Tag Archives: Racino

Bringing down Prairie Meadows

Prairie Meadows is a quality venue for racing and other forms of gaming. Oscar Delgado awaits a photo in the winner's circle aboard BT Sum Beach.

Racinos fascinate me.

As a resident of a state whose jurisdiction outlaws the splicing of a racetrack and a casino, they are the forbidden fruit; the seed that makes the grass greener, but is only available on the black market.

With that in mind, there is always a special incentive to visit tracks that offer casino gaming in other states to see if the positive effects of the one-armed bandits are more than just numbers on paper.

This aspect added a special intrigue to my visit to Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Ia. on the way back from my trip out west.

Prior to my visit to the central Iowa track, the only previous racino experience I had came from the two tracks in Indiana, a state in the midst of a racing renaissance because of its additions. While similar in vibe and motif to Indiana Downs, Prairie Meadows offered a different experience. Unlike the Hoosier State tracks, Prairie Meadows’ casino is built right into the grandstand. Parts of the casino even offer views out to the track.

The casino itself will be discussed later on, but it is necessary to bring it up when describing the track’s layout. Open entrances to the casino divided the grandstand’s second story, meaning it required an ID to explore the track beyond the ground floor. To the left of the casino sat rows of bleachers and a concession stand. On the other side was a typical-looking racetrack-style restaurant with the tables on declining levels going down a staircase. There were also some reserved seats with individual TVs for those who prefer to watch on a screen what is happening right in front of them.

Seating was abundant on the apron, even when the good-sized crowd reached its apex. A newspaper-sponsored car giveaway also meant the apron was populated with shiny, new automobiles seeking new owners.

The paddock is situated near the first turn in a curved fashion. The viewing area is split in the middle leading to the walking ring. The sightlines were excellent both for examining horses for wagering purposes and photography.

I stand firm in my belief that paddock placement can make or break a racetrack experience, and unless crowd management is an issue, the best place for it to be is near the clubhouse turn. This allows patrons time to get from the paddock to the rail to view the post parade and normally means shelter is not far away in the event of inclement weather. Prairie Meadows apparently got that memo and is a better track for it.

Admission for the day’s races was free and programs were $1.50. When the program vendor told me the price, I had to ask him again to make sure I heard correctly. For programs made with quality, white paper (not that pulpy crap that is hard to write on with my Mount Pleasant Meadows golf pencils), I am normally not upset to pay between two and a half to three bucks. A dollar fifty is unreal. The power of slots, man…

Speaking of programs and the power of slots, Prairie Meadows does a fantastic job showing off the track’s contribution to the state’s coffers. The program’s first two pages display letters from the track’s chairman and the chair of the Polk County Board of Supervisors welcoming fans to the races and showcasing the $1 billion the track has generated for the state of Iowa. Every day of live racing will be someone’s first day at that track, as this was mine, and that is a fantastic way to make a first impression.

My visit came on the richest day of the track’s Quarter Horse-exclusive meet, the Prairie Meadows Quarter Horse Championship Night. As it was during my visit to Yellowstone Downs during its richest card, my timing is impeccable.

With that said, consider the following. The combined purses on Montana’s richest day of racing totaled $77,650. The evening’s feature on Iowa’s richest day of Quarter Horse racing, the Valley Junction Futurity (G3), offered a purse of $143,250.

The lowest purse on the night’s card was a maiden claiming race for $7,000, while the average non-stakes purse was in the neighborhood of $14,000. Not bad at all.

The jockey colony consisted largely of Texas/Oklahoma/Hialeah Park circuit riders, with one notable exception. Among the track’s leading riders was Mount Pleasant Meadows-based jockey Oscar Delgado, who rode three winners on the night.

Once the races started, they moved at a rapid pace. The barns are apparently behind the paddock, because the horses came up to saddle from that direction without setting foot on the track. This meant no time was wasted walking from the backstretch because there was no backstretch to speak of. More than once, I found myself looking through the program or otherwise daydreaming, only to look over and see the field for the next race already saddling up.

It is also interesting to note that they played the song “Rawhide” in between several races. That was pretty great, even though I found it odd that the powers that be thought enough to play the song in Iowa and not at Yellowstone Downs, a track in a legitimate cowboy state. It is times like these when I wonder if I am taking this “racetrack aesthetic” thing way too far.

