It's the first night of summer following one of the best springs in human history: San Diego temperatures in the heartland, more rosebuds than hail stones, more outdoor concerts than tornadoes. It has been an unexpectedly grand time of open windows at night, of dog walks in the daytime, of widespread greenery, with only earthquakes rattling the locals. Here's the new tagline on Oklahoma: If you don't like the geology, wait 30 minutes and it will change. Dozens of weekly earthquakes seem to have relocated fault lines from Los Angeles to middle America.
A perfect summer Saturday night couldn't be filled better than with some live local horse racing.
Fair Meadows is in the middle of the county fairgrounds in Tulsa.
Time was, before casinos by the score, you needed reservations to park near the track, to sit in a box or a reserved seat: Thousands of people clamored to get in. Anybody who had inherited anything was there. Tulsa is a city big on inheriting family businesses; thus, probably, the fall from grace concerning wishful thinking titles like the Oil Capital of the World and America's Most Beautiful City. Still today, Tulsa is an attractive, leafy city being run to a great degree by the offspring of the real business creators, the original tough guys and women. The community is blessed to be the home of George Kaiser, whose heart and billions are in the right places. Kaiser cares greatly about educating children, improving the lives of poor people and nature; aren't we lucky.
Here's what happened to the wildly popular horse race track: Greed.
The race track was paid not to put in slot machines. And when you're paid to do nothing, why paint? Why advertise? Why offer horse players perks, like light bulbs that work in the grandstand?
By treaty, Native Americans run Native American land. And there's lots of Native American land in Oklahoma. So Native tribes started putting casinos on their grounds. As the Weather Channel has its TOR:CON index that sets the likelihood of a tornado appearing within 50 miles of a point within the alert area, Oklahoma should have a SLOT:CON index that stipulates that there's probably a casino within 50 blocks of anywhere you're standing in a metropolitan area. It is unclear exactly how much money the average Native American casino makes. It is assumed the $100 bills are sorted before counting with steel rakes. As one type of gambling typically can lead to others, it was decreed by law that certain horse race tracks could install slots and stay afloat. But some local native tribes didn't want Fair Meadows in the middle of Tulsa to have slot machines, as this would obviously take business away from the big casinos in the suburbs. So some tribes paid Fair Meadows millions to do nothing much but race horses. The race track was paid not to put in slot machines. And when you're paid to do nothing, why paint? Why advertise? Why offer horse players perks, like light bulbs that work in the grandstand?
Here are the results of the decision not to put in slots at the race track in Tulsa, and take millions of dollars from local tribes instead:
The Native Americans won.
The race track won.
The horse players lost.
On this glorious first summer night, my return to the live races didn't get off to a good start. The first thing I thought was: Is my tetanus shot current? I found rusty beams, burned out light bulbs, a $5,000 claiming race run for a purse of $4,500, a tip sheet that cost $1, a program seller who couldn't get the door to his hut open and told me to come back in a half hour and a youthful pari-mutuel clerk who told me as I walked past to come back and bet with her because she promised that she wouldn't mess up my ticket.
A half hour to the first post, there were 76 people and one black and white dog in the grandstand.
Twenty minutes to the first post, the morning line odds had not changed on the tote board, suggesting chaos could ensue if somebody bet a $20 bill.
The animals appeared considerably better kept than some of the horse players.
This card appeared to be the owner-trainer center of the horse racing universe. Half a dozen owner-trainers had entries in one race.
And you will not believe where I made my bets on this postcard-perfect first Saturday night of the summer: I bet at the Sky Ride booth. The tiny Sky Ride booths had been dragged in from the midway and were near the hut that sold "authentic" hot dogs. Having never bet at a Sky Ride ticket shack, I was rendered temporarily awe-and-Americana struck and was actually asked by an elderly woman to hurry up and bet or step the devil aside.
By the fourth race, the crowd had grown to 300-400, many of them small children, as the price was perfect for babysitting: free.
Lines were seldom more than four or five deep at the Sky Ride wagering stations because so few people at these races bet. They just sat and watched the kids play like rail birdies.
One of the chief attractions was jockey accessibility. Once I thought I saw a guy dressed up like a jockey moving through the crowd at the rail, you know, to entertain the kids. But it was a real jockey, taking a shortcut back to the dressing area. Several other times after races, real jockeys piled into the back of a pickup truck and were hauled back to the riders' room, no reason to waste energy walking if you didn't have to.
"You almost had that one," a horse player almost too wide for his aluminum folding chair said to a nearby jockey. "Then the race started."
It was a little something like a state fair atmosphere without the lines.
When hardly anybody bets much, here's the way that goes.
Smart money is $15.
You bet $13, win $18.
You bet the $18, win $24.
You don't handicap any worse, going for peanuts. And there's always the thrill of anybody or anything turning for home.
To win hundreds, you need to play a dime or 50-cent exotic, hit a 60-1 shot and win the whole pool.
It's hard to stay open with no handle to speak of; so this is apt to be the last season for live racing at Fair Meadows. The meet will probably move up the road 35 miles to a bigger track with a Native American casino out front in Claremore, Oklahoma.
I'll miss all the 9-year-olds, kids and horses.