The last bets will be placed and the horses will cross the finish line one final time today at a Toledo race track with a storied tradition dating back to the 1950s.
A nostalgic atmosphere is expected when the final night of live harness racing takes place at Raceway Park. Post time is at 6 p.m. for a slate of 13 races.
Raceway Park, which was built in north Toledo in 1949 as a stock car racing track, has hosted horse racing since 1958. Night harness racing was first held there in 1962, and the grandstands would be packed every weekend.
The track once drew crowds up to 7,000 during its heyday in the '60s and '70s, attracting prominent members of the local community as well as celebrities.
Mark Headworth, who has been a lead driver at Raceway Park since 1988, has won more than 2,000 races there.
“It's sad,” Headworth said. “I've been a part of it for a long, long time. I'll miss the people I've raced with for forever. There won't be a place to race anymore. It will be a big change.”
Mark Loewe, the general manager at Raceway Park, said he expects a large turnout today.
“This will be the last weekend for live racing, so I think we will have a lot of people who will make one last visit to the facility,” he said.
John McNamara, who served as the director of marketing at Raceway Park from 2007-11, said he fell in love with harness racing at the Toledo track.
“It's such a pure sport,” McNamara said.
He said Raceway Park became a favorite entertainment destination that provided cherished memories for generations.
“It's been a staple in Toledo since the 1960s. It's one of those things that means a lot to the people of Toledo,” McNamara said. “It's not just a place to bet on a horse. It was really a part of their lives. It meant a lot to folks.”
Admission and parking will be free.
McNamara said many of the track's former announcers plan to attend the finale.
“The Raceway is bringing back announcers that have moved on to bigger [tracks],” he said.
Giveaways, including a casino getaway to a resort in Las Vegas, also will be awarded. Live music will be featured from the Megan Lesle Band on the grandstand apron.
Concession specials will include 50-cent hot dogs, soft drinks, and popcorn. Racing programs are $1.
Headworth, a 43-year-old from Oregon, said he started racing at Raceway Park at the age of 18.
“My grandfather and a few of my uncles raced horses there,” Headworth said. “That's how I got into it. When I was first started, I came up here and I liked it so much. Now I race horses for a living.”
While Raceway Park will no longer offer live racing, it will still offer simulcasting of races from other tracks next season.
“The facility itself will not close,” Loewe said. “It's just the end of live racing. They can still come out and wager on races. We will simulcast the races from our other tracks.”
The big time
Sylvester “Shake” Jechura and his brothers built Raceway Park between Telegraph Road and Detroit Avenue just south of Alexis Road. After serving as a stock car track, the facility first staged thoroughbred races in 1958 before shifting permanently to the more reliable and less expensive sport of harness racing.
Even a devastating fire in 1976 that destroyed four barns and killed 40 horses did not close the facility. A fire the very next year also leveled the grandstand and clubhouse, but Jechura rebuilt and brought in computers to handle wagering.
Headworth said Toledo was still “big time” when he started in the 80s.
“A lot of people came because it was a top of the line facility back in those days,” Headworth said. “The apron would be full of people. I have old pictures of races I won, and the whole background would be full of people.”
McNamara said stories about the 5/8 mile oval were passed down.
“It's special seeing guys who are elderly now that grew up there as children,” McNamara said.
McNamara, who is now the marketing operations manager for Hollywood Casino Toledo, said harness racing had “a family aspect to it.”
“For a lot of the horsemen, their father did it and their grandfather did it,” McNamara said. “It's just a group of very good people.”
McNamara said the horses are more like family members than pets.
“It's a good-feeling sport,” he said.
Headworth said horse racing has been his life.
“That's all I do is race horses for a living. They make my house payment,” he said. “I look after them like they are part of the family. The better you treat them, the better they treat you.”
Time to say good-bye
Jechura sold the track in 1988, and it has been run by several owners since then, most recently by Penn National Gaming Inc. in 2005.
Penn National, which owns the Hollywood Casino in Toledo, earned approval from the Ohio State Racing Commission to move its license for Raceway Park to a track that will be built in Dayton.
Penn is moving the track so that it will not compete with the voter-approved, Las Vegas-style casino it opened last year on Toledo’s riverfront.
Preliminary plans had called for Raceway Park to remain open for at least a portion of next season.
But Loewe said scheduling issues led to the decision to not hold races in Toledo at all next season.
“Because of our construction timetable, it benefited us to wait until [Dayton Raceway] opens,” he said.
Headworth, who lives 15 minutes from the Toledo track, said he will not be racing as much next season because of the travel that will now be involved. He said he loves horse racing because he could be his own boss.
“I've always liked that,” he said. “You raced when you wanted.”
Headworth said a lot of people are upset about the closing. But they also are realistic.
“People don't bet the horses like they used to,” he said. “It was probably going to die out on its own. But now it's moving away. Horse racing needed the help, and they got the help.”
Headworth, who also drives horses for other owners, will compete in about 18 races this weekend.
“There are a lot of people that have come to the races and sit in the same place for as long as I can remember,” he said.
Loewe has been involved in the sport for 30 years.
“Owners can be actively involved in working with horses," Lowe said. "It's families with generations and generations passing it down. It truly has a close knit feel to it.”
A somber yet festive night is expected as horse racing fans bid farewell to a Toledo institution.
“We will see a lot of folks come out to say their good- byes to the track,” McNamara said.