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.
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.
Surveying the windy, desolate scene with a bemused eye way back in 1985, horseplayer John DeSanto observed: "Horse farts in the backstretch here, nothing stops the smell till it gets to Oklahoma." Not even the general manager, a racing-biz veteran named Bruce Seymore, understands how Arapahoe Park came to be built where it is. "Somebody must have an answer to that question," says Seymore, who has been at the track twelve years.
Still, every racetrack, like every boxing arena and every ghostly old ballpark, has its own treasure of elusive hopes and intriguing secrets. So, too, does Arapahoe Park. Regulars recall the times jockeys Gary Stevens and Chris McCarron, international racing stars, deigned to work a card at Arapahoe for a fee. They even more fondly recall how Pat Day, a native son born in rural Brush and now elevated to the highest level of the game, rode an afternoon's worth of Arp's, um, less talented thoroughbreds for promotion. Day's happy mug shot still hangs in the general offices. Like every racetrack in the world, Arapahoe also produces its share of gorgeous athletic moments: photo finishes and dead heats and brave, out-of-the-clouds stretch drives that win races. Many of the contestants are poorly bred $5,000 thoroughbreds running on fumes and over-the-hill quarterhorses going 350 yards for a share of a stingy $8,000 purse. They are the fruit pickers and washerwomen of racing. But one thing frequently defies their humble origins: The horses don't know they're cheap. With a decent trainer and a bit of racing luck, a pair of them may suddenly emerge in full, sunlit flight at the head of the stretch, then race to the wire in as beautiful and dramatic a tableau as the famous Triple Crown duels between Alydar and Affirmed.
Meanwhile, the we're-all-in-this-together camaraderie is noticeable. Biff Haskins, the everyday paddock security guard, never fails to wish riders good luck as they make their way to the racing strip, and he shakes the hand of every owner and trainer as they pass his post for grandstand or clubhouse. "I flat-out respect these people," he says. "They work in dirt 365 days a year. In hail, rain, wind and snow. They work, and I worship the ground they walk on. When I worked at Arlington Park in Chicago, I was [the great gelding] John Henry's personal bodyguard one year for the Arlington Million. But this job here makes me feel even better."
On the main floor, jockey Roberto Ramirez, a veteran of 29 racing seasons who had ridden just one winner out of seventeen mounts at Arapahoe this season, takes his nose out of the Form so that a fellow rider can empathize about the sprained ligament in his left hand. "I want to ride today," Ramirez explains, "but I had to be taken off all my mounts." He shakes his head sadly, and so does the other rider. Dinner might go down a little hard tonight, but Ramirez is headed for the meet at SunRay, in Farmington, New Mexico, where the pay is better and where he's had more luck. "I make a living," he says. "I've been around."
For Arapahoe's colony of horsemen, mostly boot-clad cowboys with easygoing manners and the harshness of ranch life etched into their faces, the thrill of the race remains always keen, even if the check is for five grand. "Sure, this is a hard way to make a living," Honey Fuller allows. "But it's all worth it to get in that win picture." Fuller's partner, Charlie Arthur, has been traveling year-round to minor tracks in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado for two decades. "We just don't have the money to raise 'em from the ground up," he drawls from under a white straw cowboy hat. "So we get older horses. Tell you one thing: We aren't home in Lubbock much, but we love this. This is our life."
With another kind of luck and the willingness of Colorado voters, that life could improve come this fall. A hot-button issue on the November 4 ballot will be a proposal to install banks of state video lottery terminals at Arapahoe Park, Colorado's four greyhound racing tracks and the mountain casinos. Proponents say the machines would raise $25 million a year to help promote Colorado's soft tourist industry. Opponents brand the plan "a big lie" by England's Wembley Corporation, which now owns Arp and all but one of the dog tracks, to propagate a glut of gambling in the state. In the 1990s, three similar initiatives failed in the Colorado Legislature, and the current proposal -- just winding up its voter-petition phase -- faces stiff opposition from Governor Bill Owens and, more important, from the well-financed casino operators, who see video gambling at the racetracks as a clear financial threat.
