04/11/2014 9:21AM

Requiem for a racetrack: Beulah Park is closing, leaving many horsemen behind

John Engelhardt
Beulah Park, long known for its slow horses and low purses, will close following the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

GROVE CITY, Ohio – On a cold recent Saturday, there were fewer than 100 patrons at Beulah Park when five $2,500 claimers ran around the old track in the first race of the day. By the time owner-trainer Guy Tauzin had his picture taken with the victorious mare, A. B. Blacker, the race already was largely forgotten.

The reputation of Beulah as an anachronistic, decrepit, God-forsaken racetrack is not necessarily undeserved. Even its supporters call it “the end of the line,” the final stop before slow or infirm Thoroughbreds disappear from the racing annals. On this particular day, the gloomy spirit of the facility and its precious few customers carried an unmistakable aura, as if the place was about to die.

It is.

More than 90 years old, Beulah will close its doors forever May 3, Kentucky Derby Day. The track license is being transferred by its owner, Penn National Gaming, to a new site about three hours away in Austintown, near Youngstown. What will become of Beulah and its 220 acres has yet to be determined, according to Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn National, but with horse racing on its way out, these dwindling days are somber ones.

“There are a lot of unhappy people,” said 45-year-old trainer Joe Poole, who grew up in Grove City and continues to raise his family here. “Some of us don’t have a place to go.”

Poole, John Wedge, and Donn Rowe are among what appears to be a majority of Beulah horsemen who will not be moving their stables to Austintown.

“It’s just not practical for most of us,” Poole said. “We’ve all got houses and family right around here. I guess I’ll have to go to River Downs [now Belterra Park] and Turfway Park most of the year now.”

There also appears to be a minority of what remains of the Beulah staff who will transfer within the Penn company. Ed Vomacka, racing secretary at Beulah since 2002, said he will move to Austintown but does not know many other people who will.

“I’d say less than 20 percent of employees are going,” Vomacka said.

Mark Loewe, vice president for racing operations at Penn, said the company is unable to provide accurate numbers, adding: “Anyone who is looking to relocate, the company is going to do everything they can for them.”

Local community leaders also recognize the void Beulah will leave when it shutters May 3.

“While we are saddened that Beulah Park will soon be quiet, we are honored to have had it as part of Grove City’s heritage,” said Shawn Conrad, executive director of the Grove City Area Chamber of Commerce. “We will miss the crowds, the sounds, the excitement, and all that Beulah Park was in its glory days, but we know that the memories, the stories, and the legacy will forever be a part of the fabric of Grove City and its residents, past, present, and future.”

Inaugural meet in 1923

Beulah Park has been a major part of this southwestern suburb of Columbus since 1923. A detailed historical marker on track grounds attests to its importance as a community staple, and horsemen and officials with decades of their lives invested in Beulah now talk about it in a wistful manner.

Joe De Luca, now a racing steward, has spent most of his life working at Beulah and living nearby. He knows pretty much every nook and cranny of a facility that has been allowed to crumble and decay in places, most notably a shuttered grandstand that once was filled to capacity during the so-called “glory years.”

De Luca, 75, was proud to display a large framed photograph of a Beulah crowd from a bygone era, probably from the 1940s or ‘50s, when men wore fedoras and suit coats and women wore conservative dresses. It could have been from any American track of that time, when boxing, baseball, and horse racing were the major sports. As low-level as the racing was, Beulah nonetheless was the place to be for the sporting public of Columbus.

“It’s pretty depressing to walk around it now,” De Luca said. “There was a time when you couldn’t get a seat in here.”

Rowe, a trainer for more than 50 years, was raised in Grove City and also can easily recall better days.

“I used to hop the fence to come walk hots when I was in high school,” said Rowe, 73, who still maintains his residence here while working an annual circuit that includes ThistleDown in Cleveland.

