A Voyage Into the Past

Sept. 11, 2012

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This past Saturday, encouraged by Oaklawn Assistant General Manager of Racing, David Longinotti, I journeyed to Louisiana Downs for Super Derby Day, my first visit to the Bossier City track since was did a three-year stint there as track announcer, 1991-93.  In the 19 years there have been some changes, but happily, there were still many elements which remained the same.  It amounted to a baby step into the future for me, since I was able to find that change didn’t exist everywhere.

First of all, the route to Louisiana Downs is still the same, with the normal speed trap in Bradley, Arkansas, both going and coming.  Anyone who has ever made the trip to Bossier City through Bradley has discovered the speed trap either by prior warning or a stop by the cleverly-hidden local police.

Once past that danger zone, however, the trip into Bossier City is done mostly on tree-lined roads, dotted with abandoned rumble-down shacks and barns.  Once you get to Benton, Louisiana, however, you find the road opens up, the trees no longer shade the road and it’s pretty much clear sailing to Louisiana Downs.

At Louisiana Downs you encounter an all-too-familiar site at many of American racetracks—the casino or racino is built in such a fashion that it dwarfs the track grandstand and hides the old racing offices.  At Louisiana Downs you need to ride the outer perimeter of the parking lot to get to the racing office, which still has lots of its old look.  Of course there are new flat-screen tvs and digital readouts of business from the racing office, but otherwise you could step back into the latter part of the last century and know exactly where you are.

Going to the grandstand is fairly similar with the exception that the free admission policy to the track has eliminated the guard outside of the paddock to check your credentials.  Once inside the grandstand the bottom floor has become something of a gaming and simulcast central with the elevators to upper floors very much hidden from view.  Fortunately David knew exactly where they were and I was pleased to find that they stopped pretty much where they always have, two floors below the announcer’s booth.

With some help from some workers we found that the entrance to the officials level was where it always was, except that now it is hidden from view by some clever paneling and there is a keypad for entry where a pleasant security known as “Tiny” used to be stationed.  Once past that door it was a walk into the past.  The only exceptions were that there were no telephones in the pressbox except that one in the Equibase office, no way for the press to wager without going to another floor and the only familiar faces were those of the Equibase JT Taylor and is assistant, Steve, who once served in the racing office.

Heading from there down one level to the third floor the feeling was much the same as it used to be. There are some newly-decorated areas, but generally that level was like coming home.  Courtesy of the racing office, we had a wonderful table.  Good thing. The sound is terrible.  Decades ago the owner of Louisiana Downs, the late Edward DeBartolo, was generous in criticizing Oaklawn. I believe it is time to return the favor to the management of our neighbors to the south.   Although I didn’t get to talk with Louisiana Downs’ very capable announcer, Travis Stone, I believe he deserves an apology from management for putting out his and the sounds from all others on the p.a. system over that terrible system. Walking all around the property, the only place I feel like I heard anything recognizable over the public address system was when they offered the National Anthem and I was in the outside paddock.  I’m not sure I would have heard that if it wasn’t a song with which I am so familiar.  But it was a good thing to do and there was good public response.

In reviewing my three years announcing races at Louisiana Downs, I believe I may have announced the three longest-priced winners of the race.  (I tried but couldn’t find any historical certainty).  Clearly colts like Free Spirit’s Joy, Senor Tomas and Wallenda were all solid double-digit winners.  In the case of Free Spirit’s Joy, the Louisiana-bred became the first from the Pelican State to win the Super Derby and drew considerable attention to a jockey named Calvin Borel, who went on to become one of the most recognizable and respected members of the racing world.  The win for Free Spirit’s Joy came at the expense of far more heralded rivals like Best Pal and Light Light.  It was a great moment in Super Derby history and I’m glad I got the chance to call that race.

But the record was not to be threatened by the field on Saturday.  Under sunny skies the late-developing and “smart money” horse, Bourbon Courage, won while pulling away from the field. Once upon a time the management of Louisiana Downs were able to brag about the impact of the Super Derby on the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It’s hard to imagine any in this field being a factor in that race.  When it comes to a quality field, this wasn’t the year. But it was a competitive race and entertained the gathering. Let me remind you it’s hard to get a crowd in the Fall of the year, when there is football all around, including the vaunted Tigers of LSU. There were lots of LSU shirts and hats in the crowd, but one observer noted, it was fun to actually see patrons on the apron. But it was a beautiful day, unlike the steamy days of recent months, and made for a good outdoors event.

Unfortunately some short-sighted management had arranged a couple of interesting promotions, an eating contest and a hat contest, for in front of the grandstand, but arranged for a portable sound unit to make it only accessible to those in the immediate vicinity.   Of course we suppose they figured that it made no sense to put the sound out over the track pa, since all the public would have heard was some noisy mumbling.

All in all, the day was fun for me. I returned and saw both the good and bad. We learned what we can do and what we really need to avoid at Oaklawn and that will make Oaklawn 2013 all the better.  e did get a very good reception from horsemen, who clearly have been reading the press releases announcing the increased purse for next season at Oaklawn. Those with competitive stock are wide-eyed and eager.  That was fun to see in this time of a diminishing horse population. It fired me up. I’ll be counting the days until our start.  It’s just over 120 days away until our opener.  I’m glad I took a step back on Saturday to make that realization. When you’re my age those days fly by.

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