End Run

Long shot Arapahoe Park seeks a place in the winner's circle.

If you go to the racetrack long enough, you learn in the end about the persistence of desire and the spectacle of ruin. That teeming array of lovely, mortal flesh in full gallop out there -- recall Funnycide straining to hold off Empire Maker in the final strides at Churchill Downs, or the enduring image of Secretariat transcending the Belmont Stakes -- all of those exquisite surfaces of throbbing color contain the dark germ of our yearning and the certain but uneasy knowledge that for all of us, too, fate lurks somewhere beyond the wire. The feeling, of course, grows noticeably stronger the moment you put ten bucks on a horse's nose and he runs a failed but game fourth. Surely there's a glimmer of death in that. So the optimist -- make no mistake: The grandstands are stuffed with them -- does what he must. He gently shoves the inevitable aside, sticks his face back into the Daily Racing Form and vows to beat the cosmic odds next race. Or next year.

But in Colorado, those who drop their crumples of losing tickets on the floor, those who ride hurt, those who wrap their once-promising colt's agonized tendon with a hot poultice at three o'clock in the morning, do all of it in almost total obscurity.

Sports-crazy Denver grabs up its Broncos and Avs in loud profusion, its Rockies and its beleaguered Nuggets, all of them splashed gaudily across the sports pages and endlessly dissected on the talk shows. College football rocks. Pro soccer intrigues the international set. Even indoor lacrosse inspires thousands of raving fans to paint their faces and deck themselves out in the hometown jersey. But the itinerant horses, horsemen and eager students of the breeds who, often as not, try to make a hard-earned living here from their sport, find themselves plunked down each summer in the middle of a vast field of sunflowers 25 miles southeast of Coors Field. There they remain, unnoticed. Arapahoe Park, a stranded orphan of a racetrack as rustic as its name, is a place almost nobody cares about and few Coloradans have ever seen. Talk about being off the radar: On the Fourth of July, the Rocky Mountain News neglected to publish the track's holiday entries.

Fred Harper
Veteran horseman Harold Calhoun longs for the 
good old days of racing instead of the runs at 
Arapahoe Park.
Anthony Camera
Veteran horseman Harold Calhoun longs for the good old days of racing instead of the runs at Arapahoe Park.

The real name of the game at Arapahoe is "simulcasting" -- races run here but broadcast to out-of-state gambling venues, and races from other tracks piped to Colorado. More on that later. The precious few who actually brave the vast prairie for Arapahoe's 48-day summer race meet -- 1,500 or so patrons on a Saturday afternoon, as few as 400 on a Monday -- all seem to hope that Universal Pictures' new feel-good horse-racing movie, Seabiscuit, which opens in theaters this Friday, will provide a public boost, even if momentary, to horse racing's long-sagging fortunes. (The track's operators have already been cheering, since the unused, 1940s vintage Puett starting gate they sold the filmmakers last September has been featured in preview scenes.)

Of course, anyone who's ever been split out of the quiniela in the eighth at Turf Paradise was hoping that Funnycide would win the Triple Crown this year, for the same reason. As the world knows by now, the plucky New York-bred gelding, owned by a syndicate of little guys from upstate New York, failed in the grueling Belmont Stakes. But from the beginning, he was a romantic long shot, just like the original Seabiscuit himself -- a misshapen little striver who gave hope to the poverty-stricken masses in the depths of the Depression by trouncing the elite thoroughbreds of his day, including the great War Admiral.

"Yeah, I think the movie could help some," says horse owner Honey Fuller, who is watching her three-year-old chestnut filly, Elusive Miss, walk to the gate. "Funnycide caught the attention of the public; let's hope Seabiscuit does, too. We all could use some good publicity."

Arapahoe Park could also use a touch of glamour. Built in 1984, a year after the untimely demise of Littleton's Centennial Race Track, Arapahoe consists of a hidden warren of windswept barns with low-budget accommodations for 1,500 race horses, a featureless, glass-fronted steel box of a grandstand/clubhouse and a sweltering apron of asphalt lining the front stretch from the eighth pole to just before what, in more enchanted venues, is called the clubhouse turn. It is on this apron that you can buy a smoked turkey leg for five bucks and a cold Bud, both from an uncommonly pleasant woman who's doing this because she lost her real job in the recession. At Arapahoe Park, the knocked-together saddling paddock is partially relieved of its raw, steel-sided severity by a pair of underwatered flower beds inside a plain-Jane walking ring. The one-mile dirt oval itself is utilitarian. No sparkling emerald grass course winds through its interior. By all accounts, no grass race has been run in Colorado since the U.S. Cavalry took off in pursuit of, well, the Arapaho.

When it comes, the familiar call to the post turns out to be a recording. "Arp" (as it is abbreviated in the Daily Racing Form) can't spare the cash for a living, breathing bugler.

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