Horse Play. (2012)
Photography by: Erica Sondgeroth
Lone Star Park — home of the 2004 Breeder’s Cup — may not be boasting of many big-purse events in the near future, but it does promise free breakfast burritos and coffee once every week at its Jockeys & Javas event. And that’s usually enough to get us up early on a Saturday.
It’s one of the park’s efforts to increase the crowd (and purse) size for the track, which has seen a steady decline in numbers since hosting the Cup. But with a recent change in ownership (and a subsequent $3-million dollar renovation of the park’s race book), North Texas horse racing fans can be hopeful that the venue still has its luckiest days in front of it.
The event begins at around 9:00 a.m. As families finish eating their bacon breakfast burritos, a jockey named Alfredo Contreras – a sanguine fellow, with a sort of unhesitating voice – comes out to the Courtyard of Champions to field questions with his valet from one of the park’s TV personalities and from the audience.
“I want my horse to be finessed and calmed and ready to give their best. It’s just . . . at the end of the day, it’s just me and the horse,” Alfredo says.
We immediately decide that he is a winner, and no horse that he rides should be bet against.
Shortly after he’s done speaking, racegoers are shuffled in to one of three buses to take a tour of the park’s barnyards. A man named Rodney, an out-of-town showman and avid gambler, gets on a microphone to point out some of the features of the park and asks us to write our legislators and demand they allow for slot machines.
“You hear a lot of people talkin’ about horse tracks not makin’ any money, the industry they say is pretty bad right now. That’s all because our handle’s low. The more you bet, the better we feel,” Rodney tells us. “The bigger the purse’ll be, and the better the horses we’ll have out here.”
We’re let out of the bus at J.R. Caldwell’s barn. Wearing a cowboy hat, J.R. stands in front of a filly, one of his 30 horses at the stable. With one hand in his Wranglers’ pocket and one full of business cards, he tells the crowd to form a horseshoe around him so that he can answer any questions, and, with any fortune sell us on a percentage stake in a horse.
One maniacal journalist pushes his way forward, tantalizing the crowd with his questions in an effort to get Mr. Caldwell’s opinions on the sport’s latest drug problems.
“What kind of coffee do you drink in the morning? What kind of coffee does your horse drink?” the man asks. “Rodney was telling us about cocaine in the grain supplement. Do you give your horses phenylbutazone?”
“No,” J.R. says loudly, as his demeanor turns churlish. “No, no. No they test ‘em, you can’t run on all of that stuff,” he responds quickly, shooing the reporter away. He is in no mood to talk semantics or anything else not immediately saleable, and this is a sentiment others in the crowd seem to share with him.
By mid-afternoon, the sun is high and the temperature blistering, with the tracks half-full and morale on the upswing, as people start boozing and sifting through their programs.
We lounge around the second floor and hedge some bets. We barely break even on the first three races. But in the fourth, we find Alfredo Contreras is riding Baldacci, gray gelding who it appears is anticipated by the bookmakers to be an also ran.
Out of the gate, it looks as if they’re right. Baldacci doesn’t break well. Approaching the half-mile pole, Contreras chases along as Baldacci begins to gallop harder. We grip our tickets, and the crowd begins to get riled up. And at the quarter post with about a furlong to go, Baldacci races past Toolbox eyeing the lead. At the top of the stretch he takes the lead. It’s neck-and-neck nearing the winning post, and at the end of it looks as if our horse wins. After a steward’s inquiry, the results are official: Baldacci earns his second win of the year, and our confidence in Mr. Contreras proves to be right.
Either that, or we’re just damn lucky. After collecting a $116.50 payout, we head to the press box on the seventh floor, one above the luxury suites reserved for the most leisurely race-goers and serious bettors.
In it, we find a man compiling statistics on the races and gather some information from him. And after a couple free beverages and light chat, we head to the dining room on the fourth floor to cool off. The crowd there jeers at the television screens. We order some cocktails, and not of the low-quality variety. With fear of an oncoming gambling binge, and of becoming losers, we clear our table and close out. Including a tip for the waitress, our bill comes out to $116.50. A good day at the tracks.