A Binocular Vision: How Jason Beem Sees the Racetrack

Jason Beem (pictured above, in the booth at Colonial Downs) joins HorseRacing.net for a discussion of the importance and survival of small and mid-level racetracks in America. He's not only a professional track announcer, but also hosts a wildly successful show that is streamed for Twin Spires called, The Jason Beem Horse Racing Podcast. (photo courtesy of Jason Beem)
Jason Beem (pictured above, in the booth at Colonial Downs) joins HorseRacing.net for a discussion of the importance and survival of small and mid-level racetracks in America. He's not only a professional track announcer, but also hosts a wildly successful show that is streamed for Twin Spires called, The Jason Beem Horse Racing Podcast. (photo courtesy of Jason Beem)

A Tale of Two Lists

At the end of this month, on what hopes to be a sunny Sunday afternoon in January, Sam Houston Race Park (SHRP) in Texas will host its annual Houston Racing Festival. On display will be major “Graded” and “Non-Graded” contests like the Houston Ladies Classic (G3) and the John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3) that are part of an equation that amounts to over $1 Million in purse money.

It is the track’s opportunity to shine just a bit brighter as its Meet opened back on January 8th. As a major local event, even under COVID-19 restrictions, it marks an important date on the Texas racing calendar. After a year of financial uncertainty for the industry, the horsemen, and everyone connected, SHRP needs those gates to open, and hear Chris Griffin say over the PA and through the simulcast, “Annnd… they’re off!”  

Speaking of calendars, if you spend any amount of time on one of the Thoroughbred clearinghouses for all-things data-related known as Equibase, and click on their “Entries” tab at the top of page, you will note a disparity. Positioned near the top appears the “Featured Tracks” section.

Implemented back in 2014, it comprises those “popular” venues that are currently running across America. As we speak, Aqueduct through Tampa Bay, with several other prominent members appear in sequence. Scroll down, and you will discover a complete list of those actively engaged in their own meets. A few weeks ago, SHRP was listed in the “Featured Tracks” section on the site; however, it was summarily removed in anticipation of Oaklawn Park’s opening last Friday.

This particular point is subtle, might appear like a non-starter, but it is rather reflective of the state of Thoroughbred racing in America. In other words, it gives the appearance that some are more favored than others. And they are! Those that are “in” and those on the “outside” looking forth. Within this metaphorical construct is the implication that though Equibase’s page bifurcates racetracks, aren’t all of equal importance? It is not a “red herring” to surmise that the success of one or their demise of another, could greatly affect the others in course. In other words, it is all symbiotic. Lest we forget that the viewing of a “live” Thoroughbred race, announced with texture by a professional race caller, ridden by hungry jockeys, urged on by exuberant railbirds, and celebrated with huzzahs in the winner’s circle by ecstatic connections, is textually woven, warp and weft, into the fabric of America.

However, the reality is that it is not what it once was; this is especially the case when considering the closing over the years of many tracks at the regional level. Namely, the latest list includes Gulfstream Park West (formerly Calder) in Florida, Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, and Portland Meadows in Oregon.

Not all race parks are Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Saratoga, Keeneland, Churchill, Tampa, or the Fair Grounds. There are tracks, like Grants Pass Downs, Colonial Downs, Mahoning Valley, Thistledown, Turf Paradise, Finger Lakes, Canterbury Park, Retama Park, Will Rogers, Fonner Park, Zia Park, and Prairie Meadows, which evoke that spirit of regional racing. But make no mistake, their presence is dwindling, especially since COVID-19 socked them pretty well.

Supporting their efforts, especially when it comes to the lifeblood that they infuse into communities is essential. I recently enlisted the help of Jason Beem for some perspective. He not only hosts an imaginatively-driven show that is streamed for Twin Spires called, The Jason Beem Horse Racing Podcast, but he has built a successful career as a professional track announcer at several of these types, including Grants Pass, Colonial Downs, and before it closed, Portland Meadows. He shares some of his thoughts on what are some of the most salient reasons why smaller to mid-level regional racetracks need to not only survive but thrive.

Bricks and Mortar

Every racetrack exists on a piece of property that is ever-changing, and because of that, over time it invariably becomes more valuable. As Beem points out, “The problem is that when many of these tracks were built, they were positioned on the outskirts of towns, and now those sites are engulfed by large populations.” Urban development works against them, if they are not strongly tied to the community or facing financial mismanagement, they can become targets for sale. “Grants Pass Downs in Oregon and Colonial Downs in Virginia are examples of tracks that have invested heavily in capital projects for the better,” said Beem.

