There are marquee tracks everyone wants to visit and then there’s the others. I understand why fans make a trek to the big tracks, they showcase the best the game has to offer. But you may be surprised what the small tracks have to showcase. Just like the rental car commercial 50 years ago. The small ovals are Avis, and the marquee venues are Hertz. Both have cars to rent, and both serve your needs. But just like the tagline in the commercial; “Avis, we try harder.”
River Downs had events like wiener dog summer nationals, boxing matches, pig races, local music festivals and baby pageants.
I’ve ventured to both in my travels. The big tracks have never failed to amaze and delight. The smaller tracks have a down-to-earth feel that wraps around you as you walk through the doors. If you’re a race track kid who tagged along with Dad or Gramps to the races. You remember the sights, the sounds, and the smells. Hoards of gamblers hunkered over racing programs as loud speakers announced minutes-to-post. Patrons would stand in lines making wagers with the unforgettable scent of cheap cigars wafting through the air. There was only one place in the world you could experience this melting pot of humanity.
River Downs was a little oval outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. The meet would begin in late April and end with the running of the Cradle Stakes on Labor Day. Long ago it went by the name Coney Island Race Track; the same as the amusement park next store The famous Seabiscuit made two appearances in 1936, and the flood of 1937 finally washed away the Coney Island oval. The track returned under the new banner of River Downs, and the rest is a rich storied history.
Larger tracks have box seating areas where you had to purchase seats in advance. River Downs had an open air grandstand where you could grab a seat where you liked. The larger tracks had marquee riders on the way up the ladder, riding the best of the day. Smaller tracks have a colony of rough and ready riders trying to break into the game, and, sometimes, big name jockeys on their way back down. The horses at marquee ovals are some of the best in the land where the small ovals have cheap claimers. Both are exciting, and each has their own special charm.
River Downs had events like wiener dog summer nationals, boxing matches, pig races, local music festivals and baby pageants. There were track logo t-shirts on Mother’s Day, and cap giveaways on Father’s Day. As I reach in my pocket there is a money clip with a race horse and rider. It’s at least 30-years-old and was a giveaway item from the little track.
The big tracks have handicapping shows where the talent is decked out in shirt and tie and discuss the races. River Downs had an outside set located behind a bar, and “The Regular Guy” handicapping show talked about racing from the little Ohio track. It was for the regular folks in the grandstand who enjoyed some good handicapping info with a great deal of fun. Sometimes the best fan education involves having a good laugh to start the day.
I had the opportunity to work for River Downs. I started in the parking lot many moons ago, and 15 years later I would return as director of marketing. The smaller track was a springboard for many, and if you look back at the history of River Downs. You’ll find out the great Seabiscuit ran there twice; Steve Cauthen rode his first winner aboard Red Pipe in 1976, and in 1984 Spend A Buck won the Cradle Stakes and went on to win the Kentucky Derby. It’s fair to say that many horseplayers and fan have good reasons to love the little track.
I’ve visited big tracks and watched marquee events captivate the world. They will always be on my list to see and experience as they have raised the bar for others to aspire. Small tracks have a special charm and rich history that is passed down from generation to generation.
I have a bevy of small tracks that hold a special place in my heart. Places named Beulah, Lebanon, and Louisville Downs. They have all played a part in my love affair with horse racing, and as long as they open the doors I’ll make the drive. The days of “build it and they will come” are long gone. Racing was the stand alone heavy weight champ of betting, and there wasn’t as much competition for gambling dollar. It seems as though we are losing these little gems in the passing years. Places like Bowie, Calder, Great Lakes Downs, and Rockingham Park just to name a few.
Do yourself a favor if you’re a racing fan. Make your next trip to a small oval, county fair, or boutique meet. I think you’ll fall in love all over again, and, before you know it, you’ll be making plans for your next trip.
— Ed Meyer is track announcer at Belterra Park. He worked long stints at both River Downs and Turfway Park.