Between races, I ventured over to a barbecue shack on the apron. The shack’s pulled pork sandwich has the potential to earn a spot in the Pantheon of Racetrack Concession Foods. It will take another visit to to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but it has the one-man committee’s full attention.

It took until the third race for me to cash a ticket, courtesy of Delgado aboard BT Sum Beach. Betting windows were plentiful, which is always a plus. There were even a couple tellers stationed in a gazebo near the paddock, which was also a plus.

The casino money had, without a doubt, increased the quality of the product between the rails, but the burning question with any racino track is if it can draw people out from the casino and on to the apron, especially the coveted youth demographic. With so many people in suits asking for identification, in the middle of Iowa for that, I initially had my doubts.

My doubts, however, were soon disproved. For night racing at a casino track, a surprising number of attendees brought their children. While it is good to see Iowa race fans grow the sport, though, little kids can’t put money through the windows. The real test is whether a track can draw the pivotal 2o-somethings, and Prairie Meadows seemed to do a good enough job of that.

One particularly entertaining example of this was a trio of clearly inebriated girls dressed way too lightly for the chilly evening. Between affirmations of how much they loved each other and asking me to take their picture (with their own camera. Sorry, gang), they actually paid more attention to the happenings in the paddock than the average tipsy Keeneland coed’s observations about the jockeys’ size or the pretty horses. Of course, they followed that up by trying t0 speak Sesame Street-level Spanish with a random Hispanic horseman near the paddock about which horses he liked. What the industry has to gain from this demographic remains unclear.

As a fan of Michigan racing, the highlight of the evening came in the $45,000 Two Rivers Stakes (G3) when Delgado set the track record at 440 yards aboard Jess A Runner with a time of 21.199 seconds. I found myself curious after seeing Delgado had the mount on Jess A Runner instead of Fairmount Park Invitational winner Bold Badon, whom he regularly rides, but clearly, he made the right call.

The fields were decent all night and it reflected in the payoffs. I hit two moderate-sized exacta tickets to finish about $15 ahead for the evening’s races. The night was not without its share of pari-mutuel heartbreak, though. Missing out on a winning ticket by a head or a nose is to be expected in Quarter Horse racing, but having the two horses boxed in one’s exacta dead heat for second hurts.

With a little more money in the bankroll than I had walking in, it was time to deposit it firmly into the casino. I entered through the grandstand to a few rows of slots, but eventually wandered my way into a much more expansive gaming area.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Prairie Meadows offers full table gaming. Having finished Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House somewhere in flyover country on the road west (see, doesn’t the post’s title make sense now?), I was itching badly to play some blackjack.

The computerized table games at Indiana’s racinos served to hide my cowardice as I placed $1 bets on roulette, but when it came to card games, I wanted the show. I wanted to wave off the dealer while holding a 14, knowing he was going to bust. I wanted to push my chips to the center of the table and feel the place erupt when the dealer threw down the card for 21.

The problem is, things like that require vast sums of money, so I hovered around and found a quiet $5 minimum table inhabited by a couple college-age-looking Asians who left after a few hands. I put in $25 and was soon one-on-one with the dealer; just like playing at the kitchen table at my grandpa’s house.

Wanting to keep in the game as long as I could, I played the minimum bet each time and hit hot and cold streaks that kept me at about the same amount with which I came in. Then I hit a blackjack. Booyah.

This must have drawn the attention of the pit boss, because he soon came over and carded me. I’ve got to hand it to this place – they sure are careful about keeping underage people out of the casino. Between shoes, the dealer and I made the usual small talk, and I told him about Michigan’s racino situation, or lack thereof. As someone on the green side of the fence, he was understandably surprised at the ridiculousness of it all.

I kept playing for a few more hands after hitting blackjack, and after noticing that my stack of chips was about $10 taller than it was at the start, I decided to get up from the table while I still had the casino’s money. I did some more exploring around the casino just to get a feel for the place, but resisted the urge to play anything else and risk blemishing my winning record.

The chips at the Prairie Meadows casino feature the track’s logo above the phrase “Your favorite place to play!” From a gambling standpoint, the chip isn’t wrong. It is hard to describe the boost an actual table game can have over a video version, even if the only computerized part is the betting terminal. Warranted or not, I always feel better playing a table game knowing my fate is being determined by the draw of the cards or a roll of the dice, as opposed to a computer algorithm that will tell me whether I won or lost.

