If I could resurrect one of the old haunts for all to experience it would be Harry Gordon’s Churchill Downs Race & Sportsbook.
Now that it’s over and time has settled it into a rightful place, Churchill can best be described as a Hollywood set complete with characters, their stories and the drama of the times. The physical plant that housed the many serious, amusing and downright hilarious dramas played out between its walls is like a shrine in the memories of those of us still around.
The ample race room and smaller sports area were spartan by today’s standards. You went there to bet or maybe just rub elbows with the assorted wiseguys and scufflers if you happened to be tapped out. You could hang out the entire day and never consider leaving.
The sportsbook had one 27-inch TV and no drinks or food to offer, let alone comps. You could be dead broke and still maybe score a double saw ($20 bill), get a good tip and pay the rent. Maybe that’s what it was. There were so many hopes and prayers uttered in that room over time.
No, the attraction was betting horses and/or sports. The place had character and charisma and didn’t need huge TVs and luxury to fill the two rooms. There was no class distinction. Junkets from New York and back East brought us big time, well connected guys. Likewise from Chicago and the cities of the Midwest. Many a hotel/casino owner stopped by to get their bearings.
Gordon owned the place and booked with his own money. He wrote tickets himself and had a candy bowl next to his writing station, making sure your hand came out with only two pieces. Harry did offer coffee and cookies but you could feel his eyes on you when approaching the freebies. Harry watched the candy bowl and cookies but at the same time was a fearless bookmaker, booking the highest in town, with his own bankroll like I said.
The title of my book, “We Were Wiseguys And Didn’t Know It,” comes close to “getting it.” In those rooms, between those walls, as we look back we were “in a good place.”
I worked in Churchill’s sportsbook for five years without much pay but it was heaven for a back East kid like me. Later I had a couple high profile jobs with the pay that went along with the responsibilities. The Stardust was especially taxing on me. I was putting out a line most of the country waited for and depended on.
We had huge decisions to overcome but no one I ever worked for sweated the games. I had 80 employees I really cared about. I always thought of Churchill Downs and wondered if the big time was worth it. It was.
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