Tag Archives: Indiana Downs

A Midwest Thoroughbred double feature

I have a pair of stories in the latest news cycle of The Midwest Thoroughbred magazine.

The print edition features a preview story for the upcoming meet at Indiana Downs. The Shelbyville, Ind. track had a banner year in 2010, and faces the unique challenge of keeping that positive momentum going. To find out how they plan to do it, I spoke to racing secretary Raymond “Butch” Cook and trainer Randy Klopp, who is also president of the Indiana HBPA.

Click here to read my preview of the 2011 Indiana Downs meet.

On the publication’s website, I have a feature on Michigan’s breeding industry. The story discusses the impact the state’s flagging business has had on its breeding operations, and highlights five of its top stallions. To get some insight on Michigan’s breeding industry I spoke to Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association president Patti Dickinson, trainer/breeder James Jackson, McMaster Farm manager Dan Boik and breeder EJ Hubel.

Click here to read my story on Michigan’s breeding industry.

Also, if you’ll notice on page six, I have been added to the publication’s masthead as a contributing editor. I’m honored to be part of the team.

This is not the first time I have had work published in The Midwest Thoroughbred. Back in September, I interviewed jockey and trainer Richard Rettele for the magazine’s “Jockey Shorts” section.

The Midwest Thoroughbred is a fantastic publication for readers interested in horse racing in the region, and the effect its native sons and daughters have on the national scene. Though the magazine focuses its coverage on the business in Illinois and Indiana, it frequently covers topics pertaining to racing in surrounding states, including Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Kentucky.

The publication is getting better with every issue, and is definitely worth the time to check out. And I’m not just saying that because I write for them. The feature writing is creative, entertaining and covers topics that the national publications may overlook.

I’d like to thank The Midwest Thoroughbred for having me on board, and I look forward to working together in the future.

If you like what you see, click here to subscribe to The Midwest Thoroughbred.

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An evening at Hoosier Park

Fans of the former Great Lakes Downs will find a lot to like in Hoosier Park.

Frequent visitors to this site have likely picked up on how much I miss Great Lakes Downs.

The Muskegon track was where I learned many of the nuances of the sport, and where interest became infatuation as I followed my grandpa’s racehorse, Royal Charley.

Now it’s an empty lot.

I’ve spent a lot of time and gas miles trying to recapture the magic I felt at GLD, only managing to find it in small doses – usually when the lights come on for night races.

No track will ever fully re-create the Great Lakes Downs experience, but a night at Hoosier Park is about as close as it gets. In fact, with its adjacent casino, Hoosier provides a look at perhaps what could have been if slots had been allowed in Michigan before the track was sold to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and knocked down.

The Anderson, Ind. plant is an enclosed structure split into four sections. The entrance is at the top landing, housing the gift shop, restaurant, a bar and a couple mall-style food stations. From there, patrons can choose one of two paths down to the apron. On the right is the dining area, which sits on several levels down the stairs. As I did at GLD, I imagine the wait staff, who has to climb up and down those stairs to serve their customers, must have calves of steel. The left side held the grandstand seating. At the bottom sat some concession stands and betting windows.

The similarities to GLD continued as I made my way out to the apron. The track surface is raised at the end of the apron to about shin-to-knee level. Hoosier managed to improve on this setup by putting an eye-level opening in the fence, which made the viewing experience much easier than watching the field go by through chain link.

The apron area is a little more spread out than Muskegon, but the paddock is more scenic. A fountain overlooked the saddling area, which led into a nicely landscaped walking ring.

I spent the day with my former Thoroughbred Times traveling companion Jeff Apel and grade school chum Niki. For my first time visiting the track, they were far from the only people I knew. While sitting at one of the trackside picnic tables, I heard someone call my name from the track. It was another friend from school working as an outrider. Small world. Of course, there were also plenty of transplants from Pinnacle Race Course and Mount Pleasant Meadows looking to take advantage of the sweeter pots. There is no doubt this increased my comfort level with getting used to a new track.

The effects slots have had at Hoosier Park are apparent in the quality of horses the track sends to post. On that particular night, the card featured large fields highlighted by the third place finisher in last year’s Sanford Stakes (G2) and a fringe Kentucky Derby trail horse from this year’s race. That is more than most tracks in the Midwest can boast.

