Video downs

About 12 years ago, syndicated columnist Mike Royko traveled from Chicago to Dallas to write some material about the Republican Convention. He promptly delivered the standard barrage of complaints that "real city" people bring forth when they describe our landscape and the people who live on it. Too bland. Too provincial. Too homogenized.

Come back here soon, Mike. I have something I want to show you. Something that will make your South Chicago saloon scene seem like Family Day at Knott's Berry Farm.

I am talking about this betting parlor in Grand Prairie. On my first visit, I thought I'd walked into a Unabomber look-alike contest.

They call this place the Post Time Pavilion. In the carefully practiced craft of people-watching, this new Post Time Pavilion place eclipses everything in North Texas, up to and including the waiting room at Parkland emergency during a full moon.

The facility that I am describing here is the first-ever thoroughbred horse-racing simulcast facility that opened last May on the grounds of the new, long-awaited, and overdue Lone Star Park just west of Dallas. Here, people gather daily (except Tuesdays) to wager on action happening at as many as five tracks around the nation. In the eyes of many, the operation at work here might be labeled legalized sin, which is a popular and growing phenomenon in Texas.

Since the actual horses will not begin to run in Grand Prairie until the weekend of April 17 in 1997, the simulcast pavilion offers a sneak preview of what life might be like when the thrill and aura of the tote board finally arrives in Dallas County. I first became aware of the pageantry at the pavilion on a Sunday afternoon at the Lion's Den in the Stoneleigh Hotel. Gale Fogelson, a demure man of quiet sophistication (he was Greer Garson's stepson) lives in the Stoneleigh, and he announced that he was driving out to the simulcast. "It's like paying a visit to the methadone clinic," Fogelson announced. Being a sucker for people and places that provide overstated elements of otherworldliness, I realized then that I had to see this place.

They gather before noon on Belt Line, north of I-30, in the pavilion structure that sits adjacent to the construction of the racetrack. I had not seen so many satellite dishes since I covered the Michael Irvin trial. Because the populace of Grand Prairie leads in the nation in the per-capita incidence of deep facial scars, what better setting for this wonderland of eccentricity? Pony players arriving for the early shift are the same types you'd find on a chartered bus bound for Branson, Missouri.

As darkness gathers, the clientele grows more colorful. These are not characters drawn from the pages of Damon Runyon short stories, but more like costumed bit players from such motion pictures as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This one guy, with a head--I'll swear to God--the size of a tennis ball, co-starred in Life After Chernobyl.

Way too often, they say that the opera's not over until the fat lady sings. Well, they must have postponed rehearsals for La Boheme, because a 5-ton soprano wearing a flower-patterned sundress is spotted peeling off a roll of Frankins at a betting window where they maintain a $50 minimum. She looks like Nate Newton in drag.

Another weirdo, stylishly bloated in his Jacksonville Jags T-shirt and sporting a big, red nose, is drawing some dubious stares from even the eternally jaded security personnel. That character happens to be me, armed with a wad of $5 bills and primed for action.

Simulcasting in Grand Prairie (it should be clarified here that this is not off-track betting since the Texas racing bill sanctions activity like this only at the site of a horse track) began last May on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby. Since then, patrons have arrived at a consistent pace of 2,100 a day, and through the last week in September had wagered over $65 million. The swag is divided thus: Horse players at the pavilion win back 82 percent of what they plunk down at the ticket window and the remaining 18 percent is divided among the track, the state, and the tracks that supply the races on simulcast TV. The state's cut actually rests at 1 percent. In 1991, potential track owners convinced the Texas Legislature to bring that down from 5 percent in order for them to survive. The state bowed to the owners' argument that 1 percent is better than no percent.

Inside the pavilion, the first-time visitor might think he (I use the word "he" because this is essentially an all-male patron base) has by accident wandered into the control tower at D-FW International Airport. Through the darkness, we see a multitude of video screens. Big ones stand mounted on the east and west walls and spaced around the large circular bar that serves as the centerpiece of the pavilion. Additionally, hundreds of little school desks come equipped with individual monitors. What this setting inspires is a surreal visual setting, almost like it's all filmed through gauze and in 3-D.  

Persons serious about the esoteric study of equine wagering can rent a desk and a TV monitor on a first-come basis for $3. On weekends and particularly on Saturday, the first-come factor is important because the joint quickly becomes S.R.O.

