There was a time you could not have kept me away from Raceway Park.
It was one of my first “beats” as a Blade sports writer, a long time ago when harness racing was a thriving sport and the quality of races and the interest demanded coverage.
I found the people fascinating, from top to bottom a blue jeans crowd with an amazing work ethic. And nobody went at it harder than the guy at the top, president/general manager Shake Jechura, and nobody was classier or better at his job than his right-hand man, public relations chief Eddie Kiefer.
The horsemen? Everybody had a story and everybody was willing to tell it. The regulars? Characters, one and all. There was skill and there was luck. And, yeah, those pari-mutuel windows were rather intoxicating; especially on rare occasions when Tom Sorosiak, my favorite cashier, was peeling off $20 bills and handing them over.
No question, I was fond of the place. On Sunday evening, though, you could not have gotten me out there at gunpoint.
Look, I enjoy a trip down memory lane as much as the next guy. When a business staggers and closes its doors, it’s Auld-Lang-Syne time.
But when a business is perhaps allowed to fail so that some corporation can stoke an argument that it must protect its own competing enterprise, not to mention make more money elsewhere, well, that’s a hard thing to swallow.
And considering the complicity of the state governing boards and the implications, none of them particularly positive, to those families involved in the horse industry throughout rural northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, it’s certainly a hard thing to celebrate.
That’s just my opinion, mind you. It’s why my pretty picture is up on top.
Anyway, as I’ve written before, the Raceway Park I knew and enjoyed — people and horses working 24/7 in the old stables lining the backstretch, the track kitchen for the horsemen with its homemade dumplings and cherry pie, the “dailies” pulling their trailers in by mid-afternoon filled with hopes and dreams, fair and competitive purses, big stakes races, crowds that jammed the wonderful clubhouse restaurant and the bleacher seating and trackside patio, the Colonel Bogey March, management that cared about the facility and the product — most of that disappeared long before Sunday.
So I saw no reason to go say good-bye as the track staged its final night of live racing. But lots of others did, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sorosiak, of course, was among them. How could he not be? His mother was a Jechura, one of the founding family, and Tommy was there, just a little kid, when it opened as a stock car track in 1950 and his mom, Theresa, was selling hot dogs, drinks and popcorn with jalopies as background music. He was there in the late ’50s when horses, first the thoroughbreds, moved in.
And he was always around after it became a terrific harness racing plant in the early ’60s. Tom started as a groom, hot-walking horses in the barns. Then he sold betting tickets, then he cashed them, then he worked in the calculating room setting odds and determining payoffs. He eventually became the mutual manager.
Raceway was a Jechura family operation for decades. Virtually all the brothers and sisters, their spouses, kids, nieces and nephews played a role. Skip Jechura bought the land and started it all, but after his untimely death Shake took over as the patriarch of the business. Now, the first generation is all gone and maybe that’s a good thing. What has happened in recent years and most definitely what happened Sunday night would have saddened them.
Shake cared about two groups of people, the horsemen and the fans. He insisted on delivering a quality facility for both. He had two standing orders in the track kitchen — apple pie for him, and that no horsemen left hungry.
If money was a problem for a trainer, driver, or groom, the staff would just put another hot meal on Jechura’s tab.
“I remember sitting in the office with Shake one day when the Ohio Lottery was just starting up and he said it would kill harness racing,” Sorosiak said. “He was right, unfortunately.”
That was the start. And then came more and expanded Indian casinos and Internet poker and then the Vegas-style casinos in places like Detroit and, eventually, Toledo.
“The stories those walls could tell,” Sorosiak said. “It’s a bygone era. I’m glad I was a part of it for 50 years. I lived it and loved it. It will never come back, and that’s sad. I hope people remember what it was.”
That would be my choice, and it’s why I stayed home Sunday night.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.