Monthly Archives: July 2009

Revenge at the River

With slots on the way, River Downs could become a major player in the near future. A muddied With Wings returns from a race with Vernon Bush aboard.

With slots apparently on the way, River Downs could become a major player in the near future. A muddied With Wings returns from a race with Vernon Bush aboard.

Last summer, during another one of my road trips with Jeff Apel, we headed north to Cincinnati for a visit to River Downs. I didn’t cash a single ticket that day.

The thought was still fresh in my mind when my travels brought me back to the River a year later, making the purpose of my stop less about leisure and more about revenge.

It’s nothing personal, River Downs, just business.

River Downs was the last stop on my tour of mid-level midwest tracks before heading back to Michigan. Having been inspired the movie Public Enemies (more John Dillinger himself than the actual movie, which wasn’t great), my plan was your standard smash, grab and make the clean getaway, hopefully making it home by a decent hour.

The parking lot at River Downs is unique in that cars can literally touch the track’s outside rail with their bumpers. Though I did not see anyone doing it this time around, my visit last year saw many people back their trucks up to the rail and watch the stretch drive from their tailgates or a lawn chair in the back of the truck. Perhaps it was more of a weekend thing, but it was still an interesting feature of the track to be able to gather up a cooler and some buddies and watch the best part of a race without having to leave the parking lot.

This wouldn’t be very much fun to read if I had just stayed in the parking lot, so I ventured into the track’s plant. Admission was free.

My first stop was to the program stand.

River Downs’ live card is set up in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. Ohio has three Thoroughbred tracks, with live meets that often overlap each other. To keep the tracks from directly competing for the simulcast dollar when this happens, the 7 & 7 system was put in place. In this system the two overlapping tracks, in this case River Downs and Thistledown, alternate broadcasting their races on one simulcast signal. While one track is bringing its horses over to the paddock, the other is sending theirs to the gates. From a live racing perspective, each track gets seven races, but there are 14 races in the program.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is $1.50 for a program is a pretty good deal.

After looking over the day’s races for a while, I met up with track photographer/awesome tour guide Emily. She showed me around the grounds, including the press box, which resides on the other end of a mildly terrifying catwalk suspended over the grandstand.

The view was impressive from the press box window. For a mid-to-lower rung track (heck, even for a lot of the higher-level ones), the infield is quite scenic and well-landscaped. Behind the track is the Ohio River and a heavily wooded hill, which provided a stunning backdrop for the day’s races.

The plant itself could benefit from some renovation, but that could be on its way in due time. The grandstand had long rows of ticket windows, but only a few were manned by mutuel tellers. In the plant’s main concession and simulcast area, a massive wall of television screens hangs suspended over several rows of benches showing the best races a Thursday afternoon has to offer. I wish I had taken a picture of it because it is quite the imposing structure.

Emily also filled me in on the state of Ohio racing. It sounded a lot like Michigan’s situation with a more cooperative governor and less tribal interference (though it sounded like the church lobby might be comparable). After a long battle, it looks like Ohio will, in the near future, become a slots state. With it will likely come renovations to the facility and increased purses, both of which ought to draw patrons.

Shortly after the walkthrough, the horses began coming to the paddock for the first race. Those of you who have been following along have probably noticed my complaints regarding the paddock areas at the previous stops on my trip. I didn’t have those issues with River Downs.

The paddock is divided into a saddling area and a walking ring, similar to Beulah Park, but not as spread out. The paddock stalls are arranged in an anchor shape with the lane to the walking ring going down the middle. Of all the places I have visited, the River Downs paddock offers the closest access to the horses while they are saddling. I like being able to get a good, close look at each horse, and this paddock affords handicappers the chance to do so standing still and on the walk. It makes taking pictures much easier as well. Consistent with the rest of the landscaping, the walking ring is well-kept with trees and flowers. River Downs’ paddock easily ranks among my favorites.

I spent most of my day at the River hanging out in the photographer’s office with Emily. Positioned near the paddock, the office got lots of traffic from nearby trainers. The stories they told gave some extra intrigue to the upcoming races. The most notable backstory came from a trainer who, after dropping a horse from stakes races to $4,000 claiming company in less than a year, planned to retire his charge to the hunt and jump circuit if he did not win his race that day. His horse ended up soundly trumping the field.

