By Rick Teverbaugh
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
From just about every measuring stick imaginable, the initial season of harness racing only of Hoosier Park was a resounding success.
The season came to an end Saturday night with a 14-race card, and the financial rewards are indisputable.
"I don't know how to put into words what we have experienced here this year," said Rick Moore, general manager of racing at Hoosier Park. "(The handle) is up by 27 percent from a year ago. I hate that this is closing night."
The reality exceeded expectations — by a longshot.
"If we had gone up by 3, 4 or 5 percent, I would have been thrilled," said Moore. "This was unchartered waters for us, having the standardbreds here for the whole meet. We didn't know if the people would stay with us."
There are other indicators that everything is fine with the Anderson track. Hoosier Park's reputation certainly took a boost as arguably the best horse in harness racing, Captaintreacherous, made not one but two trips here.
"Any other track would drool to have that horse race there," said Moore. "We had him twice. I felt a bit bad that he lost his second time, but these horses aren't robots, they aren't machines."
It also shows that the track is capable of not only drawing a superstar horse but also horses capable of beating that horse on any given night.
Not only has the 2013 season been ground-breaking in terms of one track, one breed, but it has been a work in progress in terms of the number of physical improvements made as the season unfolded.
"We've been under construction for this season, and we appreciate our patrons understanding what we're doing," said Moore. "We know that some times people might have had to walk around things or it might have taken longer to get where they wanted to go. But we encourage people to come out and see what we've done."
Most noticeable is the large stage constructed in the grandstand area where musical acts will be able to entertain throughout the year, regardless of weather. New, plush seating has been installed around that stage area with a lounge area added just to the left and behind those seats to accompany groups of people who want to attend together in a more relaxed atmosphere.
That isn't all of the changes planned. Just as soon as Saturday's racing was completed, work began on the track. There will be some alterations to the area just to the inside of the track. The banking in the turns will be uniform once the work is completed.
"We hope to put the track to bed, so to speak, by Thanksgiving and then wake it up in March," said Moore. "I want to first and foremost credit (Centaur chairman and CEO) Rod (Ratcliff) and (Hoosier Park president and COO) Jim (Brown) for their commitment to this facility. They have spent millions, and it shows in what we have here."
Of course, the final night of competition always means the crowning of the top trainer and driver for the meet. One was a blowout and one was, well, a real horse race.
Ron Burke entered the final weekend of racing with a lead of more than 40 training victories over Ed Hensley. The award was given out after Race 6 on Saturday.
The race for Driver of the Year was much more hotly contested. Tyler Smith, who at just 20 years old earlier this season became the youngest driver ever to reach 1,000 wins, was just three victories ahead of Hensley.
Smith won Race 2 behind Mileage and looked to lock up the title early. Hensley crept back into contention with a win in Race 7 with Cole Heat. But he was still three wins down with five races left in the season.
The last gasp for Hensley was Race 12. If Smith won or if Hensley didn't, the title would go to the young phenom. Rocket Fuel, with Sam Widger driving won that race. Hensley came late with Risk Management but could do no better than fourth.
It is believed that Smith is the youngest driving champion ever in HP history.
"I want to thank all the trainers and owners who gave me an opportunity," said Smith. "It is unbelievable to be standing here at 20 as the driving champion."
No 2014 racing dates have been approved yet, but it is believed Hoosier Park will again open to live racing in late March.