Scores of Raceway Park fans salute historic track’s finish

9/16/2013
BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bob Coberley, left, presiding judge of the State Racing Commission, and associate judges Zack Stommen, center, and Ryan Ratliff study the monitor in Race 4 and call a dead heat for place — second —on Raceway’s final night of live racing.
Bob Coberley, left, presiding judge of the State Racing Commission, and associate judges Zack Stommen, center, and Ryan Ratliff study the monitor in Race 4 and call a dead heat for place — second —on Raceway’s final night of live racing.

The “railbirds” left the roost for good, ending a 55-year tradition of live harness racing in North Toledo, and leaving enthusiasts like James Kalopesis of Livonia, Mich., with one less outlet to place a bet.

Hall of Fame announcer Sam McKee memorizes horses' names and numbers before calling Race 5, his first at Raceway Park since 1988. Mr. McKee now calls races at The Meadowlands.
Hall of Fame announcer Sam McKee memorizes horses' names and numbers before calling Race 5, his first at Raceway Park since 1988. Mr. McKee now calls races at The Meadowlands.

Mr. Kalopesis, 81, and friend Nick Usakowski, 23, of Madison Heights, Mich., lamented the closure of Toledo’s 5/​8-mile oval.

The Michigan pair made Toledo their final stop on the Ohio race circuit Sunday, a sort of personal trifecta, beginning with Scioto Downs in Columbus, followed by a stop in Delaware, home of the Little Brown Jug, before finishing the day at Raceway.

PHOTO GALLERY: Raceway Park closes

“I’m a bit sad,” said Mr. Usakowski, a delivery driver by day. “I had my biggest hit here,” a $36 bet that turned into a $1,418 payout.

The Toledo track, which once drew 7,000 people for a night out at the races, went out with a decent crowd for its last hurrah.

Race officials said they sold 900 programs, although not everyone who took advantage of the free admission, free parking, and budget-rate concessions bought one.

Mark Jacoby, a retired conservation worker from Bryan, was perched on a picnic table on the track area called the apron — the part between the grandstand and track rail — ready to take in the last races.

His father would take him to Toledo several times a summer to watch the races, but he admitted he hasn’t returned in decades.

Sunday night was a chance to relive that era.

“I told my wife I wouldn’t spend very much money,” Mr. Jacoby said.

The Bryan resident expressed surprise at how well-kept the track was despite its imminent closing for live racing.

A light drizzle that added to the sadness of the last night opened into a steady, but light rainfall around the fifth race, sending the railbirds inside to the grandstand or crowding the concession area to wait for a 50-cent hot dog and other cut-rate concessions.

Before the race began, crowds gathered to listen to park officials shed accolades on Raceway Park’s history, important personages through the years, and to thank race-goers for making the final night a success. Mayor Mike Bell mingled in the crowd, shaking hands and swapping stories.

Former Toledo track announcer Sam McKee credits Raceway Park for igniting his career, one that led to his induction this year into the Communicators Corner of the Hall of Fame of the U.S. Harness Writers Association.

“I have so many great memories here,” he said after his introduction before the start of racing. “It’s a sad day in a lot of ways.”

As a boy on his family’s Linden, Mich., farm, where his parents raised horses, he said he knew he wanted to call races.

He wrote to famed race caller Roger Huston, who still announces for the Little Brown Jug, asking for a cassette tape of his calls so he could learn the ropes. He played it so often, “I wore the tape out,” he said.

That practice led to jobs at county fairs and other small venues.

Mr. McKee said the day after he graduated from Lake Fenton High School, he became the track announcer at Saginaw Valley Downs in Michigan. He held the post from 1980 to 1982.

He came to Toledo in 1983 and left to announce in Detroit in 1989.

In 1999, he went to The Meadowlands, first as a fill-in announcer, and later the voice for The Meadowlands, site of the Hambletonian, a leg of standardbred racing’s Triple Crown for trotters.

“I’ve been lucky to be in the right places at the right time,” Mr. McKee said.

Another longtime race official, Bob Coberley of Toledo, will soon find himself traveling farther to work as a presiding judge, perched above the grandstand, where he and two associates keep an eagle eye on the horses to ensure the race is run fairly and to call the winners.

Mr. Coberley started at Raceway in 1978 as a trainer, then a driver until 1990.

He recalls fondly the Sylvester “Shake” Jechura days, who with his brother built Raceway Park into a horse track from its stock car origins.

“They had a great clubhouse then,” Mr. Coberley recalled, citing the fine dining that was available in a separate part of the grandstand.

Mr. Coberley, a state employee in charge of ensuring the races are run above board and handling the nuances of calling winners and their times, said he’s looking forward to the new track being built in the Dayton area, where he will work next.

“For the people who’ve been here 30 years or so, there’s a lot of sad faces,” Mr. Coberley said.

Contact Jim Sielicki at: jsielicki@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.