Racing's past

Aug 24, 2010 7:08 AM

Las Vegas today has little concern or involvement with horse racing, other than its sports books that handle the racing action.

It wasn’t always this way, however.

It is hard to realize that come next week it will be 57 years since the grand experiment, when a New York promoter named Joe Smoot saw his vision come true as a $4.5 million horse track called Las Vegas Park opened at Paradise and Desert Inn, on what now are the grounds of the Las Vegas Country Club, near the Las Vegas Hilton.

It was an imposing track at the time, despite the $4.5 million price tag. Keep in mind, as writer Rob Miech pointed out in a fascinating story in the Las Vegas Sun two and a half years ago, a time "when gas was 21.9 cents a gallon, a deluxe filet mignon dinner at the Golden Nugget went for $4.50, a new yellow Plymouth cost $2,395 and Lena Horne played the El Rancho Vegas."

You can read Miech’s feature in the files of the Sun, which incidentally was founded in 1950 by Hank Greenspun, who drove Smoot to Vegas from New York four years earlier. Or you can read it on Google, under Las Vegas horse racing track. One hilarious anecdote tells of Smoot’s reply when, at his trial on felony embezzlement charges, he was asked about the whereabouts of some half-million dollars in missing money. Miech says he brought down the house with his response, saying, "You ever try to pay a politician with a check?"

Las Vegas Park opened Sept. 4, 1953 and was a failure from the first race, when the Australian tote board crashed. Smoot died on Feb. 14, 1955, at 71 in a free room at the Grand Hotel. It was the same day a Nevada Southern campus, which became UNLV, was approved a few miles south of Las Vegas Park, Miech writes.

All of this came to mind with last weekend’s doings at Harrah’s Chester Racetrack and Casino just south of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Harrah’s chairman, Gary Loveman, doesn’t understand why racetracks need to be connected with racinos, but the former Harvard whiz understands money, and plays the game straight.

His Chester harness track competes with Atlantic City casinos, including Harrah’s, for much of the same market. But like racing or not, Loveman has his people go first class all the way.

Last Sunday Chester offered a 14-race program called Super Stakes Sunday. The track featured $2.4 million in purses on the one afternoon card. Two of the 14 races carried $500,000 purses, one was worth $350,000, two others $200,000 each, one was worth $150,000, two had $100,000 purses, one paid $75,000, and the remaining five had purses of $50,000 each. And as all that gold poured forth, Chester’s racino added to the Harrah’s coffers.

Those are major league numbers, a purse schedule that few tracks in North America can match. Gary Loveman may not like the idea of racinos, but his Harvard teaching background provides enough pragmatism for him to force himself to have dessert even if he doesn’t like sweets.

A note on how and why Chester came to be.

Like Las Vegas Park, Harrah’s Chester had a guy named Joe at its very roots. This one was not a New York promoter like Joe Smoot, but a former Pennsylvania legislator, a very smart lawyer named Joe Lashinger.

He could see and understand the potential of Chester, a run-down former steel town on the Delaware river just south of Philadelphia and not too far north of Wilmington, Delaware.

Lashinger chose for his site an abandoned steel mill, and then worked through all of the legislative complexities and administrative nightmares needed on projects like this one.

Along the way he got Harrah’s interested, and the Vegas giant wound up with the track, its harness operation, and its racino.

There are lessons to be learned at Chester, but neighboring New Jersey hasn’t learned them. If its governor, Chris Christie, really wanted to save horse racing – a dubious presumption, given his love affair with Atlantic City – he would have a consortium of Atlantic City’s 11 casinos, or as many as wanted to join, take over operation of a racino at the huge Meadowlands racetrack, 8 miles from Manhattan’s Times Square.

Where is Joe Smoot, or Joe Lashinger, when we need them?