08/24/2010 4:17PM

Joe Smoot - a colorful figure from another era


TUCSON, Ariz. – Thoroughbred racing in America is filled with fascinating stories about flamboyant people, some lost in the mists of history.

I came across one of them while working on a piece about the 57th anniversary next week of the opening of the ill-fated Las Vegas Park, an impressive track built on the premise that a racetrack had to succeed in a town built on gambling. It cost $4.9 million.

The track was short-lived. It opened on Sept. 4, 1953, for a scheduled 67-day meeting, and closed six weeks later, on Oct. 19, after racing only 13 programs. It cost $4.5 million to build – which might outfit a small simulcast room these days, if done with Spartan furnishings – but as a writer named Rob Miech wrote in the Las Vegas Sun, gas was 21.9 cents a gallon at the time, a new yellow Plymouth cost $2,395, and a steak dinner at the Golden Nugget cost $4.50.

What jumped off the page in Miech’s long story was the name of Joseph M. Smoot. He was a New York promoter, skilled at making things happen with other people’s money. He bummed a ride west to Vegas with a man named Hank Greenspun, who four years after they arrived in 1946 founded the Las Vegas Sun.

I might have read briefly about Smoot and dismissed him, except for a line where Miech related a few details about Smoot’s trial for felony embezzlement. He was asked in federal court where receipts and canceled checks for half a million dollars might have disappeared to, and he broke up proceedings by asking in return, “You ever try to pay a politician with a check?”

You have to love a guy who thinks and talks like that, so when I finished the story on Las Vegas Park, I decided to find out more about Joe Smoot.
It turns out that 22 years before his arrival in Vegas he had another track to his credit. This one didn’t fold at first, turning out to be one of the loveliest in America at the time. It was Hialeah Park, which Smoot built, with money provided by cattleman James H. Bright and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, for an undertaking he called the Miami Jockey Club.

Smoot had the idea for an entertainment complex with a racetrack, or a racetrack with an entertainment complex, 80 years before Frank Stronach. He made it stick, too, opening in 1925 with a jai alai fronton, a roller coaster, a dance hall, and the first greyhound track in the country, the Miami Kennel Club. Three of the four disappeared in the historic hurricane of 1926, which devastated the city of Hialeah.

It didn’t destroy Joe Smoot, however. Always attracted to warm climes and wealth, he wound up next in California, as adviser to Anita Baldwin, the daughter of perhaps the most flamboyant of all people in American racing, Lucky Baldwin.

Ms. Baldwin had inherited her father’s love of horses, easy to do on 50,000 acres that today make up half a dozen suburbs of Los Angeles. She decided to build a racetrack in Arcadia, which her father had founded and where he was the first mayor, and she picked Joe Smoot to run it.

Excavation began, but in the course of starting to build it, Anita decided Joe was not the man she thought he was, and he left the scene. Dr. Charles Strub stepped in, buying the rights, and building the present Santa Anita a short distance from Joe Smoot’s abandoned site.

Back to New York for Joe, and then in 1946 the fateful ride west to Vegas in Hank Greenspun’s convertible.

I found no pictures of Joe Smoot, but I didn’t need any. Rob Miech described him as having “two-toned shoes, a cane and a straw hat atop his white hair . . . fast-talking with charm, persuasive powers and a stunning redheaded wife half his age.”

He’s one character I missed meeting in all these years chasing horses. Sounds like it was my loss.