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Monday, July 22, 2013
Fair to middling

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

This is the story of a race track, Fair Meadows in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is on the skids.

Early on, the live meet at this small track located on the county fairgrounds in the middle of town was a Rockwell portrait of Americana. It was the home track of Lake Wobegon: Where all the box seats were full and many had waiting lists; where the kiddies squealed at the doggie races between horse events; where the plumbing worked; where the trainers had shiny belt buckles; where all the trust fund offspring only bet what they could afford to lose; where all the jockeys were clear-headed and true; where the stewards had perfect judgment; where all the tellers could count; where the security guards had patience; where many of the races were predictable at long odds for those who did their homework; where the beer was cold and the barbecue was good and fresh.

Virtually overnight, the horse player was pleased to ask him or herself this question about the live races: Why go?

Of a Saturday night, from rail to private indoor boxes, it looked like one of those gambling house TV commercials where the tan, youthful and trim jumped up and down waving greenbacks, celebrating yet another profit.

This was, obviously, before the simulcast generation, before New York aired out and updated its off-track wagering outlets; before the emergence of the Vegas-style simulcast houses with big screens where retirees could sit in San Diego style temperatures and walk five steps and bet; and before the explosion of wagering sites where the horse player was actually paid real money to sit at a computer and experience the hygiene and convenience of home betting.

So virtually overnight, the horse player was pleased to ask him or herself this question about the live races: Why go?

The question was not: Why bet?

The question was: Would I rather watch a thoroughbred run through the summertime at Saratoga or at Fair Meadows?

A declining on-site attendance base didn't mean that the sport of horse racing was on a steep decline. It meant that the horse race gambling dollar was being spread far and wide, to tracks all over the country, even the world. People would sit in the gorgeous simulcast center at Fair Meadows and ask that the door to the live race meet be closed to shut out the hoof noise so they can focus on betting bigger and better races elsewhere. Simulcast wagering and home computer betting hurt the live racing at Fair Meadows: Why go? Why bet on wild cheap horses and tiny pari-mutuel pools?

The Curse of the Invisible Slot Machines also hurt the horse players who couldn't get enough of this small race track in its beginning.

Native American tribes run the casino business in Oklahoma. At one point, casinos seemed to be going up faster than convenience stores, with various tribes trying to grandfather sacred land and plug big trailers full of slot machines onto wide spaces of recently purchased ground.

Gambling halls and horse race tracks have come to share profits in many states. Praise be, most horse race leaders have come to think about this arrangement. Here's just how great slot profits must be: Three tribes in Oklahoma agreed to pay the county-owned Fair Meadows race track in Tulsa $2 million per year not to hook up slot machines.

Seriously.

Imagine your business starting each and every year plus $2,000,000.

Golf anyone?

This explains current crowds of 92 (including some workers) where many thousands routinely jumped and shouted.

So given the simulcast and home wagering competition within the industry itself for the horse race wagering dollar, and the $2 million boost to lay off the slots, what's a live meet to do except lose money?

Say some afternoons when it's 101 degrees in the shade of a beer truck hardly anybody shows up, and those who do bet pocket change, say so little money is wagered that the win bets often pay more than exactas, say that if you bet more than $20 you're betting against yourself, say the track loses $1 million or more over the course of a live meet. With the $2 million head start, you're not actually losing anything. Still and all, throwing away money on a rusty and ghostly race track, who needs that?

If you're bound for racing ignominy, you're not going to schedule a concert by the Beach Boy, singular, or however many are still singing, after the races. Or give away totes. You'll opt for the "Free Beer Tomorrow" sign. Cut losses and run the race cards as fast as possible.

Citing live meet losses, and not often mentioning the $2 mil pop, they tried to shut down the track before this summer's mixed meet of quarter horses and thoroughbreds, but the horsemen and women wouldn't let them, their thinking probably being: Who cares how many people are watching. Just put up the purse money.

This will probably be the last summer of live racing at Fair Meadows.

The demise of the sport didn't wreck it. The expansion of the sport's betting avenues did.