The Meadows celebrates 50th anniversary
For 50 years, the place has gone crazy.
The Meadows Racetrack will celebrate its golden anniversary Friday, a half-century after opening its doors June 28, 1963, as Western Pennsylvania's first parimutuel horse racing track.
“I never once imagined I would be there as long as I've been here,” said Harness Hall of Famer Roger Huston, who has been calling races at the Washington County track since 1976.
The three-day festivities, which began Wednesday, include free commemorative journals, cookouts, old-time videos, a 1960s disc jockey and '60s trivia with prizes.
A nine-race card will begin at 8:20 p.m. Friday with roll-back prices on programs (35 cents) and selected food and beverage items. The first two races also will harken back to opening day, with the same limited wagering menu from the '60s — win, place and show and daily double.
The Meadows has overcome the odds to survive, and lately thrive, for 50 years in an industry marked by ups and downs.
In 1959, Pennsylvania legalized gambling on horse tracks. A couple of years later, Allegheny County voters defeated a referendum to open a track, so Delvin Miller and the Washington Trotting Association turned farmland 25 miles south of Pittsburgh into a 5⁄8th-mile track.
It steadily has evolved since, from Call-A-Bet and the Meadows Racing Network in the early 1980s to the marketing slogan “Every 16 minutes the place goes crazy” to the Ladbrokes off-track betting parlors of the 1990s to the opening of a temporary casino in June 2007 and a permanent casino in April 2009.
“No question, the Meadows was ahead of the curve, especially with TV,” Huston said.
“Our goal was always to make it more convenient for people to wager,” said Meadows president Mike Jeannot, in his 22nd year at the track, now known as Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
Not everything went right. There was the state-of-the-art yet ill-advised rubberized synthetic track — Tartan Turf by 3M — in the 1960s, the failed experiment with thoroughbred racing in 1971-72 at Pitt Park at the Meadows and, tragically, a barn fire on July 6, 2001, that killed 28 horses.
Last year, Meadows-based Hall of Famer Dave Palone became the winningest driver in North American history with more than 15,180 victories, and each summer the $500,000 Adios attracts some of the best 3-year-old pacers in the nation.
“I've seen everything,” said Huston, 70, of North Strabane. “I've been on the rollercoaster ride.”
Curby Stillings, 66, of Canton, Washington County, was a junior at Ford City High School when the Meadows opened and worked odd jobs with her father, owner/trainer Chester Welch. She has spent the past 23 years as program director at the track but will leave this summer to become assistant race secretary at Red Mile in Lexington, Ky., she said.
“The track has survived, which itself is amazing,” said Stillings, whose son, Tyler, is a longtime trainer/driver at the Meadows. “We've had some bad times and tough times. But right now, I will say the Meadows is on the top of the heap. I've traveled to tracks all over the world. As far as a complete facility, it has to be on the top.”
Of the 36 harness tracks in operation in the United States, 21 were built before the Meadows, said David Carr of the Columbus, Ohio-based United States Trotting Association. But new or old, the Meadows still gets positive reviews among horsemen. With an infusion of slot money, the track has boosted purses, and a recent $9 million facelift refurbished 18 barns that can stall 825 horses. The all-sources average daily handle was up 15 percent in 2012 to $501,550, according to the USTA.
Perhaps most important, Stillings said, the Meadows' owner, Las Vegas-based Cannery Casino Resorts, hasn't ignored the track since purchasing the property in July 2006, four months before construction on the casino began.
The restaurants at the casino are racing-friendly, overlooking or facing the action. The casino portion of the site markets the horse racing side, including the ongoing 50th anniversary. Stillings knows not every “racino” has such a positive relationship.
“In the back of your mind, you know they only bought (the Meadows) to get the (casino) license,” Stillings said. “I'm sure they didn't want racing. But they didn't do the horsemen wrong. The casino and the horsemen get along.”
Owner/trainer John McMullen Jr., 77, of Armagh, Indiana County, who has raced in every meet since the track opened, agrees.
“It is very horseman friendly, and it's always been that way,” he said. “You could say that some tracks are not friendly at all. There is more interest in the casino. The current management at the Meadows are very friendly. They are on our side. They are not at odds about anything.”