My luck at the windows dwindled with the setting of the sun, and I was already staring down an 0-fer. I scanned through my program with a sense of optimism when I noticed three Michigan-breds entered in the sixth race, but none of them could put up much of a fight against the previously mentioned fringe Derby trail contender.

As night fell on the track, the Quarter Horses came out to play. The card was divided up into nine Thoroughbred races and three Quarter Horse races, for a total of 12 races overall. If the Thoroughbred races were robust, the Quarters were downright juicy. Full fields (before scratches) entered the gates for each race to run for an average purse of $23,833 for the evening. That’s a spicy meatball.

Despite my familiarity with the various Mount Pleasant connections competing in the races, I continued to whiff on the Quarter Horse portion of the card. However, Mount Pleasant trainer Tony Cunningham and jockey Juan Delgado did manage to score in the nightcap with Cant Tell Me Nothing, so if I wasn’t going to get paid, at least someone I knew was picking up the slack.

With the races in the rear view mirror, Niki and I hit up the casino. Like Indiana Downs, everything that is not a straight up slot machine is digital. The table games are arranged similar to the real thing, but players place bets and recieve their cards on a monitor. While some bemoan the lack of actual table games, I prefer the digital versions because no one else has to see how big of a coward I am being with my bets.

Despite my relative ineptitude in most casino games, I actually found myself about $30 ahead near the end of the night. Then, as we were heading out the door, the roulette wheel caught my attention from the corner of my eye and begged for some of my time. Roulette and I have a strange relationship – like that one friend everyone has that can be lots of fun to be around, but taxing on the wallet. Even though it is a complete game of chance, I still find it fascinating. It can be broken down statistically, even though doing so is a useless venture. It can hit random hot and cold streaks with numbers and colors, then blow them up without warning. Every plan and superstition is absolutely right and absolutely useless at the exact same time; kind of like horse racing.

Unlike most of the faux table games, the roulette wheel is real, but automated, so a human being is not needed to spin the wheel or deal with the ball. However, the terminals were still there, so no one had to see I was only putting a dollar on red or black with each spin. When you play with as small a bankroll as I had though, hitting a cold streak can add up. After zigging when I should have zagged a few times too many, I decided to cut myself off while I was still up by a reasonable amount (something in the $20 neighborhood) and call it a night. I had some driving ahead of me in the morning, anyway.

Now that I have visited both of Indiana’s racetracks, there will inevitably be comparisons. The main thing to keep in mind when discussing Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs is that Hoosier was in place long before slots became a reality, whereas Indiana was essentially built with a racino in mind.

As a place to watch races, Hoosier is the better of the two. The overall racetrack experience is more vibrant and practical. For all the fuss about racino tracks not being able to draw fans to the racetrack side of the action, the crowd was reasonably robust for a Friday night card, and the bar stayed busy hours after the last horse crossed the wire.

The casino at Indiana, on the other hand, is a little better – at least in the eyes of someone who has been to three casinos in his life, with two of them being in the focus group. The games themselves were about on par with each other, but it just felt there was more going on at the Shelbyville casino. With that said, each is a worthwhile destination for someone looking for action.

Instead of waxing poetic one last time about how much Hoosier Park reminds me of the good times at Great Lakes Downs, I will instead note that I like the track so much, I intend to return for the Indiana Derby on Oct. 2. While I will never forget the fun I had in Muskegon, I intend to create my share of new memories at Hoosier Park in due time.

Behind the jump are some pictures of my visit to Hoosier Park.

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Weekend at the Pea Patch

Ellis Park does a good job of giving fans a full day at the races. Revival Ridge heads through the post parade with Fabio Arguello, Jr. aboard.

Ellis Park does a good job of giving fans a full day at the races. Revival Ridge heads through the post parade with Fabio Arguello, Jr. aboard.

During my internship with Thoroughbred Times last summer, one of the things I enjoyed most was the weekend day trips to nearby racetracks with former Assistant Today Editor Jeff Apel.

One of our trips took us west to Henderson, Kentucky; home of Ellis Park. I left the track that day with a new favorite out-of-state racing destination (and about $100 ahead for the day, which certainly didn’t hurt my opinion of the place).

