Losing at the Track

Every horse on the grounds comes equipped with four legs. It doesn't really take Magellan's navigational skills and two tanks of gas to get out there. The jockeys don't lift your wallet in the parking lot, and anyone who brings three kids along is pretty likely to go home with the same three kids.

Because it's not brash or big-league, and because the average Avalanche fan thinks it's in Kansas (if he knows about it at all), horse racing at Arapahoe Park is not exactly Denver's entertainment option of choice. On a slow Friday afternoon in red weather, you've got time to get acquainted with almost everyone at the place, including the Budweiser girl pouring drafts at the sixteenth pole and most of the hot walkers with frayed halters looped around their necks. It can be so eerily quiet down at the wire sometimes that all you hear is the music of pounding hoofs as the field runs by. No cheering. No outbursts of bettor agony. No nothing.

Psst. Got a hot tip for you: The Sport of Kings is in deep trouble all over the country, and if things don't improve out at Arapahoe Park, horse racing could be finished in Colorado by 1998, or the year after that. There's been trouble here before, but this time the end could be near.

Will anyone give a damn?
On Sunday, August 31, the penultimate day of Arapahoe's cut-down, 38-day 1997 meet, a two-year-old chestnut colt named Dramatic Jazz burst from the gate in the $25,000 added Gold Rush Futurity--which used to be a $100,000 race when it still had corporate sponsors--took the lead, and for six thrilling furlongs held off the race favorite, Pepper Stake. Just 2,846 witnesses saw him do it. They bet a total of $160,583--on the entire twelve-race card. Much of that was wagered miles away, in simulcast locations where the patrons were more interested in the action from Southern California's tony Del Mar racetrack--"where the turf meets the surf."

Truth be told, Dramatic Jazz was competing against a lot more than Pepper Stake and six other horses that Sunday afternoon. He was also running against the Denver Broncos and 78,000 spectators, who were hosting the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL season opener at Mile High Stadium. He was vying with slugger Larry Walker, the Colorado Rockies and 50,000 more fans, who were entertaining the Oakland A's at Coors Field. Poor Dramatic Jazz. He was running against every one-armed bandit in Black Hawk, every lottery ticket at 7-Eleven and every greyhound in Colorado Springs, not to mention most of the sun-splashed Labor Day barbecues and softball games between Thornton and Littleton.

No wonder the poor guy looked exhausted in the winner's circle.
To be fair, even if Arapahoe Park--the home of $3,200 claiming horses and a wind that howls unimpeded across the prairie--were to sign Secretariat and Cigar for a match race and name Pat Day and Eddie Arcaro as riders, it might not draw more fans than the average beach-volleyball tournament. Horse racing has a low-rent reputation in Colorado, and even in the great racing states--California, New York, Kentucky, Florida--it's plagued by aging fans and waning interest. Armed with brand-new pari-mutuel licenses, big-thinking Texans recently opened glamorous new racing facilities in Dallas and Houston, but attendance and betting handles have been woeful and purses have been cut back. New tracks in Birmingham and Minneapolis have already failed completely. So has Omaha's Aksarben, which had operated every summer for more than sixty years. In Iowa, no one can figure out who will manage the new racetrack, and a competing riverboat casino seems to lurk at every bend.

Meanwhile, the state of Virginia, which has not had legal horse racing for 150 years, christened Colonial Downs on Labor Day with an ambitious daily purse structure of $167,000 (Arapahoe awards $60,000 per day). Most of the racing world thinks the people behind Colonial Downs are out of their hay-burning minds and will be selling pencils on street corners in two years.

A more telling portent, skeptics claim, came two weeks ago, when the great gelding Forego, the winner of 34 starts and almost $2 million back in the 1970s, broke a leg at his farm in Kentucky and had to be put down--at the age of 27. Horse racing is old, that suggested. Horse racing is on its last legs. Most Americans don't think about it at all except on the day of the Kentucky Derby.

What chance does that give a poorly attended, minor-league track that is 25 miles east of downtown? A track that survives mostly as a legal support for off-track betting from other places? A track exactly like Arapahoe Park?

Leading thoroughbred jockey Carl Kutz, who's been riding for 21 years, believes the extension of C-470 into the neighborhood and maybe a little help from the governor will help. And to his credit, general manager Jim Gartland still thinks the long shot can come in.

"To an extent, Arapahoe does exist only for simulcast," he says. "We must run a live meet in order to simulcast from other tracks year-round. But it's also our intention to make live racing successful and prosperous in Colorado. Each year we move up a step in quality."

True, but between 1985 and 1993 there were no steps at all. For 33 years the beleaguered centerpiece of Colorado horse racing was Centennial Race Track in Littleton--twelve minutes by car from downtown Denver. Hailed in 1950 as "the Santa Anita of the Rockies," it never surpassed bush-track status and went out of business in 1983, the victim of dog-racing competition and a general economic downturn. In 1984 a new group built Arapahoe on the eastern prairie. It ran for one year before folding, and for the next eight seasons, local racing was moribund. Meanwhile, the Colorado racehorse-breeding industry all but dried up.

In 1993, Wembley USA, which also owned the Mile High and Pueblo greyhound-racing tracks and two of the state's five simulcast outlets, refurbished Arapahoe Park. Cattle had been roaming through what is now a tack room, and wild vines had penetrated the walls and floor of the clubhouse. Wembley put upwards of $1 million into the place and revived racing in 1994.

The track has lost money every year since, then recouped it through simulcast revenues from far-off meccas like Santa Anita, Churchill Downs and Bay Meadows. In July 1996 Colorado horsemen prevailed upon legislators to modify the law requiring a 60-day live annual racehorse meet to support simulcast. Last year Arapahoe's meet was just 30 days, this year 38. Gartland says the track expects to lose $200,000 to $300,000 again this year.

"It's become easier to play a mindless slot machine than to read a Racing Form," he laments. "And I don't think enough people care anymore about the beauty of the racing. The horsemen like it here--we had to open extra stalls on the backside this year--but it's hard to attract a new generation of fans."

That's not for lack of trying. Having seen corporate America's attempted transformation of Las Vegas from seedy gamblers' hell into family theme park, Arapahoe Park now offers Kids' Town, where toddlers can get their faces painted. Inside the Cash Cube, a couple of lucky fans grapple for dollars blown round by a synthetic hurricane.

It's even harder for the Arapahoe Parks of the world to grab a buck. How do you bring back the racing crowd?

"Oh, boy," Gartland says. "If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a wealthy man, touring the country and giving lectures. I think all you can do is make the product the best you can and try to sell the sport--present the animals as athletes, which they are, and creating stars in racing."

This is what Gartland managed to do in Kansas City and Bridgeport, Connecticut--when he was in the dog-racing industry, of all things.

"We had a huge crowd out here on Belmont Stakes day," he points out. "And we also had 1,200 people, without live racing of our own, to watch the Kentucky Derby. So there is a community of horse lovers out there, but whether it's big enough to support the place, I'm not sure."

Leading 1997 trainer Jodi Davis isn't sure, either. Her late father, Dean Davis, conditioned horses in Colorado for more than forty years before his death last December, and now that she's taken over the 24-horse stable, she wonders what the future holds. "Racing is dying," she says quietly. "There's not a lot of young people getting into this. The owners are getting older, too, and the 'hobby' trainers are taking over from--I guess I don't want to use the word 'professional.' Anyway, I couldn't really tell you how to reach out and touch people with our sport. Maybe the thrill is gone. Of course, for me, it's still there. Every race is like the first one."

If Gartland were writing the morning line, he'd make Arapahoe Park a 5-1 long shot to last five years. "It could be worse," he says. "It could be 10-1." Davis thinks it is. "Five years? I don't look for it to be here, and that hurts."

Too bad the Bronco fans and the slot-machine players didn't get to see Dramatic Jazz beat Pepper Stake. It was beautiful. Antique beauty, perhaps, but beautiful.