Monday, December 27, 2010

Horse racing losing patrons to casinos

The horses prick up their ears as a flamingo hue bleeds into the dawn sky. They chortle through their velvet nostrils. They nod their silky heads. The sun is rising at Calder racetrack and the horses are ready to run.

Eddie Plesa, trainer of thoroughbreds, moves around the barn with a brisk gait, from tack room, to office, to stalls. He talks to riders, grooms, jockey agents, a veterinarian and a blacksmith while overseeing a routine that never changes. There are poultices to be applied, flanks to be rubbed and a hopeless case named Malini, who runs like he's in quicksand, to be shipped to a farm.

In Calder's backside village, Barn 74 is the home of Edward Plesa Stables, symbolized by the black diamond P. Every day for 40 years his horses have run around the track and walked around the shedrow, generation after generation of winners and losers, round and round.

``How'd you go, Pete?'' he asked an exercise rider aboard To Heir Is Human. ``Real smooth, boss,'' Pete Shelton said after galloping the gelding through a workout. Plesa, 59, started hot-walking horses and filling bags of clover for 50 cents when he was 5 years old. His father was a jockey and one of the first trainers at Calder. His wife's father was a jockey, and her brothers are trainers.

Plesa's daughter, studying equine science at the University of Kentucky, longs to become a trainer. But he hopes she finds a different passion. His livelihood, and a way of life, is vanishing.


The sport of kings once had a regal atmosphere to match the magnificence of the animals. Presidents and playboys, moguls and movie stars came to tracks in jackets and ties and fancy dresses to watch Man O'War, Citation, Secretariat. They sat in their name-plated boxes and dined at the Turf Club. Aristocrats owned horses as a hobby.

These days, tracks across the country are in trouble. Maryland racing, which includes the Preakness Stakes, was ready to shut down Dec. 31 until the governor orchestrated a Dec. 22 deal that includes state bailout money. In South Florida, Hialeah, once a jewel, was closed for eight years; it's trying to revive with unfashionable quarter horse racing. Gulfstream's corporate owner, which also owns Santa Anita and Pimlico, was in bankruptcy and lost $23 million on racing last quarter.

At Calder, the motley crowds are as small as the prize purses. Maybe 2,000 spectators in T-shirts and baseball caps watch races that pay $12,000. The grandstand is empty except for a few senior citizens. The wagering clerks and food stand workers have a faraway gaze as they wait for a customer to place a bet or buy a slice of pizza. The silence is broken by gray-skinned bettors cursing at TV screens simulcasting races from other deserted tracks.

Outside, the patchy grass of the once-lush paddock is ringed by wilting impatiens. Worthless tickets skitter in the breeze. The bugler's tune echoes across the finish line. ``It's a dying sport,'' Plesa said. He closes his eyes for a second, and tries not to sound wistful. ``It hurts to see how this place has deteriorated.''

But stroll 50 yards away from the racetrack into the year-old Calder Casino and it's like leaving a dilapidated amusement park and entering a swanky nightclub. The floors are lined with thick, colorful carpet. The lighting is soft and low. Pop music is pumped throughout the warehouse-sized room. There are free soft drink stations, plus the Twin Spires Tavern and Front Runners Café. Employees are attentive, perky.


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