From an entertainment standpoint, however, the Indiana casinos have the edge. As casinos with bigger, more expansive gaming rooms, there is more space for entertainment like bars and live bands. I’m not going to lie. I gamble more when there is a good live band in the middle of the casino. Even if I am just playing the slots, it puts me in a delusional kind of rhythm. At the very least, it makes me stick around to hear what else they are going to play.

With that said, building the casino into the grandstand as Prairie Meadows did has a greater potential to create more crossover interest between the casino and the track because of the easy access to each other. Judging by the number of people I saw out on the apron who migrated to the casino later that night (including the drunk trio, now with boys in tow), I think it might be working.

Behind the jump are photos from the evening’s races at Prairie Meadows.

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An evening at Hoosier Park

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.

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Racino states draw breeders

A good indicator of the racing industry’s health in a given state is the number of mares it sends to the breeding shed.

This is a factor I try to illustrate whenever I explain Michigan’s situation to those unfamiliar with the industry. Because I am a strong believer in visual aids when giving a presentation, I decided to put together a chart to describe the breeding industry in the state of Michigan, compare it to other states in the region and explain the impact of alternative wagering on everyone involved.

It is no secret that horsemen are flocking to states with casino gaming at its racetracks. The fact will inevitably be brought up in any discussion about alternative wagering in a state that lacks it. However, the point is driven home when the figures are in clear sight.

Let’s have a look at the chart…

Thoroughbred Mares Bred in the Great Lakes Region by State, 1998-2009

Thoroughbred Mares Bred in the Great Lakes Region by State, 1998-2009.

X Axis = Year; Y Axis = Mares Bred *2009 figures are current as of 10/13/2009. Some reports are still yet to be received by the Jockey Club.

For a more detailed breakdown of the year-by-year breeding totals, a spreadsheet of the above data may be read here.

So what can we learn from these figures?

First and foremost, breeders are taking their mares where their foals can make the most money. The top three states listed in this sample are “racino states” (Because of its clear breeding advantage in the region, Kentucky was not included in the sample). The increased purse structure that comes with expanded gaming not only gives the horses themselves the best chance to earn a good living, it trickles down to the breeders in the form of incentive programs.

Also worthy of note is that in 1998, two of the three leading states (Indiana and West Virginia) actually bred fewer mares than Michigan. Today, both states breed several hundred more.

The clear exception to this rule is West Virginia, whose figures have actually decreased since installing full-blown slots in 2006. Two factors may be responsible for this. First, West Virginia installed slots at the same time as neighboring Pennsylvania. The 2007 debut of Presque Isle Downs, about 135 miles away from Mountaineer, also helped draw horses out of West Virginia. Second, the breeder’s incentive program in Pennsylvania is quite lucrative. Boosting the purses only made it that much juicier. Here, have a look for yourself…

Breeder’s Incentive Programs in the Great Lakes Region by State

However, West Virginia enjoyed a major boost throughout the first half of the decade. It was the first state in the region to adopt expanded gaming in 1999 when it installed coin-operated video lottery terminals. With the help of the VLTs, West Virginia pulled itself up from the dregs of the racing world to the point where the state actually led the region in mares bred in 2004. Despite the recent dropoff, West Virginia remains well ahead of the game from where it began.

Another conclusion that can be drawn from the data is racino states are drawing mares away from non-racino states. The poster child for this observation is Ohio, a state flanked by one armed bandits in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Indiana. Eleven years ago, the Buckeye State accounted for a comparable number of mares bred to Pennsylvania and was well ahead any of its other neighbors (excluding Kentucky).

As more and more states allowed its tracks to install casino-style gaming, the breeding totals in Ohio began to plummet. In 2009, the state is in danger of breeding fewer than 200 mares, a figure that would have seemed unheard of less than a decade ago.

Other states in the region without any forms of alternative wagering, Illinois and Michigan, have also seen significant drops as their neighbors reaped the benefits.

Once the cornerstone of the Great Lakes region, Illinois has seen its breeding totals cut in half over the last decade. Michigan’s drop off has been just as drastic, with a decrease of over 40 percent in the last year alone.

As these figures demonstrate, the benefits of installing alternative wagering are quite apparent on the breeding industry of that state. The increased purses and breeder’s incentives make them attractive places for horses to send their mares, which in turn improves the reputation of that state’s racing industry. At the same time, neighboring states without expanded gaming will be adversely affected as its horsemen migrate to states where they can make the most money.

