The Houghton/Gorham connection cashed many a handicapper's tickets on opening weekend. T.D. Houghton heads to the winner's circle aboard Gunsight Mountain.
I’m a little overdue on my look back at opening day, but the priorities of rooting for the home team kind of took precedent. Let’s jump into the wayback machine to last Friday, shall we?
Standing on the rail in between races, I overheard Pinnacle’s founder Jerry Campbell telling an anecdote about his concerns before the start of his track’s second season.
Before concluding a phone conversation with VP of Racing/Racing Secretary Allan Plever earlier in the day, Campbell requested if he could ask him one more question.
Plever replied, “Yes, we checked the starting gates.”
Clearly, the memories of last year’s opening day being delayed by 30 minutes due to a gate malfunction were still fresh in Campbell’s mind.
Fortunately, every new year brings with it another chance to make a first impression. The track’s first year produced several points of improvement, so I was just as curious to see how the track reacted to them as I was to see the races themselves.
Before the races started, the satellite radio channel broadcasting over the PA system played “Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band. Can’t get off to a much better start than that.
Though not at the saturated level of last year’s opening day, the attendance for this year’s first live card was fairly robust. Considering I had not seen too awful much advertisement for the track in the local media (unless the Pinnacle execs were counting all the media coverage on the happenings in Lansing as promotional material), I was not disappointed by the turnout. Pinnacle is a pretty spread out place and because admission is free, there are no official attendance statistics, so I am mostly basing my judgement on how long I had to wait in line to place a bet. I was shut out at least once, which to me says there was an unusually large crowd there.
Cosmetically, Pinnacle hadn’t changed much from last season. Funding uncertainties and the generally unstable state of racing in Michigan slowed Pinnacle’s Phase Two of developments to a halt. Same paddock, same pavilion, same toteboard where racegoers have to stoop over to see the odds on the #5 horse (PLEASE just boost it up one extra foot. That’s all it needs). The only significant change from the 2008 meet was in the grandstand area, or lack thereof. Where there was once a set of temporary bleachers now sits a large tent with tables, TV screens and betting windows underneath. After suffering the worst sunburn of my life on opening day last year when the only shade near the finish line was a small tent for the concession stand, this tent was a welcome addition. Whoever made that call has my kudos.
Aside from providing some much needed shade the grandstand area, the tent also gave relief to another glaring weakness of the track’s east side. Last year, my biggest complaint about the track was the frustratingly low number of mutuel clerks on that end of the grounds. The only place to put down a wager on the grandstand side was a three-window shanty, which became overworked in a hurry, especially on big days. The addition of the tent brought with it three more betting windows and four TV screens. Though I have yet to see all six of the available windows open on the grandstand side, the addition of just one more clerk has helped move things along at a much quicker pace (I know I’m going on way too much about a stinking tent, but anyone who spent time at Pinnacle in the grandstand area understands how huge this is).
Just about every conversation I found myself a part of began with a comment about the state’s curious situation regarding the number of live days its tracks will run. Though rumors were abound speculating how long Pinnacle would have to showcase its product, most agreed that the only day we had guaranteed was the one we were at right now. Even track announcer Matt Hook did not have a solid answer for when to expect live racing at Pinnacle, frequently reminding patrons to check back for any changes in the track’s live schedule, currently running three days a week.
I have always been a fan of Matt Hook’s work, back to his days at Great Lakes Downs when I would go up in the booth to watch him call races. In between races, he would switch his monitor from the GLD simulcast feed to a local channel showing a rerun of The Simpsons. Since then, I have always considered Hook to be a pretty cool guy.
The thing I like best about Hook’s racecalling style is how he keeps the audience in the know. For example, as the horses were leaving the paddock for the first post parade of the meet, he noted that last year’s leading jockey, T.D. Houghton, will likely not be a regular rider at Pinnacle this year, citing success at West Virginia’s Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort as a bigger draw. So far Houghton has only ridden in Detroit for opening weekend and does not appear be booked there again until this Saturday, which suggests he may come back for stakes races, such as the upcoming Lansing Stakes.
Also notably absent was 2008’s third leading rider Tommy Molina, who appears to now be hanging his tack at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows. An already rather thin jockey colony has become even smaller because of alternative wagering opportunities in other states.
However, these openings in the jockey colony have cleared the way for some newcomers to the Detroit racetrack. New for 2009 are Chicago-based rider Men Chen (who rode Mrs. Murphy in her first start at Hawthorne), Turfway Park jock Godofredo Laurente and journeyman/occasional GLD rider J.J. Delgado. The latter of the group has already established himself among the leading riders at Pinnacle in the opening days of the meet, winning several races.
Do not be mistaken, Pinnacle Race Course has a long way to go before it becomes a first-class racetrack. There are still many things that could stand a tweaking (or in some cases a downright pinch) and something has to be done about the deafening noise of the planes from the nearby Detroit Metro Airport taking off and landing overhead of the racetrack (Turfway and Keeneland are right next door to airports and don’t have nearly the noise problem). However, considering the track is still in its larval stages, it has made enough little improvements for me to at least let it slide for a while longer without being finished.
I still stand by my belief that the long-term health of Pinnacle Race Course depends on getting the project as close to complete as possible, but with the high wire act Michigan’s racing industry is currently stuck in, I’m just glad they are putting horses in the gates.
Here are a few pictures from opening day in case you missed it…