A year ago today, the horses crossed the wire for the last time at Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon.
With that in mind, I figured this would be an ideal time to debut a new feature to the Claimer where I look back at some of the moments I have documented in my travels over the years.
As you may or may not know, I have been blogging for at least five years; mostly over Livejournal. Over that span, I recorded several memorable journeys to Great Lakes Downs – sometimes to watch our horse Royal Charley, sometimes just to go to the races. Every once in a while I will tell a few tales based mostly on those posts. Perhaps they will bring back a few memories of GLD or give those who never got the chance to visit the track an opportunity to see what they missed. Either way, I hope you enjoy my stories.
And now, without further ado, gather ’round kids, it’s story time!
As I vowed from the minute I learned this would be the last season at Great Lakes Downs, I took the day off from classes to go down to Muskegon. I jokingly told my design professor that I was attending a funeral, but it was not a complete lie. Because my professor was a fellow racing fan, he was completely understanding of my situation.
One thing about me…I have a really bad habit about being late for things. I am convinced that chronic lateness is a genetic trait based on the fact that the entirety of my mother’s side of the family suffers from the same affliction. Though one would assume I would have camped out the night before for such a momentous occasion, I instead found myself rushing to get out the door, and time is difficult to make up when you live 90 miles away from your destination.
I got there just as the first race crossed the wire. A Randy Russell-trained longshot took it and paid something in the neighborhood of $81 to win. Clearly, I was a little bummed that I did not get a chance to at least get a look at that race, but I did not dwell on it long, as there were 11 more races on the night’s card. Just about all of those races were filled or close to it. It made betting more of a challenge, but it sure was nice to see ten horses cross the grandstands for something other than a stakes race.
The place was packed, or at least as packed as I had ever seen it. I remember a story in the Grand Rapids Press earlier in the year about the track that’s lead was something along the lines of “Literally dozens of people were in attendance at Great Lakes Downs (I think I was there on the night he was describing and he was definitely rounding up).” The mass of people at the races this night would have made that reporter eat his words. People were inhabiting corners of the building that had not seen humanity since Howard Dean was a viable presidential candidate. Had the weather been a little more cooperative and had it been a Saturday (I believe it was a Wednesday), I’m sure the estimated 400-600 in attendance would have spiked. Where were these people when we needed them?
As I made my way down to the ground level, I noticed a TV camera pointed at one of the jockeys’ wives. I believe she was talking to Channel 17. If you search hard enough, you will find a few news spots from this night. On closing day, the local media finally started to give a damn about Great Lakes Downs, and with that came the cameras and tape recorders of people who have never been to a horse race and likely will never set foot on a track again. Throughout the night, I tried to make myself as photogenic as humanly possible in hopes that one of them would mosey over in my direction. It seems as though the fact that I am not part of the administration or a senior citizen did not make me interesting enough to make me worth talking to or photographing. Where were these people when we needed them?
Because it was the last time I would get to place a bet on a live race for quite some time, I went a bit crazy at the window. While to the naked eye, my abundance of ten-cent superfectas only appeared to make a marginally larger dent in my wallet, it was who I was betting on that got me the concerned looks from my parents. My success with exotic wagers that year has been less than stellar, so I decided to play a few ten-cent supers based less on logic and more on pure gusto. It worked for President Bush, why not me? Sadly, gusto did not get me much farther than logic. I hit three out of four at least once, but hitting three gets you as much money as hitting none.
For those of you unfamiliar with the layout of Great Lakes Downs, the clubhouse/restaurant area was set up on several tiers going down a staircase to the ground level. There was a small television set up at every table to watch the action going on fifty yards in front of you, or many people opted to watch another track or tune in another sporting event, usually a college football game. We were seated at a table right next to the stairway, which made it easy to run up and down the stairs to place bets and check out the horses in the paddock. Our location also meant that I had a nice ledge all to myself which became my base of operations. I didn’t sit down a whole lot; even to eat.
While I was standing at my perch, the track’s general manager, Amy MacNeil, came down the stairs. I mentioned the abundance of media outlets present at the night’s races. The gist of her response was the same as mine and just about everyone else I talked to who was involved with the track: “Where were these people when we needed them?” About this time, the track’s PR director, Chrissy Dailey passed by and noticed me. She had a win picture for me from my birthday party the previous week (best birthday party ever).
I spoke with Ms. MacNeil for a little while longer and she said that if the property was not sold to a developer who wanted to keep it as a track, there would be an auction to sell everything off. With news of a new casino in development in Muskegon County at the time, it appeared very unlikely. Now that the property has been sold to the Little River band of Ottawa Indians, the odds of seeing horses run in Muskegon appears even slimmer. While I would have hated the see this happen, the racing memorabilia collector in me began to awaken. My family already has a set of bleacher seats from the defunct and demolished Detroit Race Course overlooking my Grandpa Murphy’s pasture. I could start a collection of bleacher seats from defunct Michigan racetracks. The ones at GLD were really nice too. No one ever sat in them. I have not been to the track since closing day, but I am fairly certain the seats, along with just about everything else, has since been sold off.