Racinos have the ability to shift the balance of power in a region. It is time for the state of Michigan to decide which side of the scale it wants to sit.

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Michigan racetrack casino license petition approved

The Associated Press reports a proposal by Hazel Park-based group Racing to Save Michigan was approved Wednesday to start petitioning for a November 2010 ballot proposal to expand gaming in the state’s racetracks.

The petition was approved unanimously by the Michigan Board of State Canvassers during Wednesday’s meeting. If successful, the proposal will grant five casino licenses to the state’s pari-mutuel racetracks and three more to be auctioned off by the state.

However, the issue will not be passed without a fight. Because this petition threatens to bypass Proposal 04-1, which requires racetracks to pass local and statewide ballots for a license, a spokesman for MotorCity Casino and several tribal casinos said the coalition that got the binding proposal passed in 2004 will likely be revived to challenge this new issue.

Now that the petition has been approved, the Detroit News reports Racing to Save Michigan has 180 days to collect 380,126 signatures in order to get the proposal on the ballot. According to the Associated Press, the group plans to begin circulating the petitions within the next six weeks.

As soon as information about where petitions can be signed is made available, it will be posted on this site.

UPDATE:

Here is some additional media regarding yesterday’s announcement…

WJRT ABC 12 News piece on racinos, focusing on Sports Creek Raceway.

Detroit News story about the proposal and its petition, views from both sides of the argument, and it’s ramifications for the coming months.

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The Alternative Scene: Part One – Slot Machines/Racinos

Racetracks like Indiana Downs have seen significant increases in purse structure since adding new forms of alternative wagering.

Racetracks like Indiana Downs have seen significant increases in purse structure since adding new forms of alternative wagering like slot machines, but can the good times last?

In a poll that went about three and a half months longer than planned, the readers of this blog voted convincingly that slot machines are the most important form of alternative wagering for the long-term health of the racing industry. 

The voting was neck-and-neck between slots and advance deposit wagering in the poll’s early goings. As time wore on, slots pulled away to an insurmountable lead. 

Let’s have a look at the results…

Which form of alternative wagering is most important to racing’s long-term health?

Slot Machines – 58% (123 votes)
Advance Deposit Wagering – 22% (46 votes)
We don’t need no stinking alternative wagering – 8% (18 votes)
Instant Racing – 6% (13 votes)
Card Rooms – 3% (6 votes)
Other – 3% (7 votes)

Total votes: 213

“Other” answers (some of the answers could be placed in one of the categories above, but because they were placed in “other,” I am keeping them here):
– “table games, that’s what they want, only slots is not the answer”
– “telephone/Internet wagering”
– “All of the above”
– “exchange betting”
– “Simulacast”
– “Racino”
– “nothing we’re dooooooooomed”

There is no question slots have had an impact on the racing industry, and will continue to do so. Just look at the career path of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. 

The classic winner started his career at Woodbine, enjoying slots-enriched purses on his way to nabbing the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top juvenile. His earnings in Canada alone were enough to secure him an invitation to the big dance at Churchill Downs, which removed the pressure from taking the road to Louisville going through New Mexico.

Mine That Bird worked his way through the Derby preps at Sunland Park, which would have been a laughable strategy only ten years ago, and is unorthodox at best today. With the help of alternative wagering (mainly casino-style gaming) in 2009, the Sunland Derby offered a purse of $900,000, among the biggest prizes offered to three-year-olds in the country.

The race was not graded, and Mine That Bird finished off the board, but his eventual win in the Kentucky Derby put New Mexico in a position to become a legitimate path on the Derby trail. The little Birdstone gelding that could’s success has spearheaded the campaign to get the Sunland Derby designated a graded stakes race, officially making it more than a cash-grab race for Derby wannabes.

Simply put, without casino-style gaming, Mine That Bird is clunking around the California allowance ranks, Calvin Borel doesn’t tearfully celebrate his biggest upset on national television, Sunland Park still runs cheap Quarter Horses, West Side Bernie wins the Kentucky Derby and nobody goes home happy.

