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Grand Prairie's horseless Lone Star Park offers the seedy side of the sport of kings

The mayor gestures toward the track construction. Thanks in part to big dollars now generated via the simulcast operation, Lone Star Park anticipates offering the big purses necessary to pull in the bluebloods of this so-called sport of kings. In what might seem shocking to the demographic profile of Grand Prairie, if all goes well, this track threatens to bring in some desirables.

Actual racing was originally slated to begin in December 1996, when the Texas Racing Commission issued Lone Star its first racing dates, the ones that enabled the legal opening of the simulcast pavilion. The commission meets on November 1, when the December dates probably will be canceled--while, happily for the track, the institutional strangeness of the betting parlor continues to generate bucks that average a half-million a day and more than $800,000 on certain Saturdays.

That's one reason why Lone Star Park's long-term debt rests at only $10 million, in happy comparison to the $80-million figure shouldered by the track in Houston or the almost $70 million at the Retama track outside San Antonio.

Lone Star general manager Corey Johnson, who spent the bulk of his career at Louisiana Downs, marvels at the simulcast fanatics, enraptured by the stats on their racing forms and totally oblivious to the possibility that outside this pavilion structure, other life forms exist on the planet.

"These handicappers in here are pretty intense, but I wish you could have been in here the day Cigar won his 16th consecutive race," remembers Johnson. "They stood up and they cheered. They gave a standing ovation to a bank of TV screens. That was something to see."

That must have been. But now I realize that it is time for me, too, to join the rank and file of the simulcast junkies--the guys who devote a minimum of 50 hours a week to the noble pursuit of horse-wagering. At Post Time Pavilion, some of them answer to such names as Squat-low, Possum Head, and Howard Huge.

I will cut my teeth on the seventh race at Belmont Park. Nothing complicated. Just buy a single-win ticket. Look at these jockeys, for chrissakes. The absolute American elite. Mike Smith. Gary Stevens. Dallas' own Jerry Bailey. Julie Krone, the first female jock to win a Triple Crown race, will ride a horse named Uncharted Waters. Finally, I settle on the one horse that Norm Hitzges says can't win the race, Angel in the Night. In five starts this year, Angel in the Night has won four times. All four, as Hitzges points out, happened not at Belmont, but at Finger Lakes--a New York version of Trinity Meadows. But look at the breeding. Son of Bet Twice, a Derby winner. Grandson of the great Damascus, another immortal.

Now I do something that certain biblical scholars insist constitutes an act of moral turpitude: I put $5 on a horse. In the process, I may have mortgaged my everlasting soul, but at least it was legal on this piece of Texas.

Track conditions are sloppy at Belmont. These horses are running in gumbo. Angel in the Night leaves the gate like a drunk falling off the curb. The horse, trailing the pack by six lengths, regains his footing and takes off like the Santa Fe Super Chief, winning by two lengths. I cash a $40 ticket. I am indoctrinated. Hooked. All I need now is a colorful nickname like the rest of these Grand Prairie regulars. Call me Jug Butt.

Now the eighth at Belmont. Look at this No. 3 horse, Patent Pending. Same deal as before. A win, place, and show in four trips at Finger Lakes. Probably rode into Belmont in the same van as Angel in the Night. These Finger Lakes ponies love the slop. And this horse shows Devil's Bag in its breeding line. You don't remember Devil's Bag, but I do. The second coming of Secretariat until he broke down at the Flamingo Stakes. After leading the whole race, Patent Pending is challenged in the final furlong by No Bad Habits. Why is it that now--surrounded by a cast of hundreds of strangers--I find myself shouting out loud?

"Run, you sonofabitch! Run!" That behavior generates some condescending looks from some of the blase. But my horse wins by a length and a half and I'm up a c-note because I outsmarted the form charts and feel like Aristotle. Life is really nothing more than a procession of ironies, after all. But I never dreamed that I would someday discover paradise in Grand Prairie. I hope others may someday share this destiny.

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