Remembering Vegas' race track

Remembering Vegas' race track

July 25, 2017 3:00 AM
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Grown men wearing diapers and “Spidermen” competing for the public’s affection, or wallets, are just a few items that have struck me as strange over the years as this town’s DNA continues to invade the portion of my brain that helps me divide normalcy from the reality.

I said “Spidermen” because we’ve all seen them. The two competing “performers” that have very different ideas of what a Spiderman costume should look like. One has gone with the pajama theme, no not like cool Underoos of yesteryear, it’s more like a costume that was clearly spit out in high school home economics.

“Spidey two,” who always seems to keep his distance from “Spidey one,” supports more of a spandex, tight fitting ensemble. They both make me uncomfortable.

While trying to digest the oddities Las Vegas offers I often wonder why the Gaming Capital of the World doesn’t offer more activities that seem like no-brainers such as a lottery, which has been banned in Nevada since 1864 or since the birth of the state. In California, 40% of each ticket sale goes toward education. Seems like this would be an easy revenue source but as we all know Nevada decided to raise revenue in a different manner – but that’s another column.

Second, does it make sense that Las Vegas doesn’t have a racetrack? No, not the one at the speedway, I’m talking about the kind of track that David J. Funk, his father David K. Funk, and his late brother Albert Funk opened January 15, 1981 on the corner of Boulder Highway and Racetrack Road.

A track, in a city that has had a relationship with the Sport of Kings since 1949, seems like the perfect place to feature live racing in any form.

If anyone was going to bring dream to reality it was going to be the Funks whose family history showed successful dog and horse track operation from Florida to Oregon for over 40 years. In fact, David K. Funk operated the first horse/dog track in North America in Tijuana, Mexico.

In order for the Nevada Racing Commission to grant permission for the building of the track they threw in the caveat that horse racing must be soon co-featured in addition to the greyhounds. The Funks reluctantly agreed and, after a 12 year effort, Las Vegas Downs opened to an electric crowd of 5,000, an impressive number considering the track only had a 3,500 seat capacity. The first night of racing offered a 12 race card featuring a Big Q, a daily double involving the night’s last two races.

All signs pointed up.

Unfortunately, opening night was the peak of attendance as an average of 1,000 patrons became the norm. But for Las Vegas Downs Managing Director David J. Funk the setback wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning. Time to set up a new set of ambitions but in order to resurrect his track they had to convince the State Racing Commission they needed an extension from featuring horse racing while desperately trying to find more funding to build more amenities. It was their belief horse racing would only drive them further into debt.

The family was eventually granted the extension with the help of Las Vegas lawyer and Racing Commission member George Franklin but the additional financing never surfaced, delivering the death knell to the track in 1983 after just two seasons. Shortly after, the city of Henderson started foreclosure proceedings after demanding back payments of more than $364,000.

So why didn’t it work?

According to an interview with Funk it wasn’t anything more than bad timing and high interest rates.

Reading into the response it’s easy to get the feeling Funk still believed in the track and Las Vegas to that day. Perhaps his love for the sport blinded the reality of where the sport was already headed in the public’s mind.

It is ironic that a quick drive past the site of the old track reveals a massive amount of homes, which was supposed to be part of phase two of the track with only a little more funding, perhaps solidifying Funk’s “bad timing” theory.

In 2005 David Funk passed away at the age of 63 but his short Las Vegas racing legacy lives to this day.