The story doesn’t end there. Just recently, the connections of Mine That Bird spurned the Haskell Invitational, and a rematch with Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, to challenge the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer. If Mountaineer were still in the slums of the racing hierarchy, as it was before the implementation of slots, a trip through the hills of West Virginia wouldn’t have even crossed the minds of team Mine That Bird (even if the gamble did blow up in their faces, leaving with a third-place finish).

Alternative wagering, slots in particular, does not only give gamblers more options at the racetrack. It also leads to horsemen having the option to try their charges in spots previously considered no-man’s land for horses with any class. Mountaineer landed a Kentucky Derby winner. Charles Town landed Commentator for the Charles Town Classic. Last year, Hoosier Park enticed Pyro, once considered one of his crop’s heavyweights, to enter the Indiana Derby. There is a $1 million race in the middle of Pennsylvania for crying out loud.

Even if for a brief moment, racinos can draw the big horses to come to your local track and thrust it into the national spotlight. If a few curious onlookers become serious followers of the sport, the track will be ahead for the day – and all thanks to a room full of retirees mindlessly hitting the “spin again” button.

However, the honeymoon between racing and slots may soon be coming to an end.

Many racino tracks are still struggling to find an identity for themselves, especially when the quality of racing has yet to catch up with the caliber of purses being offered.

Despite becoming a beacon for horsemen from non-racino states (just take a look at all the Michigan-based connections racing at Presque Isle Downs), Pennsylvania still faces issues with keeping the balance between the racetrack and the casino. Further complicating the situation is the radical discrepancy between the money the live handle kicks into the purse structure versus the purse money generated by the slots (as high as 20-to-1 at Presque Isle). According to the article linked to in this paragraph, Pennsylvania racing’s heavy reliance on the slot machine dollar paired with its difficulty generating its own funds could be seen as a sign of blood in the water by other groups looking to profit from gambling monies.

Though it has been confirmed at Prairie Meadows, an Iowa racino, that live racing actually boosts the slots revenue, the track plans to restructure its schedule for next year, with plans to jettison standardbred racing and ask for fewer Thoroughbred dates. While purses have steadily risen, live handle has steadily dipped despite being one of the first racetracks to adopt casino-style gaming.

The racetracks of today are the lab rats in the study of the miracle cure known as slot machines. Tracks with slots get the medicine – tracks without get the placebo. Early returns appear positive, but the side effects are still being discovered. Little is known about the long-term effects slot machines will have on the racing industry because they have only been around for the short-term. Proponents say slots will bring racing to an even playing field with competitors and will encourage the breeding of better competitors, while others worry the bottom line will eventually drive the “Rac” in “Racino” to become a full-blown “Cas”.

The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, but as it stands right now, there is only one way to find out.

A poll running this long deserves a post just as lengthy. To help preserve your eyes and attention spans, I am splitting it up into two separate entries. The next post, examining some of the poll’s runner-ups, will be up whenever I get around to writing it. Keep your eyes peeled.

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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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Jackson Harness Raceway closes its doors

For the third time in the last four years, another Michigan racetrack is closing up shop.

This time the fallen party is Jackson Harness Raceway in the southern part of the state.

MTR Gaming Group Inc., the track’s majority owner, announced Thursday that the Jackson racetrack would cease all simulcast wagering at the facility and would not schedule live dates for 2009.

The group also owns Mountaineer Racetrack and Casino in West Virginia and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania – both of which are racinos. MTR Gaming has been trying to do the same at Jackson since purchasing the track in 2005, but it never came about. The group has lost at least $3.6 million connected to the track over the last three years.

JHR continues the trend of Michigan racetracks going dark for good over the last decade. In 1998, Detroit Race Course flatlined and was subsequently flattened by the wrecking ball. Saginaw Harness Raceway closed down in 2005 followed by Great Lakes Downs in 2007. 

I’m not going to go into a long spiel about the state’s failure to support the racing industry, but one has to wonder how much blood has to be on the hands of the Michigan state government before they realize their patient is bleeding to death. I’m not saying slots or advance deposit wagering are the be-all end-all answer to the industry’s problems, but when three of state’s tracks shut down in four years, someone in Lansing has to realize something has to be done.

This apathy can not be allowed to continue if horse racing is to have any hope for long-term survival in the state of Michigan.

Sources:
Jackson Harness Raceway closes – Jackson Citizen Patriot
Harness drivers will have to travel – Jackson Citizen Patriot
Michigan HBPA

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