During my road trip, I had good luck with Michigan-breds and Michigan-based connections stepping up their games and finding the winner’s circle. My day at River Downs kept the streak alive, with Here’s the Melody notching her first victory in 16 starts and breaking the bank at $50.20 for a $2 win ticket. Though the horse was an immediate throw-out during my review of the card, it was nonetheless a proud moment. The other MI-bred entered in the day’s card, With Wings, finished fourth later in the day.

After a few races, I was met by River Downs’ Director of Publicity and Public Relations, John Engelhardt, who shared in my excitement of the Michigan breds’ success. The day before my visit to Cincinnati, I visited the Thoroughbred Times office to catch up with my former co-workers. After hearing of my plans to visit River Downs, Managing Editor Tom Law sent an email to Engelhardt asking him to show me around. The results are as follows…

After the horses entered the walking ring for the upcoming race, Engelhardt led me into the middle of the ring to take pictures. A former track photographer himself, he gave me some pointers on the best places on the grounds to position myself.

After the next race, Engelhardt took me once again over the mildly terrifying catwalk and introduced me to the track’s stewards, including 1970 Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Mike Manganello (who won the race on Dust Commander).

Afterward, we headed up to the announcer’s post , the workplace of Peter Aiello. I immediately became a fan of Aiello’s work after the first race of my visit last summer. Few announcers can get me excited about a $5,000 claiming race in which I have no money wagered, but Aiello managed to do it. I have spoken highly of him to anyone that will listen ever since.

As it turns out, Aiello is a reader of the blog and a fan of Mount Pleasant Meadows, so we hit it off immediately. Aiello said his time working on the Arizona fair circuit while attending the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program gave him an appreciation of racing’s smallest venues.

We swapped unbelievable small track stories one would only see at the most obscure bullrings. I volleyed with my famous “Chipmunk in the mailbox” story, but conceded defeat when he countered with a story about a trainer beaning his own jockey (still on the horse) in the helmet with a beer bottle from the bleachers, getting thrown in the county jail (on the same property as the track), then winning the following race.

While I was up there, I also got to watch Aiello call a race. First-rate as always. One of these days, he’s going to be announcing at one of the marquee tracks. I’m calling it right now.

Between races, I hopped on a golf cart with Engelhardt and headed over to the six furlong chute to photograph the start of the last race. Having never watched a race from this vantage point, it was fascinating to see the pre-race motions often overlooked by racegoers on the apron. As the horses approached the gate, Engelhardt told me to go up tp the starter’s stand to photograph the start. Though I managed to keep it hidden on the outside, I began doing a giddy jig on the inside.

For someone who probably isn’t going to end up being a professional racetrack photographer, this was a once-in a lifetime opportunity. Not a good time to screw things up. With that in mind, I decided to use some of my sweet new camera’s tricks to ensure I’d get it right. My plan was flawless – once all the horses were loaded in the gates and pointed forward, I would hold down my shutter button and start the camera’s burst function so when the gates did open, I wouldn’t miss a second of it.

I took my position on the starter’s stand, got the gate into frame and focus and waited for the horses to take their marks. When everyone was loaded and appeared set, I pressed the button. Shortly afterward, a horse began tossing his head, delaying the start of the race. I released the shutter, but was then met with the photographer’s most hated word: “Processing.” As the camera thought things over, the gates opened. I managed to get an out-of-focus shot of the field passing by once the camera shook off the cobwebs, but clearly, that’s not what I was up there to do. I was pretty disappointed in myself, but grateful for the opportunity. I didn’t get it on film, but it was still fascinating to see from that angle.

After the race, I said my goodbyes, thanked to my impromptu tour guides, then hit the road for the seven-hour drive home. I ended up giving an awful lot of money to the racetracks, but as those of you who have been following along have seen, I had a lot of fun, took lots of pictures and have loads of stories to tell. Without a doubt, I had a blast everywhere I went.

Oh, and for those who were still wondering, my plan to get revenge on River Downs failed miserably. Once again, I did not cash a single ticket. Dillinger would be deeply ashamed.

But that just means I will have to make a return trip someday to try it again. This time, it’s personal.