The jockeys, owners and trainers at Arapahoe Park -- everyone right down to the grooms and the hot-walkers -- see the video lottery as their salvation. In racing states like New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana, horsemen's organizations angled for a share of the coming slot-machine revenues and got it. As a result, longtime Strasburg horse owner Dale Arnold points out, the smallest horse-racing purse in New Mexico is now a respectable $9,300; low end at Arapahoe, 25 miles from a major city, is just $5,300. Some purses have increased tenfold at El Paso's Sunland Race Track. In the financial reckoning of racing, bigger purses attract better-quality horses, and better horses mean more fans along the rail and at the windows. But the terms of the Colorado proposal, says political consultant and video lottery proponent David Kenney, make no provision for the horsemen whose racing animals are the bulwarks of the venue. "We didn't start this with the dog and horse people in mind, but to increase tourist revenue," he says. "The horse people would have to cut their own deal with the vendor."
The vendor, of course, is Wembley, and for the moment, general manager Seymore claims he's not even thinking about the video terminals. "Until it becomes a reality, it's a non-issue to me," he says. "If it comes and they give me money, I'll figure out a way to spend it." At the same time, Seymore acknowledges the tremendous fiscal lift so-called "racino" gambling has given to racing in neighboring states. "I would like to have 300 machines, because it would help my racing program. I came from a job in Iowa and saw what it did there, and I see what's happened at some of the tracks in New Mexico.... If they put it here in my store, I hope to get a piece of it."
Some horsemen have their doubts. Regarding Arapahoe Park and its parent company, horseman Dale Arnold is cowboy-blunt: "They don't give a shit about us, and the racing here ain't worth a damn. We've run some horses at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, and don't even get me started about the differences.... Here they don't do enough advertising or promotion, and the purses aren't good. Wembley just wants to keep the license here to keep the simulcasts at the dog tracks. They're not horse people, but you can't get 'em out; they won't sell."
Under Colorado law, Wembley must stage thirty days of live racing every year at Arapahoe Park (this year's meet, which ends August 25, will run 48 racing days) in order to bring in and ship out 250 days' worth of simulcasts from big-time racing venues like New York's Belmont Park, Santa Anita and Hollywood in Los Angeles, Chicago's Arlington Park and others. These out-of-state feeds, not live racing, are Wembley's main source of horse-racing revenue, and some horsemen complain that the company has less interest in them than in making those thirty days of live racing each year count.
"Simulcast is the product," Seymore concedes. "There's no way around it. We spent twelve years developing the product; no one gave it to us. The first year, 1992, I could only allow fifty people in the building, and we got only one signal: Belmont Park. After a few months, we opened at Mile High [Kennel Club], and it grew from there. We now feature seventeen different tracks, and the customers who come here -- other than the people who own horses -- would rather bet on Hollywood Park than Arapahoe Park. That's just the way it is."
On July 1, the Colorado Division of Racing Events, an agency of the state's revenue department, also jacked up what veteran horsemen and horseplayers call the "takeout" -- the percentage of money that the racetrack draws from the total money wagered on each race to cover its expenses and profits. Due to Colorado's growing budget crisis, the state has begun charging all racetracks a $4,900-per-performance licensing fee to pay for their own regulation. To compensate for that fee, Arapahoe Park essentially left its takeout on straight wagers -- win, place and show -- at 18.5 percent, but the rate on so-called exotics, the multi-horse combination bets that most dog and horse players favor, very quietly went from 19.5 to 28 percent -- a 43 percent increase. On many racing days, simple arithmetic shows that the track is not only covering its new $4,900 fee, but is also making a tidy extra profit. This move, too, has angered some Arapahoe horsemen who fear a public backlash, but Seymore downplays the possible effects. "The horseplayers on the East Coast and those places are aware of takeout rates," he said. "The majority of people who come here don't even understand it. Takeout is something they're going to pick up at a restaurant on the way home tonight."
Still, for a racetrack that has fought for its very life from the beginning -- the place was closed altogether from 1986 through 1991, when Wembley bought it -- anything that threatens the customers' contentment and the horsemen's ability to earn a buck is a very bad sign. Many Arp patrons are grumbling that the price of admission jumped from $1 to $5 this year (you do get a $1.50 program in the bargain) and that Friday afternoon racing, reasonably well attended, has been replaced by Monday and Tuesday cards, when few locals can get out to the track. "They don't even want us here," longtime horseplayer Bob Kerr complains. "All they want is the simulcast dollar." Increasingly, Arapahoe Park is regarded as user-unfriendly by many, despite its protests to the contrary.
Just ask Red Finch. A 62-year-old former jockey who still keeps reins in hand as a morning exercise rider, Finch raced thoroughbreds for 45 years. His view of Arp? "They can have this dump," he snarls. "It never shoulda been built way out here to start with. Centennial shoulda stayed where it was, and then we coulda had real racing in this state."
Ah. Say hello to the nagging ghost of Centennial Race Track and the grand design its founders had for major-league horse racing in Cowtown.
By 1950, Denver was a thriving post-war boomtown with a taste for diversion. Racing was still in its glory days. The actual hoof-pounding, whip-cracking reality of the Sport of Kings was a public pageant enacted five days a week in long-lost temples of the faith ranging from Omaha's squeaky clean Ak-Sar-Ben to New York's down-at-the-heels Jamaica. In 1950, Bill Boland won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont aboard a colt called Middleground, while Eddie Arcaro took the Preakness with Hill Prince. The Denver Broncos were but a far-off fantasy, and Major League Baseball had scarcely crossed west of the Mississippi. This was the year that big-time racing came to little Littleton. On the spring afternoon that Centennial opened the doors -- just seven miles south of downtown -- the ad department billed its creation as "The Santa Anita of the Rockies," and the Colorado Derby, it was said, would soon be the equal of that other horse race they run the first Saturday of May in Louisville, Kentucky.
Horseman Harold Calhoun, who now runs his horses, a bit glumly, at Arapahoe Park, doesn't remember any palm trees and pink flamingos in the infield when Centennial opened, but other first-timers swear the place was so decorated, in imitation of Hialeah.
What's not in dispute was the initial quality of the racing at what the Daily Racing Form dubbed "CEN." Finch, who began riding in 1948, says bluntly: "It was the best. It was just another Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. Just as good. Horses left there and went to the Kentucky Derby. One named Phil B. ran fourth [in Louisville] one year. Horses like Joy Boy. And then there was the cheap horses that ran there and made famous. Cherry River. Drop Your Drawers." Around 1962, a pair of young quarterhorse trainers named D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert ran barns at Centennial. "Smart young guys," Harold Calhoun remembers. But when Baffert asked for $6 a day to train each of Calhoun's horses, the owner declined. "I got Dale Hunt for four dollars. He was good, too." Between them, Baffert and Lukas have gone on to win more than twenty Triple Crown races and a dozen Breeder's Cup events.
Finch writes Centennial's epitaph in angry tones. "They killed racing in Colorado when they closed Centennial. Never recovered. They shoulda left it there; Centennial woulda been one of the biggest tracks in the world if they'd a left it there."
Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. It's every horseplayer's sad mantra. Centennial closed forever in 1983 after just 34 seasons. Changing tastes, Denver's phenomenal explosion of entertainment options and creeping neglect had all taken their toll. By the mid-1970s, the quality of Centennial's horseflesh had hit bottom, the track was plagued by a reputation -- justified or not -- as the province of fixers and cheats, and the public stayed away in droves, albeit droves smaller than those that currently stay away from Arapahoe. There was that little scandal with the trotting horses, which ran at night for a couple of weeks and whose connections were found to be cheating so flagrantly that even the state's then-somnolent racing commission had to shut down the sham. Meanwhile, the food at Centennial had gotten so bad that one bright Saturday, Saul the Fishman (as he is known), a generous and playful sort, brought two big buckets of iced raw oysters to the upstairs bar and promptly started shucking for all who were willing. Ten minutes later, a security guard rewarded the Fishman's good-heartedness with a belligerent rebuke, and the ace handicappers soon reverted to their chosen art -- half quack science, half voodoo. Justly, Saul scored a nice winner, and everyone went home happy.
Centennial's glory days were soon as dead as the flamingos of yore, and when the place closed, someone commissioned a local artist to commemorate the event. His original watercolor, titled "The Race Is Run," depicted, in sixteen vivid views, a racetrack fading steadily into oblivion -- as seen in the dark reflections caught in a galloping thoroughbred's keen eye.
It took two years for Arp to open for its first stint, a year to fail, and five more seasons for Wembley Corp. to seize the main chance, such as it was. In those dreary, horseless summers, the Colorado breeding industry lost momentum, trainers and riders took up new habits, and the mountain casinos, along with the brand-new Colorado Rockies, began cutting up what was formerly the horseplayer's hard-earned summer buck. When Arapahoe reopened in 1992, simulcasting was clearly on the rise, and the track was destined, for better or worse, to become a kind of racing husk that exists largely for the edification of hard-core horseplayers in Texas and New York and Illinois who just have to find some nag to play on a Monday or a Tuesday, when the big tracks aren't running. This theory works, too. On Saturday, July 12, Arp handled just $77,526 in total wagers, most of them made on site and in Denver-area off-track betting rooms. Two days later, on a Monday, Arp handled $166,326, most of it from out of state. No great shakes, but it's not hard to see which way the wind is blowing on the prairie.
Meanwhile, we behold Five-Times Mike, so named for all the races in which, according to his bizarre calculations, he has held five winning trifecta tickets, or at least five exactas, in the gritty horse parlor on the second floor of the Mile High dog track in Commerce City. Amusingly, the management calls this forty yards of outright shabbiness the "Turf Club" -- as if Bill Gates and the entire Rockefeller family were about to drop in for a couple of discreet win tickets and a magnum of Dom Perignon.
In this setting, Five-Times Mike keeps counsel with his genius and explains, with his customary grasp of the mother tongue, why he cannot, does not, ever play Arapahoe Park. "Look," he says. "I got enough fucking trouble handicapping horses that have got four fucking legs. I wouldn't play a nickel on fucking A-Crap-A-Hoe with your fucking money. Goddamn crippled horses with incompetent jockeys on 'em. Now leave me the fuck alone for once, so I can figure out this thing at Louisiana Downs, you dumb fuck."
Scorn of this bright stripe does not come down on Arp's corporate head all that often, nor should it. The horses are cheap, and the occasional suspicion of chicanery arises. "Who took that fucking win picture, anyway?" Five-Times Mike might ask. "Fucking Ray Charles?" But for oldtime horsemen like Harold Calhoun and Dale Arnold, the integrity and beauty of the game are everything, even if none of your colts will ever get a shot at the Kentucky Derby -- or the Ohio Derby. For his part, Calhoun prays the video-lottery measure passes so that maybe 4,000 souls will drift into the track to play the machines, suddenly notice those four-legged things prancing around that strip of dirt out there and start asking a couple of questions. The Seabiscuit movie, for all its too-bright Hollywood colors, won't do the trick, Calhoun believes. But slot machines might.
"We got four million people in the state, and we can't get a thousand of 'em out here," he says, his eyes quizzical.
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But for those who do go -- general manager Seymore believes many of them, at least the confirmed non-bettors, are the same people who go to the zoo and to Ocean Journey -- the rewards of horse racing can be rich. Even at a track so plain. A track so obscure. All right, say it, then: a track so bush in sight of a city that fancies itself so thoroughly big-league.
Consider, if you will, the third race at Arapahoe Park on Sunday, July 13. Six claiming horses aged three or older, every one of them for sale that day for the bargain price of $6,250, were to run a flat mile for a purse of $7,600. The number-five horse, Hilukwa, had won his most recent race, at Albuquerque, but the six horse, a Kentucky-bred named Up Jump the Devil, had already won at Arapahoe (where oxygen debt plays a role, just as on the gridiron or hardwood). And last April 4 at Hawthorne, Chicago's second-drawer track, he had won a cheap race with Larry Sterling Jr. aboard. According to the conventions of quack science and voodoo, Devil looked pretty good.
He was. Before a rapt audience of maybe 800 humans, he managed it. Like Seabiscuit, like Secretariat winning the storied 1973 Belmont Stakes by an astonishing 31 lengths, Up Jump the Devil simply followed the urgencies of his heart. He may have been an anonymous $6,250 claiming horse running in the 100-degree heat of a Sunday afternoon in the grasslands of Colorado, but he understood his mission. Under Victor Escobar (fourteen wins in 126 mounts this year), he broke from the gate in a lather, his dark coat shimmering in the sun, remained close to the leaders through the long backstretch and took aim in the turn. At the quarter pole, Up Jump the Devil flashed by the others under Escobar's urging and streamed under the wire a good piece of daylight ahead of the competition. He paid $7.60 to win, $3.40 to place and $2.40 for the show, in case you keep track of such things. Beneath the numbers, though, you couldn't help feeling it, a flood of emotion, as he flew past, far out on the scorched prairie, among a glory of sunflowers. Out of the depths of his courage, Up Jump the Devil had done that one pure thing commanded by the fires of his instinct, the thing that lit the fuse of our desire, too. He ran.