"Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Broker Brett, Broker Brett, Broker Brett, Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Cane Garden Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Shawklit Milkshake, Shawklit Milkshake, Kowboy Tuff, Kowboy Tuff."
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas joins jockey Joe Bravo and horse Mr. Z
Thistledown announcer Matt Hook is looking through binoculars, eyeing one horse at a time and rhythmically muttering its name under his breath as he prepares to call a Wednesday afternoon race. "This race will be hard because five of them are wearing red," he explains, because he tells the horses apart by the color of the jockey's uniform.
He goes back to his binoculars: "Blazing Hellcat, Blazing Hellcat. Blazing Hellcat, Blazing Hellcat, Shawklit Milkshake, Shawklit Milkshake, Kowboy Tuff, Kowboy Tuff, Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Cane Garden Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Broker Brett, Broker Brett, Broker Brett, Kowboy Tuff, Kowboy Tuff, Cane Garden Bay, Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Shawklit Milkshake, Shawklit Milkshake, Ore Pass, Ore Pass, Ore Pass, Blazing Hellcat, Blazing Hellcat, Blazing Hellcat, Ore Pass, Ore Pass, Shawklit Milkshake, Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Crestatorre, Kowboy Tuff, Kowboy Tuff, Cane Garden Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Broker Brett, Broker Brett, Broker Brett."
Without skipping beat, he flips an old switch and his voice is projected throughout the facility via the headset/microphone combo hanging around his neck: "Just a minute, the horses are now approaching the gate, one minute to race three." He flips the switch off and gets a few more practices in before the race starts: "Cane Garden Bay, Shawklit Milkshake, Shawklit Milkshake and Cane Garden Bay, Kowboy Tuff, Kowboy Tuff, Kowboy Tuff, Ore Pass, Ore Pass, Ore Pass, Ore Pass, Ore Pass, Broker Brett, Crestatorre, Crestatorre and Blazing Hellcat."
"And the horses are at the gate, it's post time now for today's third race," he says over the PA system before using some racing and betting jargon that I don't yet understand yet and announcing each horse's recent results. "And they're off…"
Thistledown Racino announcer Matt Hook
A minute and a half later, after Ore Pass crosses the finish line first, and before the next race begins 24 minutes later this Wednesday afternoon, Hook makes calls from his old 7th floor office overlooking the track, preparing for the flagship race of the summer that will happen in three days. In addition to his announcing duties, and a host of other things like recruiting horses, he's making hotel and dinner arrangements (telling the person on the other line to reserve them under the horse's name) for the jockeys, trainers and owners who'll be flying in from around the country to Cuyahoga County for Saturday's Ohio Derby. There's live racing at North Randall's Thistledown Racino four days a week during the season. But Saturday is no ordinary race.
It’s is the 81st Ohio Derby, the most important of the year in the state that's attracted some of the biggest names in the sport thanks to a prize money that's reached a half-million bucks for the first time in its history.
"This is slated to be the best in my memory, no question," Thistledown racing secretary Patrick Ellsworth says. "We have a bunch (of horses) that are coming out of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. That's why we positioned the race at the time that we did. We're trying to pull horses out of those races."
The recent resurgence of the Ohio Derby, which now is able to attract big horses like Whiskey Ticket, trained by legendary Bob Baffert (of American Pharoah fame), and hall of fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas' Mr. Z, can be directly attributed to the state's 2012 decision allowing Thistledown to install VLT (video lottery terminal) machines and become a "racino." It now funds a good chunk of the daily races on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday afternoon, with purses in the $10,000-$15,000 range each. And now it helps fund the $500,000 Ohio Derby, five times larger than what it was just two years ago. Increased purses bring better horses. Better horses bring more, and richer, gamblers more willing to plunk down stacks of money.
"The quality of horses this year is amazing," says Hook. "It's improved exponentially. The money's bigger, the horses are better. It was always an enjoyable experience, but with the increased purses, people are a little happier now, it's a little more enjoyable for everybody."
Ellsworth explains that previously, without money coming in from those machines, and with its previous parent company's bankruptcy, the Ohio Derby lost its prestige and with that the big horses and big names — the big guys weren’t willing to show up for such little prize purses.
