Day At The Track

Balmoral ramps up quest for new customers

08:42 AM 29 May 2015 NZST
Comment (...) Tweet Share Email Print
Balmoral Park Balmoral Park
People line up to place bets and collect their winnings at Balmoral Park in Crete
John Booz Photo
People line up to place bets and collect their winnings at Balmoral Park in Crete
John Booz Photo

Rudy is not a small man. At 48 years old, his grin comes easier than a reach to the floor to retrieve the Balmoral Park Harness Racing Program that fell when his attention was turned, momentarily, to an interloper.

Introductions were made by a track employee. Rudy, a regular, agreed to a chat, saying, "I'll tell you everything you need to know."

Except his last name. The Beecher resident makes "three or four hundred (dollars) a day" betting harness racing, so a degree of discretion is his preference.

"This is definitely one of the most comfortable facilities in the country to bet horses," Rudy said, sweeping a hand first toward the bar and rows of tables overlooking Balmoral's mile oval, then the other over a booth outfitted with a sofa, club chairs, five TVs each featuring a track elsewhere in the country and a betting machine.

"They don't charge for the booths during the week. You can't beat that."

Judging by the afternoon crowd on Preakness Saturday, Rudy's love for the 89-year-old Crete facility has not seemed to migrate to younger, or fairer, gamblers.

"Yeah," he said with a shrug, "this ain't the place to come watch women."

Tom Kelley, a Tinley Park resident who has worked at Balmoral for 29 years and is the director of publicity at Balmoral and Maywood Park, couldn't argue.

"Unfortunately," he said, "it is an older, male crowd.

"The key to getting the live racing product to survive is going to be generating a younger crowd."

Whirlaway started here

Balmoral Park, then called Lincoln Fields, opened in 1926, with the backing of the manager of Churchill Downs and several partners from the Kentucky Jockey Club.

In 1936, Lincoln Fields would bring the first photo-finish camera to Illinois, and in 1940, Whirlaway, who went on to win the 1941 Triple Crown, won the first race of his career there.

Lincoln Fields hosted thoroughbred racing until 1942, when World War II restrictions moved its schedule (or "meet") to Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero. A move to Washington Park in Homewood, and a grandstand fire at Lincoln Fields, delayed the return of racing to Crete until 1954.

The next year, it was sold and rechristened Balmoral Park.

Three ownership groups have since come and gone. Harness racing — horses pulling a sulky and driver, rather than carrying a jockey — arrived in 1973. Thoroughbred racing left for good in 1991.

But business was good, at least until casino gambling started drawing away customers in the 1990s.

"We'd draw 8,000-10,000 at Sportsman's on Saturday nights in the '80s," Kelley said of the now-shuttered Cicero track. "Now, we do 2,000, 2,500."

Balmoral Racing Club Inc., which operates Balmoral and Maywood, filed for bankruptcy in December, the result of a reported $82 million lawsuit brought by four Illinois casinos seeking restitution for fees levied against the casinos by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. The fees were extended through 2008 only after a Blagojevich associate sought a $100,000 campaign contribution from Balmoral's majority owner.

The ownership group is now reportedly looking for buyers for its properties.

Beyond that, Kelley and other Balmoral employees are anxiously watching the status of two gambling bills under consideration in the Illinois House, one of which would bring slot machines to race tracks. The legislative session ends Sunday.

"If we get slot machines here, we generate more revenue," Kelley said. "Part of that goes to the purses. Bigger purses means we get better drivers, horses and trainers."

Even if slots never come, the pursuit of revenue — and customers — goes on.

Something for everyone

To that end, on Memorial Day weekend, Balmoral launched its Miller Lite Saturday Nites, promotion, which will run through August. The evenings will feature live music — heavy on country acts — a $2 food menu and $2.50 bottles of Lite, MGD and Coors Light.

The track, open seven days per week for simulcast wagering and Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 31 for live harness racing, has more than a dozen promotions lined up through October. Among the highlights are:

• June 13: Runnin' with the Horses 5K (run the grounds, finish on the track while horses warm up for the night's racing).