After having such a positive experience with my first visit to Ellis, I made a point of making the track a cornerstone of my summer road trip. The track’s announcement that it could shut the lights off at the end of the year without slots legislation made a trip to Henderson this summer an even higher priority, just in case it comes true.

I left my hotel in Shelbyville, Indiana Saturday morning coming off about four hours sleep after a busy night at Indiana Downs. The plan was to get to Ellis by the day’s first race at 12 p.m. Central Time (which completely threw my internal clock out of whack). That was quickly shelved when I found my path to be obstructed by a bridge being rebuilt from the ground up with no signs leading to a detour. I spent the next hour driving through rural Indiana’s narrow, twisting, turning and dead end-ing back roads and farm service lanes while my GPS worked frantically to get me back on the freeway. After lots of driving and listening to Michael Jackson’s greatest hits (considering the time and place, it seemed fitting), I finally got on course.

One thing I remembered from my first visit to Ellis was the incredibly dangerous left turn needed to pull into the track’s entrance. Henderson’s main drag is set up as a boulevard, so getting into the track’s driveway from the other side of the road requires crossing two lanes of oncoming traffic without the assistance of a stoplight or anything else to slow the other lane down. Leaving the track is just as scary. I couldn’t imagine taking a trailer full of horses across that turn.

I’ve noticed that region of Indiana and Kentucky does not seem to protect the motorists any more than it has to. While driving through Evansville, Indiana before the races, I saw a sign at an intersection that read something like “High Accident Area.” Instead of doing something to improve the safety of the crossroads, the city simply put a sign up telling drivers they were probably going to get hit. Dynamite.

Needless to say, I survived the turn and entered the back way into Ellis Park. The path is quite scenic, leading to endless fields of various crops if one decides not to turn off into the track’s parking lot.

I got there about an hour late, and with an opening day crowd, that meant I was going to have to do some hiking. Though there is a blacktop parking lot, the majority of racegoers parked in a grassy field adjacent to the stretch, reminiscent of an auction, flea market or other large, informal community gathering. I got that feeling a lot there, and that’s not a bad thing.

I finally made it through the gates prior to the third race.

Ellis Park is a spread-out track, but unlike Indiana Downs, there are places everywhere on the grounds to eat, drink, watch the race and place a bet. Between the apron and the paddock is a grassy path dotted with picnic tables and boards for playing corn hole. Behind that are several lean-tos with betting windows, simulcast screens, stands for food and drink, and a bar (and thankfully, lots of fans to fight the heat).The track seems to take the phrase “a day at the races” quite literally, giving people plenty to do outside of the races themselves.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a “community event” feel to a day at Ellis Park. Perhaps it was just an opening weekend rush, but the place was packed both days I was there. With crowds like that, I can not believe the place is going under, even if they are only buying hot dogs and beer. Parents and grandparents teaching their children about the sport were plentiful, as were young groups of friends deciding which horses to vote for. The steps up to the grandstand were used just as frequently as makeshift bleachers.

Even the infield gives off the feeling that the track belongs to the community. Every year, a soybean crop is planted in the middle of the oval, which is kept up by the grounds crew, then harvested, with the payload going to charity. That’s just cool.

If I can get away with gushing about the atmosphere at Ellis Park for one more paragraph, even the gift shop does things right. It sells the standard hats and T-shirts, but there are also many items directly associated with the track that make for unique souvenirs. Jockeys’ whips and goggles are available, but my personal favorite items were the numbered smocks worn by a horse’s handler in the paddock. Some of them had seen better days, but they make for neat, offbeat mementos.

After the race, I headed over to the hamburger stand to partake in Ellis Park’s biggest attraction. As some of you may recall, I listed the Ellis Park hamburger among my holy trinity of racetrack foods, and that day’s meal was no different. I can’t define what exactly makes the Ellis hamburger stand apart from its racetrack burger contemporaries, but it alone is worth the price of admission. I wanted to ask the man behind the grill what his secret was, but I decided that, like a magic trick, some things should just be enjoyed without getting into the hows and whys.

