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…