"Right now, we're trying to get our name back," he said. "We drew some really big names in the 80s and parts of the 90s — horses that went on to win the best races in the country like Skip Away and Brass Hat — we had a long list of champion horses. And just over the years, the past 10 or 15 years, we just haven't been able to draw those big names due to the decrease in purses over the years."
Now, it's "night and day," says Ellsworth, who's been at Thistledown since he began making programs 15 years ago. His father, Dave, is the director of operations.
"When I first came here we were owned by Magna Entertainment and we had a good racing program, no question, but it went slowly downhill,” he says. “As the breading in the state went downhill, so did we. Less horses and less interest in the overall program, and the handicappers lose interest. Then we went through bankruptcy. When you go through bankruptcy and have no money for marketing, no money for promotions, big events, you're going to lose your crowd really quick. They're going to lose their attention and not be focused on you. We saw that trickle out and down for years. And basically once the VLT agreement was in place and Caesars took over and started pumping money back into the program, it's been a steady and sharp incline that we've seen. It was 2013 when we opened our doors to the VLT operation and that was the first year we were able to supplement purses as well, and we're talking two years later. We're in a position where we're the premier racetrack in Ohio. I will go toe-to-toe with anyone on that — we are the best racetrack in Ohio. We look to be one of the best on the east coast and midwest, and in a few years we plan to be one of the best in the country to wager on."
This year's Ohio Derby turned out to be a pretty damn good one. Eight great horses entered (one scratched on race day), with mere inches separating the winning horse (claiming $300,000) and the third place horse ($50,000) in a photo finish.
"That's about as good of a finish as you're ever going to see in a horse race," says Ellsworth following the race on Saturday afternoon.
Thistledown sits 20 minutes southeast of downtown Cleveland near the bleak and shuttered asbestos-ridden North Randall mall. "THISTLEDOWN RACINO" in huge red letters sits atop the large brick building visible from blocks away as you approach the massive parking lot.
Inside Thistledown's colorfully carpeted and windowless main floor, it's sensory overload. The 1,283 VLT machines — with names like "$tinkin' Rich," "Golden Goddess," "Playboy Playmate Party," and "Gold in the Bayou" — vie for your business, each with their own bells and whistles, flashing lights and video displays competing with each other to attract the mostly-older crowd to take a seat and drop coins or bills into the machine.
Plenty of folks make the trek simply for the slot machines, but others go just for the horse racing action headquartered upstairs.
Inside the huge lobby on what they call the fourth floor is a horse bettor's dream: dozens and dozens of flatscreen televisions broadcasting races live from Thistledown and across the across the country, and plenty of machines and employees at the counter ready to take your money on any of those races.
Inside Thistledown Racino
At tables and desks throughout the room during the week, regulars scatter throughout, thumbing through their program and anxiously watching one of the many simulcasting screens. Every once in a while, you can here a pocket of guys go nuts — "Come on 5! Come on 5! Come on 5! Damn." — but there are so many different races going on at once you can't tell which TV they're all watching.
Enter one of small tunnels and it takes you to the grandstand and the couple thousand seats overlooking the mile-long Thistledown dirt track through a glass wall on three sides. Only few people sit there on regular racing days — most of those paying attention exclusively to Thistledown races can watch them outside next to the track or in the main fourth-floor room alongside the other races on TV.
The rain hit early on Saturday but stayed away from Thistledown once the races began, but the threat of precipitation took one horse out of contention before the day started. Bodhisattva, which would have been ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza (who won the Triple Crown on American Pharoah) pulled out. The horse finished last place in the soggy Preakness race, and its trainer, Jose Corrales thought he'd have a better chance of winning money at a $150,000 purse race in New Jersey next week than at the $500,000 Ohio Derby.
I put my money on an upstate New York-based horse named Tencendur. He finished 17th of 18 horses in the Kentucky Derby — a full 19 and 15 lengths behind fellow Ohio Derby horses Far Right and War Story, respectively, and 35 lengths behind American Pharoah. But, it turns out, the horse wasn't that
bad. Tencendur was just sick.
"Not a good derby effort," said Thistledown's Rich Ruda, who was co-hosting Wednesday's "draw party" with Matt Hook, to determine each horse's starting position. "But I can tell you one thing, he finished 17th in that race and I talked to his assistant today, and they scoped Tencendur after the Kentucky Derby, which means they went into his throat to see if anything bad occurred, and he was actually sick. He was sick in the Kentucky Derby when he finished 17th."
Tencendur and jockey Manuel Franco
I later asked Hook which horse was worth paying attention to: "You have six horses coming out of grade-one races and I wouldn't be surprised if any of the six won,” he said. “The horse that interests me, that I like, is Tencendur, because he was sick at the Kentucky Derby and I think he's improving. I think he'll really run a good race here, and he'll be kind of a longshot too, so it might be worth putting a couple bucks down."
With 8-1 odds on Saturday, I slid a $20 bill into one of the machines and bet it all that Tencendur would place (finish in the top two), about as complex and expensive of a bet as I'm capable of right now.
At 3-1 odds, the favorite going into the race was a Bob Baffert-trained horse named Whiskey Ticket. Any horse trained by the legendary Baffert, like American Pharoah, is going to get serious attention, and Whiskey Ticket's recent victory at the Illinois Derby turned some heads.
Whiskey Ticket and jockey Martin Pedroza
Next was Divining Rod, at 7-2, which finished third in the Preakness Stakes. Two Kentucky Derby horses were next: Far Right, at 9-2, and War Story, at 6-1. War Story is one of the two with local connections, owned by flamboyant Stow-native Ron Paolucci's Looch Racing Stables.
Also at 6-1 was Mr. Z, trained by 79-year-old D. Wayne Lukas, a member of the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame, and considered one of the best trainers ever (he's got four Kentucky Derby wins, six Preakness Stakes wins, and four Belmont Stakes wins). Lukas called on esteemed New Jersey-based jockey Joe Bravo to ride him for the first time in the race.
Jockey Joe Bravo leads Mr. Z to the track
Thirtysilverpieces, with 12-1 odds, was the only horse to be actually stabled at Thistledown. Dekabrist was at 15-1.
An $11,000 purse ride started the day off just before 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. They'd go off every 35 minutes or so until the main Ohio Derby race, the eighth of the day.
Most bettors, I found out on Saturday, don't like to tell reporters what horses they've bet on and how much they put into it. But you can tell, sometimes, how they're generally doing. Like the 30-something guy standing in the aisle of the grandstands watching one of the early races, rhythmically pounding a rolled up program on his hip and then the ledge, like a jockey whipping a horse, harder and quicker as the pack came around to the final stretch, sending echoes through the room, and then slower and softer when he realized his horse had no chance before walking off silently with his head down as it finished. Or, after the same race, the young mother joyously standing up and looking at her husband and kids, yelling, "I won! I won! My horse won!"
Some people were actually willing to tell me what they were going with for the derby race.
"I'm doing a 1-4-8 box," explained one middle-aged guy, picking Whiskey Ticket, Divining Rod and Mr. Z, to finish as the top horses.
"Are you an experienced bettor?" I asked.
"Nah, I'm a novice. But when you know too much that's when you give all your money out. You can talk yourself right out of money."
His buddy, with whom he had been discussing his picks, chimed in, laughing: "That's why they've built this big ol' place, because we lose money here!"
Attendance and the noticeable buzz grew the closer it got to derby time. The main hall was full of people getting last-minute bets in. People began to pack in outside near the track as 5 p.m. approached. I found my way through the packed public viewing area and squeezed through to the railing in front of the finish line. The eight Ohio Derby horses running 1 1/16th mile would be passing there at the start and ending up there.
The board on the other side of the track showed the breakdown of the money bet on each horse. Of the $169,504 bet on a single horse to win, the most, $42,067, went on Divining Rod. Ron Paolucci's War Story had $31,291 to win, though rumors had been circulating throughout the day that "Looch" himself had put up a significant chunk of that himself, like he often does for his horses.
Matt Hook's voice echoed throughout Thistledown as the year's biggest race finally began.
"They're off in THE Ohio Derby. Divining Rod with a good start, Mr. Z on the outside has speed, Thirthysilverpieces part of the pace, Tencendur's away race a close fourth, Whiskey Ticket just off the pace is fifth, Dekabrist is to his outside racing an early 6th. It's Far Right and War Story, that pair at the back of the pack. They round the clubhouse turn, Mr. Z to the early lead — it's Mr. Z and Tencedur is right behind him racing second on the inside of Divining Rod. Whiskey Ticket to the outside, he's racing three wide, and a trailing trio — Far Right, War Story, Divining Rod — five lengths off the lead. And Mr. Z establishing a nice, early tempo here, Mr. Z just in front of Tencendur. On the inside, Thirtysilverpieces is third, Divining Rod is keen to go on right now, he's advancing between rivals. Whiskey Ticket is on the outside racing fifth, about three off the lead. We come back to War Story and Dekabrist and Far Right is only five lengths behind. Hitting the far turn three furlongs to go in the Ohio Derby, and Divining Rod now challenges Mr. Z. Mr. Z has something left and Divining Rod is inside, these two together. Tencendur back there four lengths behind, 30 Silver Pieces there as well. Whiskey Ticket is coming under pressure, then it's War Story, Dekabrist, and Far Right. And It's Mr. Z and Divining Rod, those two together, and Tencendur's now a closer third at the top of the stretch. Divining Rod with a short lead! Mr. Z right back and here's Tencendur on the outside, a furlong to go! And Mr. Z right back at Divining Rod! Tencendur trying to pick this pair off through the 1/16th to go. Mr. Z, Divining Rod, and here's Tencendur! Mr. Z, Tencendur! I think it was Mr. Z and Tencendur there as well with Divining Rod. Photo finish!"
The difference between $300,000 and $50,000 was separated by mere milliseconds, and few down on the track were able to call the correct order without the aid of a camera.
Mr. Z would win the $300,000 top prize. Tencendur claimed second prize and $100,000 by inches. Divining Rod got third place by an even smaller margin, and walked away with $50,000. Whiskey Ticket, the pre-race favorite trained by Bob Baffert, finished last.
My $20 bet on Tencendur to place paid off, earning me $54 (including the $20 I put in), my first ever win betting on horses, after losing on two races earlier in the week.
The race's organizers were thrilled at the finish: "That's about a good of a finish as you're ever gonna see in a horse race, besides a dead head," said Patrick Ellsworth. "With that level of caliber of horse, that's what we expect to happen, but it almost never does, so when it does it's just incredible."
D. Wayne Lukas, wearing Jeans, a white button down shirt, a cowboy hat and sunglasses, joined Mr. Z and jockey Joe Bravo in the winner's circle for a trophy presentation and photographs. Lukas then took off. Bravo answered a few questions for reporters:
"I got the call from Wayne to come here today and had no second thoughts — 'Please Wayne, stick me on him,'" he said. "D. Wayne Lukas is the best, he knows how to win the big ones."
Joe Bravo and Mr. Z.
What were you thinking down the stretch, with the race being so close?
"Really, not to get in trouble. The horse knows how to run, just to stay out of it's way." Bravo then bolted to the locker room too.
Lukas was busy but I asked Ellsworth about his reputation as a horse trainer.
"He's tough to compare to figures in other sports, but I'd put him in the top five or top 10 trainers of all time," he said, back in his office. "This guy is legendary. The Eclipse Award is given to trainer of the year, horseman of the year — it's kind of like getting a Grammy or an Oscar — this guy's won it five times. Countless Triple Crown wins, I think his stat is somewhere in the 30s for Breeders Cup races. He's got a record that is pretty much unrivaled."
Another Thistledown administrator popped his head in from around the corner: "I want to interject — don't think I'm eavesdropping — but all day long, without a question, he's signed autographs without even thinking about it. A lot of those guys won't even do that. And he did it all day."
"Pure class," said Ellsworth.