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.