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Racetrack Roadtrip (3/27/2008)

I’ve never been to Oaklawn so this seemed like the ideal time to give it a go. Andrew Offerman and I hit the road on Easter Sunday at 5pm. First stop: Will Rogers Downs, Claremore, OK.
Claremore, OKWill Rogers Downs
Arrival Monday March 24
If you’re thinking of stopping in Claremore, OK at 3am on a Monday morning, my advice: don’t. The Cherokee Casino, home to 250 slot machines and Will Rogers Downs racetrack, CLOSED. Cotton Eyed Joe’s Barbeque: CLOSED. Starbucks: CLOSED. In fact everything is closed at that hour in Claremore unless you want to become very familiar with the shopping aisles at either the 24 hour Wal-mart or Walgreens.
However, at 7am Dot’s Café opens and, assuming Dot was the one in the kitchen, she served the best breakfast I have had in three and a half years. Authentic sausage gravy is impossible to find in Minnesota. Furthermore, Chicken fried steak, real chicken fried steak, just doesn’t exist anywhere north of Des Moines. If, at the age of 20, you ate breakfast everyday at Dot’s you wouldn’t live to see 25. But indulging now and then is healthy.
“Women, horse racing and money, are three things the boys just can’t figure out.”~Will Rogers~
My two days at Will Rogers Downs did nothing to prove Mr. Rogers wrong.
The real reason to visit Claremore is the racetrack. And I’ll admit that this is my kind of racing. They have slots but evidently the racetracks in Oklahoma are required to close daily while the tribal casinos, and there is it seems at least one at every off-ramp, are allowed to keep the action going 24 hours a day.

The Will Rogers Downs meet runs Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday, March through May. The day begins with a race for paints, followed by two quarter horse races and then eight or nine thoroughbred events. The wagering menu is as creative as any track: exactas, quinellas, 50 cent trifectas, dime supers, two pick threes, a pick four and a couple of doubles. The pools aren’t huge. You can’t bet $100 and expect not to change the odds. The serial pools don’t reach five figures like the majors. I’ve heard those facts used as reasons not to play Will Rogers and I’ll accept that if your goal is a life changing hit. But for those of us that enjoy the handicapping challenge, Will Rogers is a perfect fit.
There is money to be made at Will Rogers. In fact, I’d go as far to say that the $2 bettor boxing the chalk in southern California would be better served playing the smaller tracks where short priced exacta combinations are more often overlaid. At the end of the day, its racing and its handicapping, just like any other track in the nation. And as the Swami once told me, “A 5-1 pays the same at Fonner as it does at Del Mar.”
The plant itself is comfortable. No, it isn’t a shrine like Arlington Park but it is close enough and I’d think Will Rogers himself would be proud. He advocated horse racing in the ’30s when it was in many places a taboo subject due to gambling often associated with it. The staff at Will Rogers is very friendly, the simulcast center has plenty of monitors offering a wide variety of tracks, the paddock is more than adequate, the slots aren’t intrusive on the racing experience, and the food is better than average. It’s a fun place to spend a couple of days.

There are also a few Canterbury connections. Helen King (formerly Vanek) rides here. Justin Shepherd is the leading rider. Jennifer Schmidt, on the mend, stopped in for a visit. Jock agent Barb Noll has a couple of riders.

Smaller racetracks, in areas where the horse is a tradition, have an important place in the racing business. I’ve always had the feeling that if all the big tracks closed their doors, tracks like Will Rogers would keep right on running.
The racing week at Oaklawn begins on Wednesday. An early departure from Oklahoma gets us there in plenty of time for the opener. Never been to Arkansas but two things I hope not to encounter are Ned Beatty sitting in a tree and hearing the phrase: “Ma, git the shotgun.”