Behind the jump are some pictures from my day at River Downs…

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Meadow Wise, Happenedindamoonlite prevail in weekend’s stakes races

Meadow Wise gets breakthrough victory in Dowling Stakes

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Meadow Wise (2x) drives to the wire to win the Dowling Stakes at Pinnacle Race Course.

After getting close in several stakes attempts but always coming up short, Meadow Wise finally earned a blacktype win in Saturday’s $20,000 Dowling Stakes at Pinnacle Race Course.

The three-year-old Meadow Prayer gelding took a wide path from the outside post in the early goings and sat in fifth as I Found Friday and Juggle pressed for the lead. Meadow Wise began his move near the end of the backstretch and had Juggle within his sights as the two entered the final straightaway. The stablemates did battle throughout the final two furlongs, with Meadow Wise drawing even in the middle of the stretch. He gained the advantage in the final hundred feet and pulled away to win the race by 1 1/4 lengths in a driving finish under jockey Angel Stanley. A late-closing Romeo Again nosed out Juggle for second.

Meadow Wise covered the one mile distance in 1:41.68 over a fast track. He was part of a three-horse entry sent off as the 1.80-to-one favorite.

Meadow Wise is owned by Mast Thoroughbreds, LLC and trained by Robert Gorham. He was bred in Michigan by James Arnold, Marcia Arnold and Deborah Miley. The Dowling was Meadow Wise’s second career victory from 10 starts, coming off a maiden triumph in his last effort. With the win, Meadow Wise increased his career earnings to $58,126.

For an Equibase chart of the race, click here.

2x – Meadow Wise (Angel Stanley) 5.60 / 2.80 / 3.20
1 – Romeo Again (Godofredo Laurente) 6.40 / 3.40
2b – Juggle (Jeffrey Skerrett) 3.20

One Mile
Time: 1:41.68 

Photobucket
Your winner, Meadow Wise; Angel Stanley, up.
 

Happenedindamoonlite wins at long odds in Stallion Service Sale Futurity

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Happenedindamoonlite (5) crosses the line ahead of I Do One Two Three (1) to win the GLQHA Stallion Service Sale Futurity at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

Perhaps it was an omen that the saddlecloths in Sunday’s $36,483 GLQHA Stallion Service Sale Futurity were all green, the color commonly associated with the number five horse. 

Whatever it was, it did not cause any confusion when the race’s five horse, Happenedindamoonlite, pulled off the upset at odds of 11.10-to-one.

The two-year-old Jewels First Moon gelding broke well and established a small lead over the tightly-bunched pack heading into main stretch. Happenedindamoonlite and post time favorite I Do One Two Three gained a length’s separation from the field, but the leader never yielded and powered ahead to a half length victory under jockey Harold Collins. I Do One Two Three finished a half length ahead of late-moving Kit Corona for third.

Happenedindamoonlite stopped the clock in the 350 yard race at 17.840 seconds over a fast track.

Happenedindamoonlite is owned by Jack Geer and is trained by Ron Raper. He was bred in Michigan by First Moon Farms. The Stallion Service Sale Futurity victory was the gelding’s second win in four starts and increased his lifetime earnings to $22,401.

For an Equibase chart of the race, click here.

5 – Happenedindamoonlite (Harold Collins) 24.20 / 9.00 / 2.80
1 – I Do One Two Three (Julie Veltman) 260 / 2.10
3c – Kit Corona (Juan Delgado) 2.60

350 Yards
Time: 17.840 seconds 

Photobucket
Your winner, Happenedindamoonlite; Harold Collins, up.

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Lots of entries, few betting interests in weekend’s stakes races

Mr. Conclusive, last years Champion two-year-old male will look to keep his undefeated streak alive this Saturday.

Mr. Conclusive, last year's champion two-year-old male, will look to keep his undefeated streak alive this Saturday.

Mr. Conclusive makes ’09 debut in Dowling Stakes

A deflated purse did not scare the entries off, as an overflow field was drawn for Saturday’s $20,000 Dowling Stakes at Pinnacle Race Course.

The one mile race for three-year-old colts and geldings is one of four stakes races on Pinnacle’s schedule to be decreased from $50,000 to $20,000 to cover the cost of operations for the Office of Racing Commissioner.

The Dowling also marks the return of 2008 Michigan Two-Year-Old of the Year Mr. Conclusive from an extended hiatus.

Mr. Conclusive was undefeated in four starts in his juvenile campaign, winning all three of Pinnacle’s two-year-old male stakes races by a combined 17 1/4 lengths. His most recent victory was a 2 1/4 length romp in last year’s Michigan Futurity at the Detroit-area racetrack.

The Elusive Hour colt is owned by Charlie Williams and trained by Sandra Adkins. He will have the services of Thistledown rider Jane Magrell on Saturday.

The Robert Gorham/Henry Mast connection will send three entries to post, highlighted by Lansing Stakes winner Juggle.

The Elusive Hour colt outlasted stablemate Meadow Wise to take the Lansing by a nose on June 13. He enters the Dowling off a seventh-place finish against older company in the July 4 Wolverine Stakes. Juggle will be ridden by Jeffrey Skerrett.

Also entered is another part of the Gorham/Mast three-horse entry, Meadow Wise. 

The Meadow Prayer gelding rallied late, but missed by a nose to Juggle in the Lansing. Despite an active stakes campaign at two and three, Meadow Wise enters the race off his maiden victory, a 1 1/2 length driving win against Maiden Special Weight company on July 4 at Pinnacle. Angel Stanley will ride Meadow Wise in the Dowling.  

#. Horse / Jockey / Trainer / Odds
1. Romeo Again / F Mata / R D Allen, Sr. / 10-1
1a. I Found Friday / F Mata / R D Allen, Sr. / 10-1
2. Reasontobefoolish / A Estrada / R M Gorham / 9-5
2b. Juggle / J Skerrett / R M Gorham / 9-5
2x. Meadow Wise / A O Stanley / R M Gorham / 9-5
3. Scrimpy / R Barrios / J R Jackson / 6-1
4. Mr. Conclusive / J M Magrell / S M Adkins / 8-5
4d. Elusive Furrari / A A Marin / S M Adkins / 8-5
5. Red Bow Tie / J J Delgado / R J Rettele / 8-1
6. Countonsuccess / I R Gonzalez / D D Waite / 5-1

ALSO ELIGIBLE:
3c. Run Up The Score / A Estrada / J R Jackson / 6-1

Dials Corona for Me headlines Stallion Service Sale Futurity

Dials Corona For Me will seek her second straight stakes victory at Mount Pleasant Meadows this Sunday.

Dials Corona For Me will seek her second straight stakes victory at Mount Pleasant Meadows this Sunday.

After a driving win in her first stakes race, Dials Corona for Me will look to add some more blacktype to her resume in Sunday’s $36,483 GLQHA Stallion Service Sale Futurity at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

The two-year-old Corona for Me filly enters the 350 yard race for juveniles as the field’s lone stakes winner. She accomplished that feat in the June 14 Michigan Bred Futurity at Mount Pleasant, winning the race by a half length.

Owned and trained by Anthony Cunningham, Dials Corona For Me enters the race off a second place finish in the July 12 trials. She will be ridden by Oscar Delgado. 

After turning in the fastest time of the four trials, I Do One Two Three is part of the two-horse entry set as the morning line favorite. The Judy’s Lineage paint gelding finished a half length ahead of Dials Corona for Me to stop the clocks at :17.87 seconds in the 350-yard race. The trial was the horse’s first race at Mount Pleasant following three starts at Retama Park.

I Do One Two Three is owned by T Bill Stables and trained by Jay Hall. Julie Veltman will be in the irons for the final.

Also entered is Ron Raper charge Happenedindamoonlite. Owned by Jack Geer, the Jewels First Moon gelding finished second in the Michigan Bred Futurity. Happenedindamoonlite was a two-length winner in his trial, finishing the race with a time of :18.07 seconds. Regular rider Harold Collins retains the mount.

