From its opening in 1974 until the late-1980’s recession, Louisiana Downs in Bossier City was an excessively loud and glorious dream of colors and sounds, impossibly attractive animals and tell-tale silks, screams and yells and excruciating moans, bulging neck veins in both patrons and ponies, a sea of torn hopes and tickets, and the ring of the cashiers’ “cha-ching!”, that deeply longed-for sound of a winner, winner, chicken dinner.
A mixture of thoroughbred prancing and pooping and people the likes of which you’ve never seen.
It was A Thing back then, Louisiana Downs, the new kid on the area’s racing block. A shiny, fresh-off-the-shelf toy. It’s where dreams lived and died — and often, it didn’t take long for either.
For those of us who found ourselves for whatever reasons hanging around the track back in its glory days, the news that Harrah’s Louisiana Downs horse racetrack and casino has been sold to Rubico Gaming for $22 million — a deal that’s been in the works for more than a year — made the memories come racing back. Not that some of us (me) knew anything about horse racing. The novelty and fascination was because of just the opposite: we’d never experienced, seen, smelled, or stepped in anything quite like it.
“We are prepared to bring this iconic track back to its iconic status,” Rubico President Kevin Preston said as the sale neared completion.
Harrah’s and Caesars Entertainment admitted to little interest in racing. Rubico feels differently, and the transition back to an updated casino — and track — is underway.
Which means that maybe we can go home again. At least for a visit.
During its heyday in the early 1980s, as many as 1.3 million fans attended the track over the racing season. Hard to imagine that scene today if you didn’t experience it then.
“As a senior in high school, everyone (principals, teachers, coaches) sent me to the track from Ruston to bet the daily double,” said my friend Hilly, and I was close enough to the situation to testify that this activity extended past Ruston High and into our shared time at Louisiana Tech. “You’d almost have to park on I-20. I hope for a small return to glory.”
Time out for a moment of clarity: Hilly studied and knew the horses. He was there for a very different reason than I was and for the very same reasons the thousands of others were. And that’s to cash tickets.
I grew up with horses. I owned a horse. Loved horses. Still do. But if you handed me a horse and saddle right now, I’d have to think a minute before putting it on. The bridle would be another five minutes.
This did not stop the Shreveport Journal, the area’s afternoon paper back then, from sending me and JJ, young sportswriters who gladly did whatever we were told, to the track to support turf writer extraordinaire Gary West. If you ask enough questions and listen, you can find out what you and readers need to know about the horses. Just go to the backside, to the stables.
The appropriately named “backside” is where you find all kinds of horse poop. Again, all kinds.
But, no one loves these horses more than the trainers and grooms and jockeys and exercise riders and veterinarians, and if you’re eager to learn, they’re eager to teach you. Fascinating people — and thoroughbreds.
We’d write, and during downtime, we’d ask West what horse or horses to bet on, then race to the window to make a standard $2 wager, then hold on and hope, same as your average railbird.
The next morning, we’d put together a sports section that contained almost an entire page of Downs results: how the races finished, that day’s races with probable odds, West’s picks, the “Barnburner’s Picks” — West’s semi-rival — and a feature called “$2 Bettor,” which one of us wrote — officially “TDB at the Downs” — complete with a pencil-drawing head shot of a guy in coat and tie and beret with a heater in his mouth and tickets in his hand. It wasn’t serious. I’m looking at one now from the mid-’80s, which is about “Lyrical Lewis, a poet of some note,” who came to the track as a newbie, picked horses by which names he liked, and of course won while the expert handicapper lost. Don’t know if I wrote that one or not, but it could have been about me. Except for the winning part.
When racing season rolls around in May and the transition is complete, consider a day at the races. Take six bucks and decide you’ll have no more than that much fun betting, no matter what. Food and checking out the crowd and enjoying the races and the competitive thoroughbreds and jockeys — there’s a lot more to do than wager, especially if you don’t know how. And if you don’t know how, not wagering is the safest bet. Take it from the old $2 Bettor.
For anyone who has been kind enough to read my stuff through the years, it might interest you that Sunday will mark my final column for Gannett. First one was April of 1990. Gannett has been so good to me, especially since none of this was rehearsed; never as a kid did I imagine doing this. I tried to return their trust by not missing a column or deadline and by giving an honest effort — although in the writing racket, you die on the table now and then, same as in everything else. My goal now is to offer the same attitude and effort to my friends with Journal Services, and to you; readers are the key. I thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for hanging in there with me. Hopefully we can stay in touch. And before I forget, “Gomer says hey.”
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