06/04/2009 11:00PM

Churchill needs more than night racing


TUCSON, Ariz. - So after 135 years and all the technological wonders that Silicon Valley in California can produce, Churchill Downs decides harness racing has had it right all along, and lights and an upscale splash and night racing are the answer.

The great criminal lawyer George Morton Levy had the idea first at Roosevelt Raceway in 1940, and then took it to the heights with the magnificent Cloud Casino and his superb World Capital of Harness Racing in 1955. The Tananbaum brothers of cloak and suit and factoring fame joined the act with the Empire Terrace at Yonkers in 1950. That story was both a major society and sports news splash in the New York Times, with major coverage and the governor and tycoons in tuxedos and actresses swathed in mink and New York sports figures on hand, and traffic on the Deegan Expressway backed up into the dangerous darkness.

Beautiful Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island is gone now, and Yonkers fuels its purses with 5,500 slots, while Churchill Downs seeks enough horses to fill cards. Tom Meeker made news years ago here in Tucson at the Racing Symposium, when he was asked what he would do if a slots armada sailed down the Ohio and he replied, "I would salute and say, Aye aye sir," or words to that effect.

The armada, which was really Ted Bassett's idea, still is docked in Indiana, and once the Kentucky Derby leaves Kentucky, Churchill looks for new gimmicks and answers.

Now it has found one, not some whiz bang idea out of California's computerland, but fine dining and wine and a chance to tread on the red carpet with the swells. A glorious night out, with racing.

I do not demean all this wonderful celebrity hoopla and after dark gala, with its colorful buntings and seasonal flowers and Chief Party Officer Nick "RiNickulous" Ferrara on hand to welcome and interview guests as they arrive. But I have been there and done that, a number of times, at harness tracks from coast to coast, and more than a few Thoroughbred ones, including Hollywood Park, soon to be an upscale mall. I can see the fireworks and grilled beef and chicken skewers and endless summer music, and VIP guests enjoying access to balcony parties with soothing mood lighting and numerous specialty bars, and Dinner by Design for only $300 a couple.

Two occasions come to mind. I was the luncheon guest of the builders and owners of Canterbury Park when it first opened in Shakopee, Minn. As we drove into the track, I noticed a sign, "Valet Parking, $8.50" This was 30 years or so ago, and I thought, "That's more than Belmont Park." Then, in the luxurious dining room, a well groomed and manicured crowd. I said to my host, "Good looking people." And he replied, "We have a very large affluent population to draw from in Minneapolis and St. Paul." Except they were betting deuces to place and show, and I could find no heavy hitters with soup spots on their ties pouring it into the less-than-busy machines. This was well before the Sampson family took over, but it left a lasting impression.

So did my opening day visit to the Birmingham Turf Club, probably the worst named racetrack in America, starting out with a ritzy moniker in one of the biggest blue-collar cities in the land.

I ran into a department store owner who had invested originally in the track and whom I had squired around the Meadowlands in New Jersey when he was looking at what and how to build. We renewed our acquaintance, and he informed me he was long gone from the ownership. I expressed surprise, and he gave me one of those delayed two-part Carol Channing Broadway answers. "This is going to be a great racetrack," he said, and then a pause . . . "for the fourth owner." I believe that's who has it now.

The point of all this is that glitz and glamour, without the hard bettors and something to chew on besides prime steaks, do not entrance the populace very long. I learned that lesson early on at Hazel Park in Detroit, in hard times and with grimy auto workers pouring it in with both hands. There was no gloss then or since at Hazel Park, but it has endured and survived, with two tough and unsentimental businessmen running it without finery or fancy, but with profitability. The state of Michigan is doing its best these days to knock Hazel and new Pinnacle Downs and Northville Downs and the state's big county fair circuit into the Detroit River. The downtown casinos are fighting for what dough is there, and across the river, a short bridge or tunnel ride away, more slots and firmly entrenched casino competition, as the once mighty auto industry slides away, and the agriculturally based tracks ride down the slippery slope with them.

Back at Churchill, the big "Downs After Dark" ceremonies start on my birthday. June 19. Maybe I'll put on the old tux and see if I can get a few words with RiNickulous. That should make it a really wondrous night. I might even ask the track's horsemen what they think of going to bed late and getting up early. It isn't like harness racing, with its 17 minutes between official and post. It takes time between races with the runners, and the nights grow short.