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…