By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
That comment piques my interest. "Actually, the guy climbed up on the top of a big crane and was kind of swinging around up there," the bartender says. "It was pretty scary for a while, but eventually they coaxed him down."
This intrigues me. "So the guy was despondent over a bad day at the betting parlor? Lost his house or something?" Now I'm taking notes on a bar napkin.
"Well, the guy had had a bad day with his betting," the bartender confirms, "but as it turns out he's pretty well-known by the cops for doing that all the time. I forget what they call him--Jumpin' Somethin'--that's his nickname."
"Yeah," chimes in a barmaid. "He's a regular hypochondriac."
If the simulcasting pavilion successfully produces this kind of colorful dynamic, imagine the potential for dramatics when the main event happens next April at the track.
Outside on the patio, Grand Prairie Mayor Charles England surveys the nearby building project. Bulldozers level the one-mile dirt oval to the accompanying melody of a track announcer who shouts "See You In Saratoga" down the stretch in the third race at Belmont.
"I come out here twice a day, usually, just to watch those guys hang the iron," declares England, a tall man with a standard-issue Grand Prairie face. His weather-beaten features suggest that England might have spent his childhood working on a shrimp boat. On the opening weekend of Lone Star Park, negotiations are all but complete that will enable ESPN to televise a feature race that offers a $250,000 purse for 3-year-old colts. The track is confident that with a purse like that, several Triple Crown candidates will be included in the field. Thus, Grand Prairie becomes a dateline for the national sports pages.
England cannot begin to articulate how gratifying that feels. Neighboring rival burgs, Irving and Arlington, get that dateline as home of the Cowboys and the Rangers, respectively. Until now, Grand Prairie's only claim to glory was once serving as home of the Yello Belly drag race strip, where vice and corruption became so trashy that in the early 1980s the city deannexed the property.
So England is happy now, but it wasn't that long ago that he might have been tempted to join Jumpin' Somethin' up there on that crane. In 1992, voters of the city of Grand Prairie approved a half-cent sales tax to build this thoroughbred racing facility. The city created a sports authority that would own the track and lease it to the track operators. Three years passed. The good citizens of Grand Prairie paid the tax, and all there was to show for it was a big vacant lot north of I-30. When the Legislature legalized concealed hand guns during Grand Prairie's hour of crisis, it was enough to give a politician the shakes.
What happened, in capsule form, was that the original ownership of Lone Star Park did not raise the anticipated funds needed to supplement the tax revenues. The operating partner who was eventually bought out and went away, Preston Carter, insists that money-raising efforts were willfully sabotaged by a rival ownership faction. Whatever the reason, the Grand Prairie track plummeted from grandiose expectations into an iron lung.
The plot lines dimmed even further when Texas' first Class 1 track, Sam Houston Park in Houston, blazed out of the starting gate as an unmitigated fiasco in 1994. Houston, a Pearl-beer and steel-guitar kind of town, was never suited for a sport like thoroughbred racing and never will be. Sportsmen in that region find that poaching, dynamiting fish, and staging pit-bull fights are better keyed to their enthusiasms. However, the stigma of that flop cast a smoglike pall over the prospects of major horse-racing in Texas.
The spotty financial and aesthetic presentation at Trinity Meadows, the modest little oval in Parker County, offered little to stimulate the appetites of potential investors in the sport. In all fairness, the fact that a place called Trinity Meadows sounds more like a private psychiatric hospital than a racetrack proved harmful to marketing efforts. The track itself provides all the big-league atmosphere of a football game between the Bowie Jackrabbits and the Weatherford Kangaroos. As for the quality of competition on the track, suffice it to say that the talent was better suited for a can of Alpo than a run for the roses.
Fortunately for the people in Grand Prairie, the Trammell Crow family formed a new investment group and offered to kick in $10 million last winter and the project was rescued, just when it looked like Charles England might be destined to become the star exhibition in the rogues gallery of the city's only other tourist attraction, the Palace of Wax.
England stares at his baby, the seven-story, $96-million race palace (designed by the same architectural concern that built the Ballpark at Arlington). He takes a deep pull on his cigarette and says, "What happened at the track in Houston really can't be used as a fair yardstick for what's going to happen here. This area is more track-oriented and, frankly, has been traditionally populated by people who like to gamble, like in oil and real estate and, hell, they like to go to Vegas, too."