One thing I may never forgive myself for is missing that year’s Sire Stakes to work on a story for the school newspaper. I missed a hell of a night of racing, including my neighbor Shane making over $100,000. Most of that money was won on the nose of his big-money filly, Nell’s Enjoyment. She was entered in this night’s races fresh off being named Michigan’s Older Filly or Mare of the Year. I enjoy watching her run, partly because she is a half-sister to our horses, Janies Enjoyment and Royal Charley (all three are by Quiet Enjoyment) and partly because she always seems to turn in an honest effort. The filly was the heavy favorite in her race and she did not disappoint. She dropped back early on, but closed like a freight train to take it. I cashed a nice ticket from that.
They really should not let media people into the paddock area if they have obviously never been to a racetrack before. A newspaper reporter and her photographer were wandering around the paddock talking to people and just begging to get run over. I know I should not wish harm on a fellow media person, especially one in the newspaper business, but I’ll admit I was pulling for the horses on this one. I will always be a racing fan before a journalist, and it really would have given those leeches something to report. I’m going to hell…
I kind of touched off on this earlier, but I wish the last day of racing could have held on a more pleasant day as far as weather was concerned. I had several layers of clothing on and was still shivering most of the time. I can not help but wonder how many fair-weather fans would have turned out if it had been sweater weather instead of winter jacket covered by rain slicker weather. By the end of the night, I was one of a single digit number of people standing outside to watch the horses in the paddock. Despite this, I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot when it started to snow. It was that wet, granulated kind of snow that comes down fast and doesn’t stick, but looks really cool under stadium lighting. For a few brief spurts, Great Lakes Downs became the world’s most entertaining snow globe.
By the second to last race of the night, I was riding a two race winning streak. I was still behind for the day thanks to my crackhead exotic picks earlier in the night, but I was getting close to the break-even point.
The next race presented a rare instance where both parts of the entry (Hear Come Peanut and former Charley rival C.C. Oda) had a legitimate shot at winning the race. All I would need was one of them to cross the wire first. I decided to go for broke and put five bucks on the 1 and 1a, a ludicrous amount for a horse that didn’t run under our colors.
After a messy start, the two horses fought their way back into contention but just missed, finishing second and third. I figured, like so many times before, my luck had run out in a stroke-inducing fashion. However, as I walked back into the indoor area, I saw flashing on the screen the most beautiful and deadly word in racing: “Inquiry.” I didn’t hear exactly what was being challenged, but there were several jockeys on the phone with the stewards, including the one that won the race. My ticket was still alive. I don’t know if any of you have ever had a ticket in limbo during an inquiry, but time moves at half speed. The horses for the next race walked around the paddock enough times to make me dizzy, and they couldn’t do anything else because the race still was not official.
After what had to be at least 15 minutes, the announcer came over the airwaves and announced that the winning horse had fouled one of the also-rans in the early goings of the race and had been taken down. My horse had won. I responded with a Tiger Woods-like fist pump. It was my first three-race winning streak in quite some time, and it felt pretty good. I need to do that more often.
With this long overdue winning streak under my belt, I decided to quit while I was ahead and just take in the last race.
Between races, I asked one of the security guards if I could go up on the track after everyone cleared out following the last race and fill a baggie full of dirt. I wanted to put it next to my jar full of dirt from Churchill Downs, and considering that it was the last day of racing at GLD, it would have had sentimental value. The guard told me no and called me “chief” or “champ” or some other belittling title. As you could expect, this took the wind right out of my sails. Getting blocked by security never sits well with me. Of course, if I wanted to be a jerk, I probably could have talked to a few people over his head and gotten what I wanted, but I didn’t want to abuse the privileges that come with knowing people over a baggie of dirt.
There was a horse entered in the last race named Out With a Bang. If there were ever a time for the race-fixing conspiracy theorists to be right, I begged it would be this one. Actually, there were several horses that would have made me perfectly happy to see finish first. Aside from the aptly titled gelding, Shane had two horses in the race and Rick McCune had one as well. Also, as the horses made their way through the post parade, it was announced that this would be the final race for veteran GLD jockey Luis J. Martinez Sr., who after taking the saddle before Charley’s mom, Janies Echo, was on the track in the 80s, decided to hang up his tack.
You could not have asked for much more out of a closing race. McCune’s horse, No More Committee, shot out to the lead, just like he always did, and held on to it until they came into the stretch. He then fought for the lead with Shane’s Give Me A Lite and Out With A Bang, looking like he just might hang on. In the end, No More Committee faded back to third, behind eventual winner Give Me A Lite. Out With a Bang ran second by about a length. Poetic irony was just within our grasp, but just missed. Damn.
Still, I was pleased that someone I knew had the honor of winning the last race at GLD. I gave Shane a congratulatory thumbs up as he walked to the winner’s circle and he asked if I wanted to be in the win picture. After trying all night in vain to get myself noticed by a camera, there was no way in hell I was going to turn this down.
As we were leaving the winner’s circle, Shane said he was pretty sure he saddled the first winner at GLD when it became a Thoroughbred track in 1999. I have not had the time or resources to confirm or deny this statement, but until I can prove otherwise, I will take his word for it. I guess if we couldn’t go out with a bang, making the circle complete is about as good.
And that was it. The announcer signed off for the last time and the lights shut off over the track shortly after.