#. Horse / Jockey / Trainer / Odds
1. I Do One Two Three / J Veltman / J Hall / 7-5
1a. Alley Rose 123 / C Riley / J Hall / 7-5
2. Runnin Is My Game / L Gates / D N Gates / 6-1
2b. Tuff Southern Gal / N Alcala / D N Gates / 6-1
2c. Cc Cartel / M Holmes / D N Gates / 6-1
3. Dials Corona For Me / O Delgado / A F Cunningham / 2-1
3c. Kit Corona / J F Delgado / A F Cunningham / 2-1
4. Fearless Fred / R Rettele / C Rettele / 7-1
5. Happenedindamoonlite / H Collins / R Raper / 7-1
6. Playin Favorites / J J Delgado / C Rettele / 10-1

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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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Freedom isn’t free?

As many of you have probably figured out, I care quite a bit about the well being of the racing industry in this state. Without it, my life (and this blog) gets a whole lot less interesting in a hurry.

As such, I want to make sure things are run properly and efficiently by those in charge. 

With a rash of budget cuts this year, and undoubtedly more to come in the future, I became concerned, especially with figures indicating the money going into Lansing wasn’t the same as the money coming out.

Because of this, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Michigan Office of Racing Commissioner on June 15 requesting the ORC’s budgets for the last few years and information on some leads I wanted to further investigate. A few days later, I received a call from the ORC asking to resend my request and be more specific regarding what I wanted. This was understandable. After having it explained to me, my request was rather vague.

On June 23, I re-sent my FOIA request asking for the following items…

– Itemized lists of ORC revenues and expenditures by fiscal year 2005-2009.
– Records of Information Technology expenditures from 2006 fiscal year – present.
– Recored pertaining to what labs Equine Drug tests are sent and at what cost for the current and previous fiscal years.

A few days later, I got a letter back from the ORC. It said they had received my request, but here is the part of the letter where it gets interesting…

“The ORC is unable to respond to your request within the five business day time limit set forth by the FOIA statute, because of unavailability of staff. Therefore, we are extending the response time frame and will comply with your request on or before July 17, 2009.”

Okay, times are tough. I get that. So I played the waiting game.

Last Saturday, I got a letter in the mail from the ORC. The envelope seemed too small for all the information I had asked for. That’s because it wasn’t there. Instead, there was one piece of paper.

The following letter is presented verbatim to the one sent to me from the ORC. The only edits I have made are to contact information in order to protect the involved parties. I have also bolded some of the key points….

Dear Mr. Nevills,

Your request for information under the Freedom of Information Act was received in our office on June 24, 2009. You requested copies of “Itemized lists of ORC revenues & expendentures by fiscal year 2005-2009 Records of Information Technology expenditures from 2006 fiscal year – present Records pertaining to what labs Equine drug tests are sent and at what cost for the current and previous fiscal years”.

Your request has been approved.

Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, Act 422 of 1976, 15.234. Fees; waiver; deposit, computation of costs; application of section Sec. 4. (2) A public body may require at the time a request is made a good faith deposit from the person requesting the public record or series of public records, if the fee authorized under this section exceeds $50.00. The deposit shall not exceed 1/2 of the total fee.

We estimate the total amount of fulfilling this request to be $578.01. The charge is based on

– Approximately 12 hours of staff time for searching and reviewing documents: $521.82
– Approximately 4 hours of staff time for copying at $6.24/half hour: $49.92
– An estimated 120 copies at $.05 per page:  $6.00
– 3 – 10 x 13 Kraft envelopes $0.27
– Postage has not yet been calculated

We will require a good faith deposit of $289.00. When we receive the deposit, we will begin researching your request and then forward any documents resulting from the search. Your check should be made to State of Michigan and sent to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box *****, Lansing, Michigan 48909. Please reference FOIA 09-15a on the check. If you have any questions, please call me at ***-***-****.

Before we go on, let’s do a little math…

– $521.82 for staff time searching and reviewing documents / 12 hours = $43.49 per hour
– $49.92 for staff time copying / 4 hours = $12.48 per hour

I am by no means an economist, but if the state is paying someone $12.48 an hour to run copies, I believe I have found the cause for Michigan’s budget deficit. Either that, or Michigan has the best paid interns among the nation’s state governments and I would like to know where to submit my application.

The same goes for the fee to search for documents. Many of the items I requested (at least the revenues and expenditures) should be readily available in case of government audit, and should not require someone who would be among the highest paid individuals in my hometown 12 hours to retrieve them. Even if a team of three or four people were splitting the $43.49/hour, they would still be getting paid quite well for their work. However, if the ORC is as understaffed as its first letter would lead me to believe, I doubt this would be a group effort.