Opening day at Ellis Park was also “Funny Cide Day,” featuring appearances by the dual classic winner, Sackatoga Stables’ Managing Partner, Jack Knowlton and various Funny Cide merchandise (I wanted to try the Funny Cider, but it was just too hot out for a drink like that). I missed the horse’s first appearance, but made sure to get a spot by the paddock for his second and final showing after the fourth race. He was led up and down the paddock fence for anyone within arm’s length to touch. After a little shoving to get a spot on the fence, I finally got to pet the neck and shoulder of the champion. I considered finding a container for the hair left behind on my hand to place next to my dirt from Churchill Downs, but most of it blew away before I had time to conduct a search. Oh well…

Funny Cide was well-behaved considering the new location and all the strange people touching him. I know a lot of horses that would have gone ballistic under similar circumstances. He got a little antsy near the end, but nothing worth serious reprimand from his handler. The horse was eventually joined by Knowlton and Ellis Park owner Ron Geary, who held his grandchildren as they pet the Kentucky Derby winner. After visiting with his admirers, Funny Cide was paraded in front of the grandstand, where a steady roar of applause followed him down the stretch.

After Funny Cide departed, Knowlton went back to the merch tent to sign autographs. I told him he had one heck of a horse and managed to get one of my business cards into his hands. I even got him to sign my picture to “The Michigan-Bred Claimer.” If Mr. Knowlton is reading this, thanks for stopping by!

While we are still figuratively near the paddock, I will take this moment to quickly criticize Ellis Park for its paddock setup. Only one side of the of the paddock is available for the public to view the horses, which can lead to quite a bit of crowding on the fence. As a photographer, this caused quite a bit of trouble with people’s heads getting in the way of my shots, and as a handicapper, the higher-numbered stalls were so far away that getting a good look at the horses became difficult. Also, working to find an open spot on the fence was a constant distraction.

If my readers have not yet noticed, I’m kind of big on getting the paddock right. I don’t necessarily have a prototype of what a good paddock should be, but I know one when I see one.

There was actually some horse racing going on throughout all this, too. An awful lot of of the riders had ridden at Indiana Downs the night before, which I found to be quite impressive. I drove the same distance and did about a quarter of the work they had and I sure didn’t feel like picking up six or seven mounts that day. Then again, I doubt they spent the night in the casino, but it is still quite the trip, nonetheless.

Though I took an absolute thrashing from a handicapping standpoint, I did claim a big moral victory when Michigan-bred Speak of Kings took Saturday’s feature race, a $30,000 allowance optional claimer going 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf. He went off as the favorite both in the morning line and when the gates opened, and moved late to win the race. Speak of Kings has represented his home state well as a regular on the Kentucky circuit, winning four races in 2008 and only missing the board once this year.

On Sunday, I got the opportunity to speak briefly with track owner Ron Geary. He was out in the picnic area meeting and greeting with track patrons, and as he walked by, I told him he was running a fine operation. He thanked me and we talked for a few minutes about hard times. When I told him I was from Michigan, he asked me how Pinnacle’s racing date situation was looking and we discussed purse structures. I didn’t manage to give him one of my business cards before he had to go, but getting some one-on-one face time with the track owner was pretty memorable regardless.

I left Ellis Park that weekend throughly defeated at the windows, but the experience of being there far outweighed the cost to play the game. Ellis Park is out of the way from most of my usual Kentucky destinations, but I wholeheartedly recommend a visit the track if one’s adventures lead to the western part of the state. Hopefully the track can manage to cure what ails it without having to close the doors, because tracks like this do too many things right to deserve to fail.

Behind the jump are some pictures from my weekend at Ellis Park…

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Waking up in Shelbyville

Interesting things happen at Indiana Downs, but bring your walking shoes. Valance comes back after a race with Thomas Pompell aboard.

Interesting things happen at Indiana Downs, but bring your walking shoes. Valance comes back after a race with Thomas Pompell aboard.

To an outsider of the industry, Indiana Downs might appear solely responsible for the decay of horse racing in the Midwest.

The Shelbyville, Indiana racetrack’s slots-enriched purses have leeched people, horses and handle from nearby states lacking the benefit of casino gaming, further weakening racetracks already in dire straits.

Similar in class and proximity, Ellis Park is showing signs of throwing in the towel if it can not throw its own one-armed haymakers. With a Quarter Horse purse structure that often trumps Mount Pleasant Meadows’ entire Quarter card in one race, the Michigan track has been left consistently putting out four-horse fields.

