird work around the slot issue. There are a bunch of machines that look like slot machines, but all games are based on the randomness of obscure races. You make bets, and then part of an old race runs on screen, and the winning result determines whether you win. (For example, I somehow lost a spin based on a race at Blue Ribbon Downs in 1995.) If that sounds confusing, it’s more so in person. The machines were not intuitive at all, but you could play them over and over again, which I guess is the appeal of slot machines.
I understand how popular slots are, but I don’t play them. I prefer gambling that involves my intellect not just randomness. And they don’t strike me as fun. Even though the odds are against you at blackjack, roulette, and craps (though there are ways of playing craps that even the odds), they are more interesting.
The traffic also came, a worker told me, from the bingo parlor upstairs, which naturally had some patrons using the “slots” downstairs.
In between bets, I spent almost an hour chatting with an employee, who ran down the multiple owners the track has had, the coming changes the track may face, and the way racetrack employees always had to scramble for employment at seasonal tracks. When I covered Manor Downs, the employees would work in the fall, go on unemployment, and then be rehired in the spring.
One thing that the track had going for it was its cleanliness and comfort. It was well lit, and though the furniture was not fancy, it was clearly chosen for decorative purposes.
As I had at Beulah Downs and The Meadows, I put down a few $6 wagers. My favorite bet is the three horse $1 box, usually with two of the higher rated horses mixed with a longshot, meaning that if I bet on horses 1,2, and 3 any combination of those three horses coming in first or second would make me a winner. So 3 in first and 1 in second, vice versa, and so on. I counted on my ability to find a likely longshot doing these bets. Some longshots simply look like they have no chance of winning, but others might—horses with long layoffs, older horses, horses who shipped into a less competitive racetrack from a more competitive track, horses moving from higher money to lower money ones, and in races with mostly first-time starters, some informed guesswork.
I don’t make a lot of money with this method, but nor do I lose a lot. The trick in gambling, which I do a half-dozen to a dozen times a year, is have a betting structure that you follow. At the same time, playing show bets for $2 has NO appeal to me—I don’t just want to a win a bet to win a bet, and I want to be RIGHT. So finding that likely longshot is the pleasure: to see what others have not.
I only stayed long enough to make a few harness bets, but it would be fun to come back and see the races on the grass.
A few days later on my way to St. Louis, I stopped at Ellis Park, completing my Kentucky horse racing tour. A small track near Indiana, Ellis was also running simulcast on a Thursday afternoon, and the atmosphere was pretty similar to Beulah Park, though without live racing.
Still, you can tell that the racetrack is doing okay, because its public and architecture are clean and well maintained. It had all the elements of racetracks I’ve seen on this trip—separate areas (grandstand, clubhouse), with people congregating in the clubhouse in the off-season. It had a small mostly male crowd as well.
An older gentleman who came in while I was looking over the Gulfstream and Aqueduct cards in part answered the question of why the track was open for gambling. He announced to his group that he just had a colonoscopy because the V.A. had lost the one he had two years ago. “They told me not to drive, but I had to get to the races,” he said.
I only hit one of my $6 exactas while playing those two tracks. Playing like this is inherently stupid; you don’t have time to really handicap. I have a pretty good record for picking the Kentucky Derby, considering the long (big) fields, and the Breeders Cup Handicap, the de facto horse racing championship, because I spend a few hours handicapping the race. When I play two tracks at once on a slow day, I’m almost doomed to fail.
Which is another problem horse racing faces. If you go to racetracks a lot, the time between the races can almost seem short, if you go to the paddock, handicap the race, keep an eye on the toteboard for sudden odds changes (not that I know what to do with this information half the time), and then go bet you have filled up the 25 minutes between races. But the casual better, who really is not studying the form or even handicapping, 25 minutes seems like an eternity compared to a slot machine that one could conceivably spin more than 100 times in that same period.
When I left Ellis, I soon crossed into Indiana. I noticed that Indiana had a casino right across the border and wondered how the attendance at Ellis had changed before it came into being.
I had a free afternoon while visiting my friend in St. Louis, so I went to visit Fairmount Park, 20 minutes from his house. This was my second trip to this Illinois track. The first was probably a decade ago, when my friend and I went. He walked in and took a look and said, “This is disgusting.”
