He came Saturday like always, armed with a stopwatch, binoculars, a couple hundred dollars, and the hope that this night at Raceway Park would be kinder than the last.
Gene Cote has been a regular from the track’s first hour in the late 1950s to its 11th hour today. He trained and owned horses that raced here and, now at 82, he gambles here.
“I’m an old man with a limited income,” Cote said, huddled trackside in the shade beneath two winter jackets as he charted the warmup laps of the horses set to run in the night’s live events. “I could always go the race track and pick up a little extra income.”
Come next year, though, he will need a new place to earn it.
Saturday likely marked the 55-year-old Toledo track’s last Kentucky Derby day — an unofficial going-away party tinged with nostalgia but mostly, per usual, the anguish and elation of hunches played right or wrong.
With Raceway Park bound for Dayton next year, bettors came by the thousands for the biggest off-track betting day of the year.
Some came for the event, emulating those at Churchill Downs with outfits ranging from the stately to the, well, colorful. By one bank of televisions alone, a man rocked a sky-blue suit and fedora while a woman wore a pink-feathered hat.
Most, though, just came to gamble. By 6 p.m., as post time approached, crowds pressed 15 to 20 deep against the track’s dozen-plus betting windows — sure it was their lucky day, perhaps with a 9-1 ticket on It’s My Lucky Day.
Sadly, it was not to be. The cheers that coursed through the building when the gates opened gave way to silence as Orb charged from behind down the home stretch. The 5-1 favorite had won.
And, in Toledo, an era had ended.
“It’s a shame,” said Cote, a Jackson, Mich., native. “You never thought you’d see the day.”
The writing was on the stalls when Penn National Gaming Inc. opened the $320 million Hollywood Casino on the Toledo Riverfront last year, and on Wednesday it became official. The Ohio State Racing Commission approved the transfer of Penn’s racing license for Raceway Park to the city of Dayton, where a $125 million racino — a combined race track and slots parlor — is set to open next year.
When it opens is the complicating factor.
Raceway will complete the 2013 racing schedule, and Penn is likely to keep racing in Toledo until the new track in Dayton is ready in the second quarter of next year.
Mark Loewe, vice president of Penn’s Ohio racing operations, said construction delays could push the opening date in Dayton past next year’s Kentucky Derby and into June.
“We may still be here or not,” Loewe said Saturday of the prospect of Raceway remaining open through the 2014 derby. “So I’m not going on record saying this is definitely going to be the last year for the derby [in Toledo].”
Still, sooner or later, the paddocks will close, leaving Cedar Downs in Sandusky as the off-track betting site closest to Toledo.
“Speaking to many people who have come through the doors and have witnessed many Kentucky Derbies here, it’s a bittersweet time, no question about it," Loewe said. "Raceway Park has been a fixture, and a lot of people have a lot of good memories. There’s going to be a few tears that will fall.”
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.