Obviously, Indiana Downs is not entirely to blame for the woes of its neighbors, but it sure isn’t hard to make the connection when one sees the regulars from his or her local establishment appearing, and winning, in the Hoosier State.

Regardless, there is clearly something appealing about this track, but was it strictly the dollar signs or was it a worthwhile destination for racegoers as well?

From the road, Indiana Downs, the adjacent casino (Indiana Live!) and its parking structure form an intimidating figure. I began to wonder how much I was going to have to shell out before I even made it to the apron. In a pleasant surprise, admission and parking were free (or at least I managed to get where I needed to go without having to pay anyone. Maybe I’m just good at being sneaky).

As a fairly new track, the grandstand did not have much in terms of grit (I like tracks with a little bit of grit. It gives them character). The entire structure is enclosed. The first level is mostly simulcast outlets and places to get food and drinks. Both sections of the first floor resembled a mall food court but didn’t afford many opportunities to watch the live races on much else but a screen.

The second level was reserved table seating and a handful of general admission movie theater-style bleachers. My aimless wandering eventually led me to the third floor, but my time upstairs was short when I realized it was mostly for track administration. Nothing up there for me.

With few options to watch the actual live races from ground level indoors, the track’s apron more than makes up for it in its expansiveness. By the quarter horse portion of the card later that night, the apron was impressively filled considering its size. It was far from shoulder-to-shoulder, but the benches were filled and securing a spot on the rail meant having to do a little jockeying for position.

Though the large apron was useful for containing the audience, it also contributed to the track’s most fatal flaw.

Separated from the apron by a playground and a whole lot of empty space, the saddling paddock was way too far from the action inside the plant or on the track to be practical. It is literally positioned at the quarter pole, and making the walk back and forth got old quickly. To watch the horses saddle in the paddock and head out to the track requires making a commitment to do so. You will miss the post parade and will be hard-pressed to find an open spot on the rail during the race, especially after spending time in the betting lines. There are no television screens or tote boards near the paddock, meaning horseplayers have to squint to see the odds a quarter mile away, and are completely in the dark in terms of potential exotic payouts (If anyone in a position of power at Indiana Downs is reading this, build a small lean-to by the paddock and place one small screen and a betting machine inside. Then watch your live handle rise).

It almost feels like the paddock was built as an afterthought. There were no PA speakers around that I remember, so the announcer’s presence was nonexistent (speaking of which, Indiana’s announcer, John Bothe’s voice bears a striking resemblance to the announcer from the old Star Wars Episode 1 Podracer video games. I know only a small percentage of my readers will get this reference, but pop in the game after a trip to Shelbyville. It’s uncanny). Finally, once nighttime rolled around, I found the paddock to be poorly lit, with a dim light over each stall and little else. After weighing out the pros and cons of making the hike over to the paddock and factoring in my increasingly aching feet, I decided to stop going over there by the fifth or sixth race.

To some, my beef with the paddock may seem like a minor thing, but I saw this as a major point of disconnect between the track and the fans. This is where parents and grandparents take their young ones to teach them about handicapping and how a good horse is put together. This is where new and disinterested fans go to look at the pretty horseys. This is where regular players make their final decisions between two horses who look exactly the same on paper. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about a racetrack, but the paddock is a key part of a track’s aesthetic, and by putting it in such an inconvenient location, Indiana Downs became a much less enjoyable place to see a race.

Though I was a long way from home, the day’s card was full of Michigan ties. Two Mount Pleasant Meadows regulars were entered in the Thoroughbred portion of the card (they ran last and second to last), as well as another Michigan-bred (second). The three Quarter Horse races were even more populated with local connections, with appearances by MPM jockeys Julie Veltman, Harold Collins and Juan and Oscar Delgado, along with trainers Ron Raper, Tony Cunningham and Dicky Benton. The Mount Pleasant contingent represented itself well, with a Cunningham-trained horse taking the ninth race, ridden by Oscar Delgado. A Benton/Veltman horse also took second.

The service at Indiana Downs was was generally friendly and efficient, if at times a little unusual. While ordering a cheeseburger in the food court area, the cashiers looked at me, then my camera, and said “Hey, weren’t you here last week?” After explaining to them it was my first time at the track, they became convinced I was there to take their picture. I am not sure what led them to believe this, but I obliged. The burger was ok.