He related how ownership of the former has grown from a “Dust Bowl” where the odds were towed out on a trailer, to having a professional racetrack equipped with a state-of-the-art tote board. The proprietorship, which owns Dutch Bros. Coffee that is headquartered there, built 7 soccer fields in the infield in order to maximize space and give leagues places to play. Now, that is being “community-minded,” which can work not only for those connected to the industry, but beyond.

AC/DC

Once a track shutters its doors forever, it can leave a gaping hole in what before was a seemingly smooth seasonal circuit system. This can have all sorts of reverberating effects. Namely, horsemen in the wintertime must find other places for their stable members to run. If they cannot, then they must make other arrangements for care.

Beem, who grew up in Washington State, recalls when racetracks were aplenty in the Northwest, providing horsemen and fans with year-round options. “There was a time when Longacres (opened 1933), Playfair (1901), and Yakima Meadows (opened 1961) all formed this circuit, and now they are all gone,” lamented Beem, “And that is just really sad.” The same happened just due south in Oregon when Portland Meadows closed in 2019. “It is just unbelievable that Portland and Boston (with Suffolk Downs’ recent closure), two major metropolitan areas, do not have racing,” said Beem, “to me, that is just a glaring miss for the sport.” Beem is correct, when considering the year just completed. COVID-19 wrecked schedules and cancelled or intermittently postponed events across the country, this only added to the pressure to resume racing in these locales. Most will come back, but their budgets and perspectives will have drastically changed.

Comedic Timing

On the subject of change that regional racetracks must face in order to remain competitive with the products they develop, Beem has witnessed evolving practices. Several, where he is employed, have exhibited the ability to make major strides to makeover everything from the grounds to the television feed. “Colonial Downs and Jill Byrne have made a major commitment to racing, and they have looked at all the issues,” Beem surmised, “I think both Grants Pass and Colonial have just done a great job of soliciting feedback from all of us who have been involved.” It is interesting that all racetracks across America have battled getting their television broadcasts smooth and running like a well-oiled machine.

Whether you are a Stronach track like Santa Anita, or Grants Pass Downs owned by Dutch Bros., you have to be able to provide real-time odds, accurate timing of races, and have the ability to rectify the little niggling problems that come with the on-air business. Beem candidly stated, “You know it just boggles my mind that as an industry we cannot get consistent and accurate times for our races, how is that possible?” Timing truly is, everything.

Farm System

With the systems in place, they are only as good as the people behind them. If circuit tracks end, that not only cuts off space to compete for Thoroughbreds, but also the people who ply their trade in this glorious industry. As Beem so deftly put it, “The ADW is an incredible innovation, but without live racing, you do not have the resources, the handle, the jobs, or the chances for up-and-comers in the sport to have a chance.”

Imagine if the timeless Gary Stevens had not had the opportunity to ride at Portland Meadows or Longacres… Would he be the “great” jockey that we know today? Would he have even been one, had he not had the opportunity to ride on the Northwest Circuit at that stage of his life? Beem’s point carried a step further when he said, “Small and mid-level tracks not only offer great racing and betting opportunities, but I think they give people in the game a chance to refine and improve their skills, and in turn, they can take those abilities to higher levels within the sport, if that's their aspiration.” That is also how fans “get hooked,” to use the Twin Spires Podcaster’s phrase, and as he sees it, “These are where my memories are of growing up going to Longacres, seeing jockey Gary Boulanger, and listening to the voice of Gary Henson.” Without a “farm system” that allows those to “hone their craft,” Beem has seen firsthand, that this is where the notion of being “gainfully employed” can end.  

A Binocular Vision

All of these themes of the architecture, the circuit, the broadcast, and the people, are significant and important to the towns and regions that are still inhabited by these racetracks. Without them, as Beem reminds us, the very essence of the sport devolves.

What once were vibrant opportunities to grow this fabulous sport become lost. If we want to pass on the great history and culture surrounding Thoroughbred racing, then a nexus for the horses, the jockeys, the trainers, the track personnel, and most of all, the fans, must continue to exist. Thus, it could be said that all racecourses are “Featured Tracks,” contrary to Equibase’s framework. To put it another way, they are all tracks that have features. The regional oval for Thoroughbreds might be a dying breed, relegated to the second half of a website’s page, but it doesn’t have to be. You just need to view the situation differently, through the binoculars of Jason Beem.

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