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.

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Mike Shropshire

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