A Day at the Races

by Natasha Ball


When Richard Linihan was a boy, his mother dreamt that a horse bit her on the back of the neck. She couldn’t shake the fear of it, the night terror that began to reoccur, and she never allowed her son to spend time around those animals.

Fast-forward to 1986, two years after Oklahoma voters approved pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. Linihan bought and checked out books from the library, watched all the famous horse-racing movies, and borrowed from the expertise of locals who bred horses or hung around the tracks, mostly because the sports editor of the Tulsa Tribune had asked him if he could cover what was becoming a hot beat.

Six years after his first story—well into the golden years of legal horse racing in Oklahoma, when spectators packed the state’s new multimillion-dollar tracks—Linihan hit his first Pick Six. The pay-out was $17,000, and he decided then that he was indeed up for this whole writing-about-horse-racing thing.

Now Linihan’s office is off the far-east side of the Simulcast center at the Tulsa fairgrounds, a cave-like space full of dozens of single-serve TVs, lighting the sun-weathered faces of the old men who’ve learned to squint for two minutes straight. More than a dozen big-screen TVs loom from the walls, each showing a different race: the hooves of thoroughbreds, appaloosas, and quarter horses kicking red-brown dirt onto the crisp uniforms of trailing jockeys on tracks hundreds of miles away.

It smells like beer in there, and fried food and popcorn, the same smells that waft from the apron between the grand stands and the track during races at Fair Meadows, Tulsa’s own live horse racing track. It lurks just behind the Simulcast center and Expo Square’s Central Park Hall, sprawling from Big Splash to the old Driller’s Stadium, five furlongs around. Linihan puts together the evening’s picks and fills in holes in the race programs, all rolled and wrung by bettors as their favorites burst through the gates like freight trains with eyes.

The grand stands at Fair Meadows aren’t exactly of the gleaming variety we saw in Seabiscuit and Secretariat. The floors beneath the metal folding chairs are rusting through the white paint, and they shuddered as I sat down after the guys in the sound booth played a cassette tape of the national anthem by Whitney Houston. Three guys sat behind me in cowboy shirts and trucker hats, poring over the thousands of bits of data in the programs. The pages are more black than white, and these people can look at the numbers and tell whether a horse prefers a messy track to a fast one, or how much an extra pound on a jockey will affect a stallion’s chances against the field that comes to post, or how he’ll race today judging by a race that happened six months ago, while wiping the sweat from their eyes.

The choice isn’t a tough one for most folks, Linihan said: Either pull math duty and watch the horses race live June to July, or pump cash into the Class III games at the Indian casino tracks in the air conditioning. As part of an agreement with the local tribes that also happen to cater to those hoping to profit from the races, Fair Meadows doesn’t offer slots. In fact, Expo Square gets a $2 million check each year to keep the games out.

These days, a crowd of 2,000 is a banner night at Fair Meadows. The showcasing of an ancient sport once reserved for the chalky upper crust has turned into a hang-out for families and couples hoping for a memorable date night. The track uses promotions like wiener dog and jockey-mounted ostrich races as their hook and line. Once, the track was the site of a national championship qualifying wife-carrying contest. Husbands tucked in their shirts and kicked up the tractor- combed track between post times, their spouses digging boot heels into their sides, their friends cheering trackside for their chance at a spot in the big race.