After the races, I decided to give the so-called savior of the racing industry a try and went into the casino. I turned a dollar into $18 and change, then proceeded to lose it when I put it all on black at the roulette table (because that’s what you do when you’re in the midst of a slump at a casino – you put it all on black). My unhealthy gambling habits aside, I was impressed by what I saw in the casino. A live band played in a bar in the center of the complex and several clubs and restaurants surrounded the outskirts of the sea of slots and virtual table games (yes, even the table games are computerized. They get an awful lot of mileage out of the “V” in “VLT”).

My experience with casinos was limited to the Soaring Eagle in Mount Pleasant, so I am far from the authority on what makes a good casino. That said, Indiana Live blew the doors off the Soaring Eagle. If Michigan should ever be fortunate enough to get casino gaming and they set it up anything like Indiana Downs, there is little doubt I will spend the rest of my life in poverty.

But I’d sure have a lot of fun along the way.

Here are some pictures from my day at Indiana Downs. Keep in mind that it gets hard to take pictures without flash as it gets darker (security tends to frown on sudden bursts of light around high-strung animals), so the quality of the photos sinks with the sun. Have a look…

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Ship-ins

Nobody ever won an Eclipse Award staying at one track.*

With that mantra in mind, I am loading up and shipping south.

Friday, I will be at Indiana Downs, followed by excursions to Ellis Park, Lexington, Kentucky and River Downs. Unless the Indiana slots take all my money right off the bat, this road trip will rule. Expect recounts of my travels whenever I find the time to write.

While we are on the subject of ship-ins, Chicago-based rider, and star of Animal Planet’s reality series “Jockeys,” Brandon Meier brought home one winner from two starts on Tuesday’s card. Meier found the winner’s circle in a 6 3/4 length victory aboard Heaven’s Flame in race eight. His other start was a second-to-last effort aboard Crystal Mast in the sixth race.

Behind the jump is a reader-contributed photo of Meier during his visit to Pinnacle Race Course.

* I don’t have the time or initiative to verify this. I wouldn’t doubt someone in the history of the awards took home the prize having only raced at one track, but in general, champions are encouraged to take their games on the road.

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Where everybody knows your name

Nothing warms the heart like a homecoming. Kit Corona heads to a maiden win under Juan Delgado at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

Nothing warms the heart like a homecoming. Kit Corona heads to a maiden win under Juan Delgado at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

For me, it all begins at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

It was at Mount Pleasant Meadows where in 1990 I stood in the winner’s circe for the first time with my grandpa’s horse, and future Echo Hills matriarch, Janie’s Echo. I was four years old. Richard Rettele was the jockey.

Mount Pleasant is also where I picked my first winner, an Arabian colt named Fast Dance, again at the age of four, maybe five. Using all the handicapping prowess I had at the time, I picked the horse with the best name.

Nineteen years later, I was again headed toward the winner’s circle, but an Echo Hills horse hasn’t run at Mount Pleasant in at least 15 years. Instead, I was on my way to get a picture of the race’s victor, Anniversary Annie, a horse I overlooked because her odds were too low to justify the risk. Richard Rettele was the jockey.

No matter what goes on in the outside world, it’s good to know some things never change.

After canceling its initial Kentucky Derby-corresponding opening day due to a lack of entries, Mount Pleasant Meadows kicked off its 2009 meet on Sunday.

It was a cloudy day, and there were still a few puddles on the track from the previous day’s storms. If the track surface does one thing well, it’s holding water.

The place was pretty quiet when I got there, about an hour before first post. People began filing in at a quicker rate as the horses reached the paddock for the first race.

The thing I love most about Mount Pleasant is its communal feel. The trainers and their assistants double as the pony riders, often taking horses other than their own from the barn to the paddock and to the starting gate. From there, the same horsemen put on yet another hat and become the gate crew. Try finding that kind of trust at Churchill Downs.

Speaking of trust, the trainers/outriders/gate men display an awful lot of it before each race. While the trainers saddle their horses in the paddock, they leave their pony horses in the care of whomever is standing near the paddock at the moment. Normally, this means young-to-preteen children, though I sometimes find myself holding one or two on slow or unseasonable days. Parents often look on as their children, usually new to the sport or horses in general, try to figure out what exactly they are holding the reins to. Just as often, the kids get sneezed on.

There are plenty of other things at Mount Pleasant Meadows a racegoer will not see at most tracks. Among them is previously mentioned jockey Richard Rettele, who at the age of 68 continues to be the big money rider at the track. He may not ride in every race, but when he does climb aboard, he usually removes his tack in the winner’s circle. ESPN.com mentioned Rettele in a story it did a few years back about older jockeys, which can be read here.

Also, because Mount Pleasant is a mixed breed track, fans are treated to races of varying distance and horse type. Not good at picking out Arabian closers at five furlongs? Give it a few minutes and a 250-yard quarter horse dash will be on the card. Want to see a paint horse go up against a Thoroughbred? Every once in a while they’ll make it happen.

Only at Mount Pleasant Meadows will you see an 0-for-three years paint horse lose a match race by five lengths, but win by DQ, then see its jockey get jumped by a chipmunk waiting inside the mailbox holding the phone to the stewards after the race.

Despite the attractions of the out-of-the-ordinary, Mount Pleasant Meadows is something of a track in crisis. The number of horses being sent to the gates has dwindled to four or five per race when the cards fill at all. The track is consistently and significantly last in the state in both live and simulcast handle year after year (according to Equibase, the total live handle on opening day was $3,267). Competition from a casino ten minutes away saps away even more of the gambling dollar, and outside of Triple Crown race days, the the live attendance is a long way from robust. Things are tough, and with the economy giving people a tight grip on their cash (especially in Michigan), and the state government’s almost daily report of bad news for the racing industry, thinking about the track’s future can be a little scary.

It’s a surreal experience visiting a track that knows it’s in trouble. Upon cashing a $9 winning ticket, the clerk said, “Hey, that’s pretty good for where you are.” I ended up making about $20 on the day, all from win bets because the fields were not big enough for exacta wagering for all but the last race.

The tension was spread out among the regular racegoers as well. Conversations tended to focus around the people who weren’t there, be it those listed in the program as having passed on, or more frequently those who left to chase bigger purses in Indiana. Notably absent were the pink and black silks of Ron Raper, usually good for 1.5 horses per race, who has moved his operation to the Hoosier state.  However, when slots-enriched Indiana Downs is offering more purse money in one quarter horse race than Mount Pleasant is in its entire quarter horse portion of the card, it is hard to blame anyone who takes up a new residence south of the Michigan border.

Still, it was great to be back. It was nice to catch up with the old friends I hadn’t seen since the meet ended last October and introduce myself to new friends I had made through this site. Not everyone may know my name there, but they all knew my grandpa, who was a regular since the track’s opening day 25 years ago.

For all the ragging I do on Mount Pleasant Meadows, it is the one track I always find myself longing for. Throughout my time in Kentucky last summer, I often found myself wondering what was going on at the dirt oval north of town. Simply put, without this track, the course of my life would have been dramatically altered. Hopefully Mount Pleasant can make it through its current struggles, because the racing world would lose something special if the lights go out.

Here are a few looks at opening day at Mount Pleasant Meadows…

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Mount Pleasant Meadows cancels opening card

Horse racing fans in central Michigan will have to wait another week for live racing to return to Mount Pleasant Meadows.

The mixed breed racetrack canceled its opening card yesterday due to a lack of entries. In an email, the track said “weather conditions last week caused a lack of workouts for horses wanting in.”

The Mount Pleasant area has been getting steady rains for several days, and the track’s tendency to hold water likely made training conditions difficult on the sandy loam.

Commitments at Indiana Downs by trainers, jockeys and horses normally based at Mount Pleasant may have also cut into the available stock for Saturday’s card. The Shelbyville, Ind. track scheduled three quarter horse races on Saturday, starting at 10:15 p.m.. With the smallest of the three purses listed at $17,500, that’s a hard number to turn down.

Despite the cancellation of the live card, Mount Pleasant Meadows will still be open for simulcast wagering, including the Kentucky Derby.

Mount Pleasant Meadows joins Hollywood Park on the list of racetracks to cancel cards this week due to lack of entries. The Inglewood, Calif. racetrack canceled yesterday’s scheduled races when the card failed to draw enough horses earlier this week.