• June 13: Brewhaha Beer Festival (featuring craft beer from local brewers).

• June 21: Father's Day Prime Rib Buffet

• July 11: Bark at the Park (bring your dogs to Balmoral).

• July 25: Pepe's Taco Eating Contest.

• Aug. 15: Elvis Night (featuring Curt Lechner).

• Sept. 12: Super Night (all Illinois-bred horses, racing for estimated purses totaling more than $1.3 million).

• Oct. 17: Wine Tasting with Cooper's Hawk.

An evening at the track can be inexpensive. Grandstand admission is free, as is parking, unless you choose the valet ($5). Bets can be as little as 10 cents.

Of course, there are higher-end options. Luxury suites, with food and drink options ranging from pizza and soda to fine dining and a full bar, can be had from $14 to $70 per person. There are buffet and casual dining options. Corporate outings can accommodate as many as 1,000 guests.

Fun? You bet!

And then there's the main entertainment.

"It's all about trying to make money," Rudy said. "The problem is, it's a thinking man's game. People like to sports bet, and they just pick a side. Here, you've got eight, 10 or 12 sides."

Mike Antoniades, a Worth resident and the racing analyst at Balmoral and Maywood, tries to simplify things for the track newbie and the smart money alike.

"Here's the difference between a night at the races and a night at the casino," he said. "There's a 20-minute space between races. It's more a social event than a gambling event.

"At a casino, they're not going to let you sit 20 minutes before your next bet. There, it's a slot every six seconds. Your exposure is enormous."

But, if mindless action is your game, you could merely bet the recommendations Antoniades makes for each race, noted in the program.

"It's documented over 20 years, if you play the things I say, you'll stay about even," he said.

Or you could take a flier on Antoniades' pick for the easiest "fun" bet to make.

"Without question, it's the 10-cent superfecta," he said.

A superfecta requires the bettor to correctly pick the first four horses and their order of finish in a given race. With a quick pick, a bettor could avoid studying the race program altogether, and could win more than $100 on an average race at Balmoral if his or her numbers come in.

But, if you want to do the picking yourself, Antoniades said, "Look at the UDRS (Universal Drivers Rating System) numbers."

Listed beside each driver's name, those numbers, he said, "Equate with a batting average in baseball. Bet the .300 hitters."

That squares with the suggestion of Casey Leonard, who eclipsed the 1,000-win mark in 2013, just four years after becoming a full-time driver.

"Betting the top drivers, that's a huge angle," Leonard said. "In thoroughbred racing, the horse's talent plays the biggest part. With us, track position is much more important. A lot of races are won or lost in the first quarter-mile."

But gambling just one of the deals

But, hear lifelong horsemen tell it, concentrating only on gambling is missing the point of a night at the track.

"These horses, the good ones, have a distinct determination," Leonard said. "They have a competitive nature that you really don't see in other domesticated animals."

Dave McCaffrey, the president of the Illinois Harness Horseman's Association, is equally passionate about the people behind the horses.

"It's very family-oriented among horsemen," McCaffrey, a trainer with more than 30 years experience, said. "We've got third- and fourth-generation trainers and drivers."

McCaffrey ticked off the reasons he loves harness racing: it's less expensive to get into than thoroughbred racing; the horses, standardbreds, are sturdier and less prone to injury; an owner can be a driver, while a thoroughbred owner, "unless you're 100 pounds and have an incredible amount of experience," could never be.

But, on this warm spring day, McCaffrey settled his gaze on the picnic tables in front of the grandstand and pondered the months ahead.

"In the summer, this becomes a great outdoor sport," he said. "You can stand on the apron of the track, eat a cheeseburger and hear the hoofbeats go by, hear the screams of the crowd.

"It's very much a spectator sport, with a tremendous amount of excitement and nuance."

By Phil Arvia

Reprinted with permission of the Daily Southtown newspaper

Comment (...) Tweet Share Email Print

Read More News About...

Stallion Name

Next article: