A gamble at the Downs still paying off after 34 seasons

SHE’S UP ABOUT THE DOWNS:  Phyllis Whitehurst has worked at Louisiana Downs since 1988 and can’t imagine leaving. She has risen through the ranks and is the  Food and Beverage Manager.

By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports

It was 34 years ago when young Phyllis Whitehurst lied.

“A little white lie,” she said.

“I can tell the story now,” she said, assuming the statute of limitations has expired.

In 1988, as a 16-year-old, she applied for a weekend job at Louisiana Downs.

“My next-door neighbor said they needed some help in the concession stands.”

But legally, Whitehurst had to be at least 18 to work at the track.

“They didn’t check social security, driver’s license, and all that stuff like they do now,” Whitehurst said.

So, the Haughton High School student was hired. And she’s been at the Downs ever since.

Whitehurst has worked her way up to become Louisiana Downs’ Food and Beverage Manager. She also books banquets and catering events.

“I’m a jack of all trades, because I can do everything.”

Whitehurst loves her job. But in the beginning, she loved the money.

“I thought I was rich,” Whitehurst said. “I was making tips. Sixteen and you’re making money like this? Girl! Woo!…During the weekend, I bet I was clearing $100, $200 just in tips. I was excited!”

The money was so good, Whitehurst didn’t finish college. She left Louisiana Tech for Louisiana Downs.

“That was a mistake I made. The money was overwhelming for me. I bought my own Grand Am. I kind of got away from school. If I had known then what I know now, I would have finished college.”

As Whitehurst got older, she began to appreciate the job more than the money.

“I really enjoyed myself. Working with the people. Talking with the people.”

And if you have a long memory, as Whitehurst does, you know that at one time, there were plenty of people with whom Whitehurst could work and talk.

“When I first started here, it was so overwhelming. There were people everywhere. This place was busy coming in and out. I remember coming to work, and there were lines (of cars) all on the freeway trying to get in there. It was the same way going out.”

In fact, just because the last horse crossed the finish line didn’t mean Whitehurst could head home.

“Sometimes we used to just sit in the parking lot. You couldn’t get out of here in five minutes. Sometimes it took you 30, 40 minutes, maybe an hour to get out of here. I’ve seen it booming, and I’ve seen it not booming.”

The “not booming” years were when crowds grew smaller and smaller. That led to staff growing smaller and smaller.

“I’ve seen a whole lot of my friends leave,” Whitehurst said. “I saw a lot of people leave that taught me so much. So many managers, employees — line employees that taught me so I could get where I am now.”

That’s a culture the track’s new owner wants to change.

“Creating that family-type experience with our team members, and not seeing them go through a revolving door,” said Kevin Preston, President of Rubico Acquisition Group. “So, when you come, you ask, ‘Where’s Jessica?’ ‘She’s not here anymore. She left.’ We want those same experiences to resonate with the team members too, so when customers come, they say, ‘Oh, wow, so and so has been here and they take care of us all the time.’”

Whitehurst believes under Preston’s ownership, those crowds will return.

“I’m very hopeful. I really, truly believe we can get back. I’m not going to say we can get back to where we were — everything booming, those never-ending lines. The guys in the parking lot parking cars and all that. We might not get there, but I really think we’re going to give the community a little growth … I hope and I pray.”

Whitehurst and her kitchen staff play an important part in the Downs regaining some of its popularity. After all, who wants to go somewhere that doesn’t have good food?

“We’re trying to flip the menu,” Whitehurst said. “Give them something different.”

A few years ago, Whitehurst tried something different. When Louisiana Downs and Horseshoe Casino and Hotel were affiliated with each other, Whitehurst’s boss wanted to move Whitehurst from the track to the casino.

“I worked there two nights,” Whitehurst said. “I was miserable. He saw it all over my face. I went into his office and told him I can’t do it. I don’t like it. The atmosphere was so different than the one here. He looked at me, and I didn’t even have to say anything. He said ‘OK, Phyllis, you can go back home. I could tell by watching you the past two days you weren’t happy.’”

With the track’s thoroughbred racing season off and running, Whitehurst is very happy and optimistic about the future of Louisiana Downs. And she plans on being there to see it.

“How long are you going to stay at Louisiana Downs?” she was asked.

“Until they just put me out of here.”

Contact Tony at SBJTonyT@gmail.com

Louisiana Downs races through September 27. First post time is 3:05 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, and 1:45 on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Photo by DEREK DANIEL, Louisiana Downs

Mr. Menu is an advertising company that produces in-house and take-home menus for locally owned restaurants statewide. The menus are full color, printed on heavy stock paper and provided to the restaurants at no charge. The menus cycle every three to four months and they allow advertisers to speak to the customers of popular locally owned restaurants.

Mike Whitler became the owner/operator of Mr. Menu in 2006, and has since grown the business to include dozens of menus and hundreds of advertisers across the state of Louisiana.