“There were some good horses that used to come in to run here,” he added. “I remember the day Dave’s Friend got beat and [trainer Jack] Van Berg just couldn’t believe it. Darby Dan used to run their horses [here] that couldn’t make it in New York or Kentucky. The racing wasn’t great, but this was our racetrack, and we were proud to be a part of it. There are a lot of people sorry to see this place go.”

Mike Weiss worked 23 years (1987 to 2010) at Beulah, moving from racing secretary to general manager in 1996. Weiss was given a virtual free hand by Charlie Ruma, a local homebuilder whose tenure as owner coincided with Weiss’s employment before Penn National bought the track from Ruma in 2010.

“I look back and can honestly say I had the best racing job in the country,” said Weiss, who worked prior stints at such major tracks as Monmouth, Gulfstream, and Hialeah. “It’s the same game – just different numbers. The best part of my job was I didn’t have to answer to any higher-up corporate people. If an idea came to me at 3 a.m., my staff would be working on it by 7.”

In 1997, weary of seeing Beulah crowded out of the simulcast market by signals from better tracks, Weiss came up with his signature move. He hired two young, attractive women who had been working as mutuel clerks to host the simulcast show, and they became an instant brand and industry-wide phenomenon. Blatant sexism it was, but all-sources wagering almost doubled within two years, no doubt the result of older men in simulcast parlors paying closer attention to the Beulah signal.

Katie and Jenna were the names of “The Beulah Twins,” whose seductive images were shown in Playboy (a bikini spread, that is) and were featured in numerous mainstream media outlets. They even had their own twin bobblehead.

“There’s no doubt they are noticed,” Weiss said in a 1999 article in the New York Daily News, “and our off-track numbers have gone up significantly. I can’t say it’s 100 percent because of them, but they have made people look at our races.”

Now known as Katie Ward and Jenna Collins, the twins stopped working at Beulah in 2009. Katie is a stay-at-home mother who lives about a mile from the track, while Jenna works an hour away as a supervisor for the credit-card company Discover in Utica, Ohio.

Weiss was at Beulah in 1989 when legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker was on a farewell tour of 48 tracks. “Eddie Arcaro came in to surprise Shoemaker,” Weiss said. “That was a great day.”

Other well-known racing figures also made stops at Beulah. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas briefly lived here during his Quarter Horse days in the early 1970s, and other Hall of Fame horsemen such as Laz Barrera, Jerry Bailey, and Julie Krone came when big-money events such as the now-defunct Beulah Breeders’ Cup or the Best of Ohio series of races were run. Prominent Kentucky trainers such as Neil Howard, Dale Romans, and Ken McPeek all spent some of their early days here.

The minor leagues

But any glowing reminders of the good-ol’ days must be tempered with the grim reality of Beulah.

The backstretch often served as a repository for the unwanted, both equine and human; if you couldn’t make it here, you couldn’t make it anywhere. Horses with subzero Beyer Speed Figures long have drawn consideration from bettors in certain races and even win on occasion. Field sizes, once healthy, are now puny, with five- and six-horse fields commonplace. The highest purse on this recent Saturday was a mere $4,500. It is about as minor as minor-league gets.

“Horses that get beat 20 or 30 lengths somewhere else can win here,” Poole said. “You see it all the time. That tells you how bad the quality of racing is.”

Wedge, 80, worked in a Grove City department store for 25 years while also breeding, owning, and training a small stable year-round at Beulah. He said the problem of horsemen being unable to pay vendors is chronic and virtually impossible to resolve.

“I don’t see how some of these guys make it, I really don’t,” Wedge said. “The feed man, the straw man, the blacksmith ... a lot of them just don’t get paid. I’d hate to tally up how much is owed back there.”

One subject that pains De Luca is how the reckless Darby Downs regime in the mid-1980s managed to destroy a huge amount of historical data and relics from the preceding 60 years.

“Nobody seems to know how or why that happened,” De Luca said. “There’s just not much left from all the years before them.”