I have no idea whether the track now is better or worse. On a simulcast Friday afternoon, it had the most people at the track of the seven I’ve been to on this trip and a slightly better male/female ratio. It was well maintained, with people scattered around tables handicapping and watching the races. Later that day, at my friend’s son’s basketball game, I chatted with a friend of a friend about horse racing. He too had been to lot of racetracks, but Fairmount was his home track. “I bet I would still recognize a lot of the people there,” he said, even after being away for a while.
I don’t remember why my friend said it was disgusting. My memory was that it was chaotic, with people with a variety of backgrounds there. It probably was dirty or at least messy; losing tickets find their way to the ground pretty regularly (electronic betting has reduced this).
Regardless of the genesis of my friend’s opinion, the track did not feel comfortable to him. Tracks feel comfortable to me. I know where the things I want are, I know how to look at a program, I know what the people are going to be like. I have no illusions about what the racetrack is going to be.
But I’m not who tracks have to reach, nor were the people sitting around the table looking at the form. Those people were not here. But they had been, at least according to Yelp. Out of curiosity, as an insistent Yelper these days, I looked up the track’s reviews on the website—seven, all of them positive, though “tom b.” singled out the staff for expecting “you to be an expert at betting on the horses.” David D. said going to the track “might be the most fun I’ve had in any place within a 15-mile radius of St. Louis. $12 all you can eat buffet with $1 buds? $2 bets on a complete long shot for the win? And perhaps the best people watching in the entire Midwest.”
What was hopeful of the reviews were that there were more women than men. becca l. said “Fairmount is my once a year guilty pleasure.” Her strategy was to “pick a horse with a name I like and put down the minimum bet,” and said it was “pretty exciting when you see your horse cross the finish line first.” Amanda Z. pointed out that “unlike at the casinos, $10 will really last quite a while here. Just bet $2 on every race, and see what happens. it’s amazing how into the races you get too.” Tammy L. was less enthusiastic, but pointed out “betting is cheap, and you have pretty good odds of winning compared to a casino (there are only 7-8 horses in each race).”
Three of them referred to the Party at the Park, which is apparently a deal where admission is bumped up but includes food. I felt cheered by the reviews, because I sometimes feel that every track is on the verge of closing. Somehow Fairmount had found a way to appeal to younger fans—at least when horses were racing.
I visited Eureka Downs in Eureka, Kansas, a small town in the southeast portion of the state, on my drive from Lawrence to Santa Fe. I was aware of Eureka from my time covering quarterhorse racing in Texas; some of the horses shipped into Manor for its relatively high purses.
Eureka Downs is currently closed, and I wanted to find out why. I expected only a short visit with the track’s general manager, Rita Osborn, but we ended up talking for a good half hour, and then she took me on a tour of the closed facility.
The track is closed because it needs the subsidy money from simulcasting. Osborn explained that tracks have a basic amount of overhead that is difficult to cover only from the takeout from betting, admission, and concession sales. Kansas requires 24-hour security when the track is running, which adds up even if track’s staffs security with a minimum wage position. And the state requires three paid veterinarians and so on.
Osborn said Eureka closed when its two main sources of simulcast money, the Wichita Greyhound Park in Wichita and the Woodlands in Kansas City, a horse racing track, both closed, and you might have guessed this, in a battle over slots. Because a quirk in Kansas gambling laws, the takeout on a casino (which are legal in Kansas) is twice as high if it has a racetrack.
Kansas is in the middle of horse country, and Osborn told me racing happens even when the track closed. I’ve long been fascinated by match races—I really want to see them in Mexico–and she told me three took place in the area the day. In quarterhorse racing, match racing occurs almost everywhere, because of the horses’ hardiness and the relatively small amount of land you need to run. The ones in Mexico apparently feature quite a few top quarter horses; an insider once told me that many of the high-priced quarter horses purchased at public sales never race at tracks but at match races.
Osborn acknowledged that some of the resistance to racing was indeed moral—both her state senator and representative were anti-gambling. But she pointed out that racing is the one form of gambling that people can ignore if they want to. “It’s cheap entertainment for families to go to. If you aren’t gambling, there is a sport,” she said.