The fact that the hours are estimated is also somewhat troubling. Not to question the work ethic of those who will be locating this information, but unless I am there to oversee the process myself, who is to say I am not paying for 11 hours of solitaire and email time and an hour of actual work?

Perhaps the most unsettling part of this letter is the final paragraph. Asking for money up front, then following with this sentence – “When we receive the deposit, we will begin researching your request and then forward any documents resulting from the search.” – gives me a helpless feeling. This sentence leads me to believe there is a chance I may be told “no records were found, but hey, thanks for the money!” At the racetrack, my gambling ventures rarely exceed a $4 exacta box. Am I willing to gamble $289 on something I might be told isn’t there? Either way, is the information worth that much?

Just to put this all into perspective, during my Public Affairs Reporting class last semester, I was assigned to cover the Isabella County Road Commission for my beat. As part of the class, I had to analyze the commission’s budget. I sent the Manager an email and picked up a copy from the secretary’s desk the next day. No cost. Granted, I am asking for considerably more information here, but the cost and difficulty of this process is quite a change from the Road Commission’s relative ease. 

I do not make any money from this blog. I did not request the information for any person or organization but myself. Any personal gain I would receive from the information would strictly be the pursuit of truth and transparency. Like I said, I just want this industry to survive and thrive.

Don’t worry, I’m not asking for money to pay for this. I would, however appreciate any advice regarding my request and its cost from anyone more versed in FOIA law than myself.

Here are a few points that immediately came to my mind…

– Is this an attempt to scare me off? If so, is there anything I can do about it?
– If there is no way to bring the cost down, are there any organizations that assist with FOIA costs? Would this be something of interest to the ACLU (and do you really think the ORC wants them on their back)?
–  Most importantly, is the ORC playing within the rules by asking for so much money? I would have no problem covering the cost of materials, but venturing well into three digits seems frivolous.

I do not want to be on the Racing Commission’s bad side. I really don’t. Before this, they have been nothing but good to me. But I feel like I am not being treated properly in this spot.

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Notes from Lexington

Hey gang. I’m in Lexington, Kentucky right now and will be at River Downs on Thursday before making the long drive back to Michigan, so I don’t have the free time to recap my weekend at Ellis Park just yet.

Until things calm down, be sure to check out the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance’s rededicated new site.

Aside from featuring bloggers from all different aspects of the industry who are way better at this than I am, the TBA’s new site offers…

132 Blogs (TBA and otherwise).
123 Twitter feeds from TBA-ers and other members of the racing industry. 
– 38 Horse racing news feeds (Blood Horse, Thoroughbred Times, NTRA, Internet pubs, etc.).
Loads of Youtube videos.
A Free Past Performance search engine (My personal favorite part of the TBA site. Cheapskates unite!)
The “Karma Corner” – A page for donating to various horse-related charities.

The site is full of good material, so be sure to give it a look and see what’s new (just be sure to come back here when you’re done. I get lonely). With such a wide variety of views, it shouldn’t be hard to find something you’ll love.

If you haven’t already headed over to the TBA website, here is some Michigan-centric reading material to tide you over until I get home…

– My future Alma Mater’s student paper, Central Michigan Life, put out a story about Mount Pleasant Meadows in today’s paper. I was pleasantly surprised to see the story got most of its facts right and was written competently. Good on them, even if they never let me write anything about the track during my time at CM Life (Not that I’m bitter or anything…). I wish I could have been there myself to help them out. 

– The Daily Racing Form posted a story about Pinnacle Race Course’s restructured stakes schedule following negotiations to restore race dates slashed earlier this year. The meet will now run until Oct. 19 and four of the track’s 16 state-bred stakes races will have smaller purses.

The article did not specify which races would get chopped down, but they will go from $50,000 to $20,000. Purses for the six Sire Stakes races are estimated at $50,000 each. Though the Sire Stakes purses were already estimated at that level at the beginning of the meet, the story notes it will be a significant drop from previous years.

If I catch word of which stakes are getting slimmed down, you’ll see it here.

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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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Filed under Commentary, Pictures, Racetrack Visits