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Exploring the alternatives

The implementation of alternative wagering would likely speed up the construction process at Pinnacle Race Course. Caught In Traffic is led out of the paddock with Federico Mata aboard.

The implementation of alternative wagering would likely speed up the construction process at Pinnacle Race Course. Caught In Traffic is led out of the paddock with Federico Mata aboard.

The proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube.

The number of states seeing their purses skyrocket from slot machines and other casino gaming is growing with each passing year. 

Just as many racetracks, if not more, are going online for new sources of handle, offering advance deposit wagering for those of us who like to play the races but fear natural sunlight.

With so much competition for the gambling dollar from casinos, lotteries, neighborhood poker games and elsewhere, it appears the days of racing being able to thrive on its own product alone are becoming numbered.

Even Kentucky, the Thoroughbred capital of the world, is working toward legislation to implement slots into the state’s racetracks. 

The implementation of alternative wagering is also widening the gap between functional racing facilities and ones that struggle to keep the lights on.

Michigan, for example, has no alternative wagering options outside of simulcast and is suffering because of it. 

In 2004, a ballot proposal, largely funded by the state’s Native American tribes and three casinos in Detroit, was convincingly approved forcing the state’s racetracks to jump through a ridiculous and costly number of hoops to even get a chance to install slots or table games. In the same proposal, the tribes and Detroit casinos included a clause making themselves immune to the restrictions and free to expand their gaming operations in any manner they wish. To put the final nail in the coffin, the proposal was retroactive, killing a Video Lottery Terminal bill that was making its way through State Congress when the proposal was written.

The proposal was marketed as a way to empower the people of Michigan, allowing them to control where new gaming could and could not go. As any good Snake Oil salesman will attest, the first step in manipulating the masses is giving them a false sense of empowerment. Despite what a federal judge said earlier this year, a fast one of epic proportions was pulled on the people of Michigan in 2004.

Online wagering on Michigan tracks is also prohibited to its populace. Michigan residents are allowed to set up accounts and send their money to tracks across the globe, but can not wager on the ones in their own state. A person who lives on the other side of the Ohio border just a few miles from Pinnacle Race Course can fire up their Xpressbet account and play the races in his or her underwear. Meanwhile, the Michigan racing fan living in the state’s upper peninsula, a good eight-to-ten-hour drive from New Boston, is out of luck. There is something backward about outlawing something to the group that could benefit from it the most.

Through all of this, the number of tribal casinos in Michigan has swelled to 17, with at least two more in development. This does not include The Great Lakes Downs property recently purchased by the Little River Tribe of Ottawa Indians in 2008, which currently sits in administrative purgatory while the Tribe attempts to get a gaming license on non-tribal land.

The Michigan Lottery has also expanded quite freely, and since its inception in 1972 has ballooned to over 20 different drawings, Club Keno, Pull Tabs and countless instant ticket games; all of which are allowed to expand their presence into gas stations, bars, restaurants and elsewhere. The Michigan racing industry is literally being regulated by its competition.

Racing in the state of Michigan can not be expected to survive it is not allowed the same rights of expansion as other gaming outlets in the state and other racetracks in neighboring states. 

Because of the state’s unwillingness to provide its racing industry with the tools it needs to compete on a level playing field, Michigan’s horsemen are leaving in droves. With Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Downs and two recently slots-enriched tracks in Indiana so nearby, many horsemen are sending their mares to foal in those states to take advantage of their generous breeder’s incentive programs. Others are simply pulling up the stakes and moving their entire operations to states with alternative wagering.

It is sad to see them go, but when a $7,500 claimer can run for double the purse elsewhere, one can hardly blame Michigan’s horsemen for going where the money is. If Kentucky approves slots, it will only give them another place to race for lots more money than they could here. The effects the massive loss of horsemen in this state could have is staggering.

I will now step down from my soapbox and allow you to step up onto yours for the next poll question: Which form of alternative wagering is most important to racing’s long-term health?

Though I use Michigan as an example, the question applies to the sport as a whole.

Slots make the purses nice and big, but is it just a bubble that will eventually burst? Account wagering allows players to wager from anywhere, but could it someday render live handle obsolete? Is there something out there no one has considered?

Personally, I think Michigan could use whatever it can get.

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