It wasn’t like old times, but it was much better than recent times.
On the way to Louisiana Downs for last Saturday’s Super Derby, I saw something for the first time in a long (as in years) time. Driving on the overpass off I-20, I looked to my right and down, and saw lots of cars in the Bossier City track’s parking lot.
Now, it wasn’t like it used to be on Derby Day, when the parking lot was full. But the scene caught me by surprise.
A pleasant surprise.
As soon as I opened the front door and walked into the facility, I heard something for the first time in a long (as in years) time. There was a buzz — the sound of excitement. It didn’t take long to find out from where that sound was coming. As I strolled through the first floor, I saw people.
Lots of people.
Not shoulder-to-shoulder people, like it used to be on Derby Day, but also nothing like what I’ve seen in recent years on a normal racing day (The Super Derby had not been run since 2019.) The first floor is mainly for people who like to walk around and informally sit at tables. Not only were most of the tables full — there were people sitting on things that aren’t designed for sitting.
I took the escalator to the second floor. Yes, there were plenty of seats available, but there were plenty of seats that weren’t available. I heard the sound made when there’s a large gathering, and with the grandstand acoustics, it sounded like there were more people.
Guess what else I saw for the first time in a long time — lines of people. People waiting to make a bet, preferring to speak with a person instead of punching a kiosk screen. People waiting to get a fish basket, or a margarita.
A ride to the 3rd floor, the clubhouse level, had me seeing lots of box seats filled. Again, there were some boxes available, but there were many which weren’t. I’m not sure if the track was serving a buffet — I didn’t want to hang around a place I wasn’t entitled.
When I was a kid, my mom and dad would go to the Downs. They liked to sit outside on the steps below the grandstand. That’s not for me (I like my air conditioning), but Saturday, it was for many people. They were smoking and throwing their cigarette butts and worthless betting slips on the concrete.
Now that was just like old times.
As the Super Derby 41 field of seven horses — none of which were considered elite — ran toward the finish line, the crowd roared. Okay, maybe cheered would be a more accurate word. Still, it was the sound that helps make racing so much fun to watch in person.
Even though the Super Derby isn’t what it used to be — a graded race with a $1 million or even $750,000 purse — the track’s hard-working, always friendly, rank-and-file staff did what it could to make the race look and feel big. Each horse’s name, and the Derby logo, were embroidered onto specially-made saddlecloths.
Instead of the usual recording of a bugler calling the horses to post, there was a gentleman doing the bugling. It was a well-intentioned touch, but his sound wasn’t as smooth and on-key as the recording.
There was a special Super Derby backdrop in the winner’s circle, which made for an attractive photo op.
It was a nice day to be at the track.
I say all this with a message for the Downs’ leadership team, which starts at the top with owner Kevin Preston, finishing his second year in charge.
See what happens when you promote horse racing just a little?
The bigger-than-normal crowd wasn’t there for food trucks, bounce houses, face painting, or weiner dog races. It was there because the Super Derby has a four-decade (give or take a few years) reputation of being a major sporting event. I can promise you most folks didn’t know the winner — Big Data — from Big Brother. They were there for the pageantry and excitement a “big race” brings.
So please open your eyes and reconsider (I’ve asked before) the way you promote horse racing. Use last Saturday’s Super Derby as a catalyst for bridging the large gap between the races and fans.
You might find that old times are the new times.
Contact Tony at SBJTonyT@gmail.com