Here, the devoted players handicap the races at Belmont in New York or Arlington Park in Chicago or Remington Park in Oklahoma City or Del Mar on the Pacific Coast or wherever. The urgent song of the track announcers becomes almost constant in the background. Like horse players anywhere--although a laptop computer has become standard equipment for the modern breed--they sit in a personally induced trance, gazing at the "Daily Racing Form." This publication produces more information--on, shall we say, Iron Soldier, a 9-1 shot in the seventh race at Chicago's Arlington Park with a lifetime record of two wins in 22 tries--than the CIA includes in its file on Fidel Castro.

What the racing form does not provide are concerns like a particular horse having sinus congestion or perhaps being mildly depressed for some equine reason on the morning of the race--the little nuances that can throw the form charts off kilter. People seated at these little desks are observing a spiritual inner awakening as they apply their individual systems. If they get too lucky, an IRS agent remains on the premises to claim, on the spot, a portion of any payoff of 10 grand or more. The IRS guy stands positioned near the pay window, sharpening his teeth with an iron file.

Infinite factors influence the handicapping formula. Breeding. Track conditions. The trainer. The jockey. Quality and class of opposition. It was recently reported that one occasional patron of Grand Prairie simulcasting will bet on any horse with an 'R' as the third letter of its name. That's why he went with Dare And Go, the horse that ended the great Cigar's amazing winning streak at Del Mar in August and paid $81 on a $2 ticket. These are but a few of the elements that comprise the arcane galaxy of parimutuel wagering. Experienced players share one and only one universal rule: Get the rent down first.

A tall man named Nick confines his Post Time Pavilion sphere to the smoking section. He does not want his last name listed in any publications. Somewhere there is a spouse or a boss who would not be pleased to learn of his whereabouts on a weekday afternoon. In fact, Nick cautions me about approaching strangers in here for interviews. "This can be dangerous territory. Some of these characters are the same ones who fix high-school football games in West Texas. Ask the wrong question and you're liable to get your nose busted," he informs me. Almost in a whisper, Nick explains that "a lot of these characters in here are dope dealers and bookies and they're laundering money. They'll pretty much cover the board on trifecta races [picking the first three horses in order], and that almost guarantees an 80-percent return...sometimes much higher."

He speaks in this very macho, gravelly voice that would be ideal for Wolf brand chili commercials. Nick gets a conspiratorial glimmer in his eye and nods in the direction of a person at a nearby desk as an example of somebody involved in that kind of activity. The person Nick has singled out is a human compost heap. That guy couldn't launder his own socks, much less a basketful of c-notes. I decide that Nick has absolutely no idea what he's talking about and advance into another area of the pavilion where the smoke and the BS aren't quite as thick.

Inside a special room reserved for heavy players, Norm Hitzges, identified by one keen observer as the HAL 9000 of sports radio, spews out racing data in monumental detail. Hitzges throws more preparation into casting an exacta wager (picking the first two horses in order) at Goathead Park than NASA devoted to Apollo 13. Among other personalities included in the VIP room, we find Dallas defense attorney Kevin Clancy, sipping Tanqueray on the rocks and seeking a big hit via simulcast since some of his clients haven't responded to some bills he has mailed.

Hitzges reviews racing form info on a horse at Remington. "Now this is an interesting animal!" Hitzges booms. Only Norm Hitzges would offer a comment like this for a creature named Warm Woman and base that observation on her recent workout clockings over one-eighth of a mile. He eventually dismisses Warm Woman as part of his trifecta boxing arrangement. "Look how it points its ears back and to the side," he says, watching the horse on the TV screen during the post-parade. "I hate that. Absolutely hate it. My dog does that whenever something scares him." One of his combinations does come home in the predicted 1-2-3 order, and in rapid succession the broadcaster hits an exacta at Belmont and not two minutes later another exacta at Arlington Park. In the time that it took Kevin Clancy to knock down his Tanqueray on ice, Hitzges won at least $3,000.  

The setting in the VIP room becomes too intense, so I stroll back outside to the bar area just in time to hear a patron announce that, "If I don't cash a ticket in the next two races, I'm going next door to the track construction and jump off the roof." The bartender grins. "You won't be the first," he says.

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."

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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