Back in the saddle

Betting on horse racing is bad, or so we've been led to believe for most of our lives.

Movies show us it's bad through their alternating portrayals of track denizens as either pathetic losers or greasy criminals (for a look at both, check out Richard Dreyfuss' surprisingly entertaining 1989 film Let It Ride). The media tells us it's bad with their often self-serving accounts about how "playing the ponies" has ruined another promising young life. And our mothers tell us it's bad, well, just because.

On my first trip to Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, with more than two decades of this kind of rhetoric clouding my mind, I expected to leave with these notions pretty much intact--and owing a large debt to a menacing loan shark known to me only as "Lefty."

What I found instead will sound familiar to anyone who has visited Las Vegas in the last decade. Just like that former city of sin has received a Disneyland makeover, it seems that a day at the track has become a family affair. In the place of sartorially challenged, grubby little men clutching fistfuls of tickets or Runyonesque gangsters whispering threats to horse trainers, families of five sat clutching nachos and sodas from the food court. Yes, that's right. The track had a food court, which was strangely more active than the rows of electronic betting machines against the wall.

The atmosphere between races at the track was similar to that between innings at a Rangers game. A mascot gyrated to a Village People medley, while the scoreboard kept the kids occupied with games and trivia. The only thing that was out of place was the Jimmy the Greek-style tout doling out betting tips for the upcoming race on the video screen next to the scoreboard. And that's where the charm--and the overall success--of Lone Star Park lies: a comfortable mix of family-friendly entertainment and gambling convenience.

Since it began hosting live races last April (it had previously only offered simulcast racing), Lone Star Park has quietly prospered. "Our first year was very solid, particularly for a new track," says Steven Sexton, vice president and assistant general manager. "We had over 10,000 people a day, wagering over $1.3 million on our site. Those are very positive numbers for a first-year track."

Going into its second full year of racing, Sexton expects this season to be even better than the last, when it placed just behind The Ballpark in Arlington in sports attendance in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In fact, Lone Star Park was one of the most-attended racetracks in the United States last year.

"We've received a very positive response," Sexton says. "In fact, 88 percent of the people who came last year said that they would come just as much [this year] as they did last year, which is a real positive marketing statistic. The simple fact that we've been out in the marketplace for more than a year should be a real positive for us. Our goal is to match last year's numbers, but everybody wants to improve on their business from year to year."

To that end, the park has made $900,000 worth of modifications in the off-season, including improved seating indoors and a new courtyard for parties. The park has also attracted several new jockeys and horses, setting up another competitive season.

Trust me. Horse racing is good.

Opening Day at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie is April 9, and the first race begins at 6:35 p.m. Gates open at 4:30 p.m. Admission is $2-$10; parking is $2-$6. Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie is located at 1000 Lone Star Parkway (just off Belt Line). Call (972) 263-RACE for more information.