And then there is the really bad stuff, like how 16-year-old Josh Radosevich died in a spill here in November 2005, becoming the third jockey to lose his life at Beulah, according to De Luca.

Unfortunately, tragic accidents at any racetrack are inevitable over the long haul, but the equine carnage that emanated at Beulah during its long history was particularly gruesome. Until the anti-slaughter campaign and its stiff accompanying penalties came to the fore in recent years, it was not uncommon for horses to be sold to “the killers” and sent to the Sugar Creek slaughterhouse in Ohio’s Amish country. The awful truth was that many Beulah horses were worth more dead than alive.

“You could get $800 to $1,000 for a horse, depending on its weight and the market value,” Poole said.

For everyone’s sake, those sordid details surely will be glossed over when the final days of Beulah are here. To avoid being overshadowed by the Derby on its final day of racing, a more formal celebration has been planned at the track for the prior Saturday, April 26, although a final blowout on Derby Day also is in the works.

“I just got a call the other day from a lady who was crying,” said Weiss, now semi-retired and living in Florida. “She said, ‘Mike, can’t you get somebody to buy the track and save it?’

“Beulah Park was a vibrant place for many, many years. Besides the racing, we’d utilize the facility during the offseason for a lot of different things – concerts, motorcycle races, fireworks, rodeos, hot-air balloons, the world’s largest mud volleyball tournament, you name it. People’s lives revolved around this place. We were like family – the employees, patrons, trainers, jockeys, the whole community. To paint an ugly picture of Beulah from a national perspective is unfair because for many of us who worked here, we really loved the place.”

McErlean said he was unsure what, if anything, will be done with memorabilia from the track, such as grandstand seats, pieces of the rail and tote board, or other physical tokens. He also said he is “not at liberty” to discuss the potential land value of Beulah, although it is believed to be considerable.

Those details will be dealt with in the near future. For now, for many, there is the pain of dealing with a requiem for a racetrack.

“This is a sad time for a lot of people,” Weiss said.

Gaming in Ohio

3 Thoroughbred racinos
• Belterra Park, Cincinnati
(formerly River Downs, Cincinnati)
• Hollywood at Mahoning Valley, Austintown (formerly Beulah Park, Grove City)
• ThistleDown, North Randall

4 Standardbred racinos
• Hollywood at Dayton, Dayton
(formerly Raceway Park, Toledo)
• Miami Valley, Warren Co.
(formerly Lebanon Raceway, Lebanon)
• Northfield (Hard Rock), Northfield
• Scioto Downs, Columbus

4 free-standing casinos
• Hollywood Columbus
• Hollywood Toledo
• Horseshoe Cincinnati
• Horseshoe Cleveland

Beulah Park time line

1923: Beulah is the first Thoroughbred track in Ohio.
1931: Pari-mutuel wagering begins under supervision of Ohio Racing Commission.
c.1959: 40 horses die in barn fire; much of track backstretch rebuilt.
1983: Original track owners, the Robert Dienst family, sell Beulah to partnership led by George Gaulding, who changes track name to Darby Downs.
1986: Charlie Ruma buys the track and restores the Beulah name. Ruma spends $12 million on restorations, including a new paddock area and administration building.
1989: Bill Shoemaker makes Beulah one of his 48 stops on his career farewell tour.
1997: The Beulah twins, Katie and Jenna Felty, make their debuts on the track’s exported simulcast signal. Their final year is 2009.
2000: AmericaTab, a phone/computer wagering service founded by Ruma in partnership with other Ohio tracks in 1993, goes online. It will be bought by TwinSpires.com in 2007.
2007: After weeks of jackpot carryovers, the Fortune 6, a 25-cent pick six wager, returns a track-record $364,589 to one winner Jan. 30.
2010: Penn National Gaming buys Beulah.
2011: Penn announces that the Beulah license will be transferred to a new track in Austintown to be known as Mahoning Valley.
2014: Beulah will close for good on Kentucky Derby Day, May 3.