Tag Archives: Tony Cunningham

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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Sunday stakes recap from Mount Pleasant Meadows

Paint Me a Bono pulls away in Michigan Paint Horse Futurity
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Paint Me a Bono (2B) shakes off I Do One Two Three (5) to win the GLQHA Michigan Paint Horse Futurity at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

Paint Me a Bono benefitted from a clear trip and won easily in Sunday’s $14,165 Great Lakes Quarter Horse Association Michigan Paint Horse Futurity at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

The two-year-old Bono Jazz gelding broke cleanly and held an ever-growing advantage throughout the stretch and to the finish. Paint Me a Bono was hand ridden to the wire by jockey Richard Rettele for a 1 1/4 length victory in the 350 yard race. Post time favorite I Do One Two Three stayed in pursuit throughout the race and finished 2 1/4 lengths ahead of See Me In Your Dreams for the runner-up position.

Paint Me a Bono and Rettele stopped the clocks at 17.782 seconds over a fast track at odds of 3.50-to-one.

Owned and trained by Renee Wilson, Paint Me a Bono was bred in California by Reese, Theresa and Alan B.. The victory in the Michigan Paint Horse Futurity improved Paint Me a Bono’s lifetime record to a perfect two wins from two starts for career earnings of $7,710.

For an Equibase chart of the race, click here.

2B – Paint Me a Bono (Richard Rettele) 9.00 / 3.00 / 2.20
5 – I Do One Two Three (Oscar Delgado) 2.40 / 2.10
1A – See Me In Your Dreams (Nate Alcala) 2.20

350 Yards
Time: 17.782 Seconds

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Your winner, Paint Me a Bono; Richard Rettele, up.

Lots more races and photos can be found behind the jump. Just click the link below.

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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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