A tumultuous ’22 at the Downs: High hopes, low returns

A week ago today, Gold Included crossed the finish line last in the 9th race at Louisiana Downs, bringing an end to the track’s 2022 thoroughbred meet.

Thank goodness.

I have covered our hometown horseracing track as a media member — or have been an avid follower as a fan — for 36 years. I don’t remember more off-track drama.

There was Grade I optimism even before the meet began, fueled by the bold statements Kevin Preston made after he bought Louisiana Downs Casino and Racetrack early this year. For example, Preston was bringing back the Super Derby after a two-year absence. The Derby, which first ran in 1980, helped put the Downs on the national map.

Preston said he was “committed to bringing this iconic racetrack back to life.”

In springtime, track management whispered about a big announcement coming “in a couple of weeks” of a fine dining restaurant located on the property. Preston even told me — to my face — “I will give you the story.”

All empty promises.

Just a month before it was scheduled to return, the Derby was “postponed” until 2023. As my colleague Roy Lang wrote in an Aug. 15 Shreveport-Bossier Journal column, “there’s not much proof” that track ownership ever intended on hosting the race, other than talking about it. None of the standard prerequisites were taken.

Is the Downs “back to life”? Well, I guess it depends on the criteria you use. I like to apply the eye test (attendance), as well as if there’s a lot of buzz around town.

In medical terms, by both of my standards, it’s a flatline.

Maybe if the track’s marketing department would focus on promoting horse racing instead of food trucks, bounce houses, and concerts in 100-degree heat, there would be more than a faint pulse.

And about that fine dining restaurant: I haven’t been “given the story,” so all I can tell you is it’s been a long time since “a couple of weeks.” The only upscale restaurant name I’ve heard is one that Preston had hoped, but was unable, to land.

Oh, I haven’t even mentioned the cut in daily purse money, the unaccounted-for purse money, about $2.3 million (the mystery unrelated to new ownership, which would certainly love to have it) which is still being looked into by the state Attorney General’s office — and the sudden resignation of Mitch Dennison, the General Manager of Racing, only three months after the well-respected horseman was hired.

Now, let’s be fair. I am told some good things did happen this meet. Preston has made improvements (with more planned) on the backside — where folks who are the heart and soul of any racetrack work (and sometimes live). It’s my understanding the jockey kitchen has been remodeled, a long overdue move. Also, the track has a new, more aesthetically-pleasing “finish line” and more visual enhancements.

And maybe there’s more. I don’t know, because Preston and track management refuse to speak with me — missing an opportunity to share the positives with thousands of SBJ readers.

I will give Preston credit. He has taught a masterclass in how to use the media to his disadvantage. The Journal is the only local outlet to show any interest in covering the Downs — which desperately needs coverage — on a regular basis. Yet, because (I assume) Preston didn’t like my “open letter” in the Journal’s July 7 issue, questioning his approach to marketing the track, Downs officials won’t (and I presume have been told not to) speak with me. I’ve made unsuccessful efforts.

Throughout this year’s 84-day meet, thanks to a local horse owner and businessman’s sponsorship, I wrote 22 well-read, weekly stories about the people of Louisiana Downs, and horse racing in general. I’ve learned a lot.

The hard truth is the Downs, and most other tracks nationally, aren’t focused on the foot traffic, people like you and me. They make their money from off-track betting sites.

Think about it: the money from people betting at multiple tracks and OTB parlors across the country, wagering on races at Louisiana Downs, is a lot more than money made from a few hundred people on any given day at the Downs.

Why did Louisiana Downs ask to run only on weekdays next year — a request which was denied by the Louisiana State Racing Commission? There’s less national competition for the betting dollar on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. But, are those days better than a Saturday or Sunday for you to bring your family to the races?

Probably not. And there aren’t enough dollar hot dog and dollar soda promotions to make up the difference.

So, as you look ahead to the 2023 Quarter Horse (starting Jan. 5) and thoroughbred (May 6) meets, remember this: If you want to watch local horse racing, by all means, go to Louisiana Downs. It’s a fun, exciting way to spend a few hours. Bring the kids. Take them out to the paddock and let them see the horses up close.

Just don’t expect much of what you’ve been promised.

Contact Tony at SBJTonyT@gmail.com