But she also said that when the track ran a few races without the simulcast money, many people objected and so she hasn’t raced since then.
Like other tracks, Eureka has a variety of seating options, with the Turf Club (the only air-conditioned part of the track), sitting on top of the grandstand, with a nice view of the proceedings.
I’m obsessed with these differences in seating, because I know they are important in the way tracks communicate with their patrons. Osborn agreed. “People want to feel high dollar,” she said. “It’s what they’ve seen on TV or in Seabiscuit.”
Downs at Albuquerque
Despite spending practically a whole year of my life (over a total of 20 years) in New Mexico and covering races at the Downs in Santa Fe, I had never been to the Downs at Albuquerque. What also makes my absence curious is its locale within Albuquerque, right near the historical district near the university, near Central Avenue, the modern successor of Route 66.
The Downs is a racino, but its heart is the racetrack that has a long history. On a Wednesday morning with the track and casino closed, I walked around with the permission of the security guards. I imagine that the oddness of my photo choices—little decorative flourishes on the wall, beer signs, floors and seats—might catch their attention, but they likely don’t care.
Like tracks like Fairmont and Aqueduct, the Downs is constructed sturdily, with the decoration signaling both horses and the vague art deco/nuevo that constitutes part of New Mexico’s signature style (the other part being adobe).
I am fully aware that people would go to this track and see something much different—a track a little beaten down or one whose existence was subjugated to the attached casino.
But when I saw it, I was regretful that I had not been there during a racing card; the place felt like it had character and history.
Later that day, after a long day of driving across New Mexico and Arizona, I stopped at Turf Paradise, just outside of Phoenix. The track was dark (no live racing), though there were a few handicappers in the clubhouse handicapping, probably the California races.
I wandered around taking photos. After taking photos of dozens of tracks, I already knew what I would find—separate sections where people would pay for the privilege for waiter service, a television at their table, a better angle on the finish line. In these sections, there would be more wood, metal, and glass, symbols of refinement. If the track were running, flowers would be everywhere.
A few things lead to this similar structure. One is that racing is basically the same everywhere, and so the functions had to be similar everywhere. But they are also similar, because people traveled within the racing circuit with very little new blood entering. In that sense, every system is like that, relatively closed. But the difference was that racing wasn’t doing so well.
But my main interest here was the signage, which seemed more prominent here than in other places. One series all on the same sign 1) warned patrons not to leave with alcohol 2) thanked them for coming 3) advertised drink specials (with a cartoon horse). I’ll keep off my professor hat here, but let’s just say these are mixed messages to be offering patrons.
Signs are always reactions to events and behaviors—they exist to change their readers’ behaviors, and apparently, some people behave badly. But they also show how long racetracks have been in existence, how design has not always anticipated the modern horse aficionado, and also, sadly, how cranky and old racetracks can seem.
Still, I had regrets when I left, because I suspected the parts of the track I couldn’t get too were also beautiful.
“Fuck you, number 2,” a woman yelled out after the second race at Santa Anita. I was sitting in the outdoor clubhouse seating, and the woman’s outburst demonstrated a few things:
1. These were not people who one would imagine sitting in a “clubhouse.”
2. The track didn’t have a lot of patrons for a Friday afternoon during its main season, so seating was essentially open.
3. People will do and say almost anything at a racetrack. It feels like a place where there are no rules (which is probably why there are so many signs).
For the record, number 2 was Indian Firewater, the even money favorite, and I think the woman enjoyed cursing out the horse, unlike many racetrack swearers who mean it.
This was not my first trip to Santa Anita, but my first trip during a live meet, and it was a real pleasure to be at one of America’s greatest tracks. Santa Anita is in the pantheon of American tracks, joining Churchill Downs, Saratoga, Keeneland, Gulfstream, Pimlico, Belmont, Del Mar, and Arlington Park. Tracks just below this level—Aqueduct, Hollywood Park, Calder, and Oaklawn, maybe the Fair Grounds in Louisiana—carry important races but either not enough of them or the track has some flaw. The rest of the tracks in the country are more regional, though places like Turfway and Tampa Bay Downs have crucial prep races for the Derby. In many places horses travel back and forth between a series of tracks. Horses that ship across the country from track to track are competing at a different level.
Regional tracks are important to the upper level tracks. Indeed at Santa Anita, there were many horses that came from Golden Gate Park near San Francisco to race primarily in claiming races, in which horses can be purchased before the race. Elite horses are rarely if ever put in claiming races; all lesser horses usually are. Good horses often bounce from high-level claiming races to low-level allowance races.
The site of HBO’s Luck, the track itself carries institutional weight and beauty, undiminished by the recent cancellation. It is meticulously decorated, without losing the type of detailed charm a building built in the 1930s carries. And the location itself, nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, mixed with the landscape the palm trees and the flowers, gives the track the feeling of a California garden.
But gardens don’t provoke the type of cursing our friend sitting in the expensive seats uttered. On a Friday afternoon in prime race season, Santa Anita was pretty much empty, especially compared to its size. But its coffers hardly were—the track is a prime betting target through simulcasting during its season because of the quality horses it attracts.
The next day, I was sitting at a table in at Los Alamitos Race Course pondering the Gulfstream and Santa Anita cards, when I heard a loud “Fuck!” One older gentleman, finding out about a late scratch, had screamed out and scurried to the window to change his bet.
On this Saturday (before live racing I couldn’t attend on Saturday night), it was all men. And the problem with much of horse racing is the inherent maleness and the diversity of mental states and behaviors. If you go to a track as much as I do, the yelling at the television seems normal, almost expected. Because money is on the line, it is staccato, constant, and vaguely threatening
This quarter horse track, home to some of the best racing in the country, is located in the Orange County suburbs, not far from Costa Mesa, where I once wrote about real estate and surfers, and Huntington Beach, where I covered high school football and basketball (including a game when Cherokee Parks, the famous Dukee was a freshman).
The track was obviously not as prominent as Santa Anita, but that makes no difference in the way it was organized. It had its own club, distinct seating, and decoration. The track was well maintained and clean but not as scenic as Santa Anita.
But the problem as I saw it here and across the country was the old man who yelled and what he represented. It wasn’t exactly the yelling itself. It also occurs at casinos, bingo parlors, trading floors—wherever money is at stake. It’s the combination of the dominant maleness AND the weird behavior that makes horse tracks less appealing to a larger crowd. But it’s a Catch-22 in that you need a certain tipping point to get to the right size where these crazies are just one subsection of racing fans.
Which is why it is every racetrack desires to get more women into the track, to provide a dilution of such weirdness. The old guy wasn’t all bad–a few minutes later, he helped clear off a table from one of his fellow bettors, a demonstration that even among crazies there is community.
The last stop on my self-directed tour is the racetrack I most wanted to see, for a variety of reasons. Hollywood Park is a legendary track, writer Charles Bukowski went there, and it’s probably the biggest urban track in the country, with the track clientele was the most diverse I’ve seen.
I never went to tracks for the diversity, but it was reassuring about the human condition to be around so many people from a variety of demographics who liked what I did. I used to live in Richmond, Virginia, which is still quite divided by race. I used to go the off-track betting area for the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup, and it was the most diverse place in town.
Like Santa Anita, Hollywood Park is big, with many sections. It wasn’t a racing day so the grandstands weren’t full, but the rest of the track had a good crowd. Still mostly guys, though with more women than at Los Alamitos.
My favorite part of the track was the Study Room, which announced on its door that it didn’t allow children. There was something about the way this track took its vocation seriously.
I left the racetrack after making a few bets and snapping a few photos. I walked over to the casino to see if I could play poker, another complicating development for horse racing. The brains that went into the poker craze might have one time been ones that would handicap horses. One advantage is that betting online is legal in many places (the laws require their own article), but the disadvantage is that tracks take a higher cut of the bet than they do in poker or sports betting.
I put my name on a waiting list, but got bored after a few minutes, and left. I had just finished going to my 13th track in less than a month, and all I wanted was the sure thing that awaited me a mile away: In-n-Out Burger.
At this awesome bookstore in Telluride on August 20th at 6 p.m.
Hi. Welcome to the home page of Jonathan Silverman, a professor at UMass Lowell, and the author of Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture.