Horse racing tracks are up against it, and have been for a long time. When they were the only game in town, times were great. Then state lotteries showed up. Then, casinos. Then, online gambling.
So the news that the owners of Raceway Park are considering leaving the longtime location at 5700 Telegraph Road behind can’t come as a great surprise.
The story in The Blade this week updated me to a lot of things I didn’t know, the biggest of which was it is now owned by Penn National Gaming, which also happens to be building the big casino on the east side.
When I last set foot in Raceway Park in 2004, it was a shadow of its former self. It was December, so there was no live racing, but there were still a few people shuffling around watching and betting on out-of-state races on televisions.
It was not how I remembered the place at all: big crowds under the lights on summer nights watching the Standardbreds race around the track. The sights and sounds of a race track can be pretty intoxicating to a little kid – the cigar smoke, the mess of discarded tickets, and how they’d play the Colonel Bogey March before the horses reached the starting line (never did figure that one out).
Raceway Park was founded by brothers Stanley and Sylvester “Shake” Jechura in 1949 as an auto racing track.
Stanley got into the sports promoting business while operating a tavern on Nebraska Ave., and began promoting stock car racing at Fort Miami Race Track. The brothers converted it to a horse racing plant (at a cost of $1.5 million) and opened for business October 5, 1959.
(Fort Miami Race Track in Maumee deserves a post all its own, if I could rope up enough information about it. The Blade covered doings at the track extensively. The Mud Hens played in front of the old Fort Miami grandstand at the Toledo Lucas-County Recreation Center. You could go downstairs at the baseball game and see horseshoes and other horse racing icons inlaid in the floor.)
Stanley died Aug, 6, 1962 at age 49 when the Cessna he was piloting crashed near Fenton, Michigan (story link).
So Sylvester, along with his brother, Chester, assumed operation of the track and were the face of the operation for a long time. In 1962 harness racing was added and three years later the track was expanded from 1/2-mile to 5/8-mile.
Fires are always a large threat at racetracks and Raceway Park was no exception. The first serious blaze was on August 28, 1976 (link) when four barns burned, killing 40 horses and causing $250,000 in damage. A more serious fire (for which there is no link, sadly) was on May 1, 1977, when the grandstand and clubhouse burned down. It reopened April 20, 1978 to a record crowd of 6,936 who pushed $311,796 through the windows.
Jechura sold the race track and moved to Florida in 1988. He died in 2009 (link to obituary via legacy.com).
But with the many options gamblers have these days, horse racing is no longer the only game in town. Pulling a handle on a slot machines is a lot easier than figuring out how this $5,000 claimer who has the rail and early speed will fare while he’s dropping in class. Much easier. In 2011, Raceway Park will have 52 racing dates, all on Saturday and Sunday nights. That’s compared to 111 nights in 1976.
SMALL UPDATE: On January 30, 2011, The Blade’s Dave Hackenberg, who wrote the 1978 reopening story linked above, remembered Raceway Park as fondly as I do…if not more.