Golden anniversary, golden memories.
Bob Sutton has a paddock full of them, as do Curby Stillings and John McMullen Jr. All were there a half-century ago, when The Meadows debuted as the first parimutuel horse racing track in Western Pennsylvania.
Sutton, in fact, was born on the nearby farm owned by Delvin Miller, the fabled horseman and primary midwife in the birth of the North Strabane facility. Sutton’s father was the farm’s primary caretaker and lived on the property, where his son grew up and started working.
“I was going into third grade,” recalled Sutton, now 73. “This man pulled up and said, ‘Hi son, I’m Delvin Miller and you’re going to work for me now.’ I’ve been working on the farm since.”
He started moonlighting about 15 years later, thanks to another Miller job offer. The harness track was about to open and Sutton got a job in the paddock area, assisting horsemen. It led to a career as paddock judge and was the beginning of a marvelous personal experience that endures today.
“I’ve just loved it all here. I’ve been here all these years and I could probably count on one hand the people I didn’t like.”
There has been a lot to love at The Meadows since the intial race June 28, 1963, And it is getting a lot of love heading into its 50th anniversary Friday.
Among other people, places and things, think Miller, Dave Palone, Adios, The Adios Pace, Dick Stillings, Roger Huston, Grand Circuit Week, Charlie Hinkle, Billy Haughton.
Think casino, the generator that keeps things going. Think Joe Hardy, Walter “Boots” Dunn, Mike Jeannot, Bill Paulos, Labroke, Call-A-Bet, Cannery Casino Resorts, Sean Sullivan … Bob Sutton, Curby Stillings, John McMullen Jr. and thousands of other individuals and highlights.
The people who operate The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, as it is contemporarily known, like to promote its site as a viable entertainment facility. And it is just that, with a 7-year-old casino that is as massive as it is popular and successful, an impressive array of show-biz personalities – especially during this celebration year – and its longtime standard, harness racing.
It’s been a gold standard.
Initial resistance to plan
More than 50 years ago, it was a game of horse that proponents weren’t winning.
There was a movement to build a horse track in Western Pennsylvania that would accommodate the bettor – and the competitive horseman, who was limited to racing at county fairs or at tracks in Ohio.
But in 1961, two years after the state legalized gambling at horse tracks, the prospect of a constructing a racing facility still encountered local resistance and reluctance.
Churches, municipal governments and a generous portion of the public remained opposed.
Allegheny County, with Pittsburgh and its burgeoning suburbs, seemed like a reasonable bet for a racetrack in 1961. It certainly was an ideal locale, with a large population base and miles of undeveloped land.
The proposal was placed on a countywide referendum, and voters roundly defeated it.
Supporters weren’t deterred, though, and soon afterward were rewarded with Miller time.
Delvin Miller, that Chartiers Township farm owner, and three partners in the Washington Trotting Association pushed hard for a track in Washington County.
“Allegheny County said no, but Delvin wanted it here anyway,” Sutton said of Miller, who died in 1996 .
Land was acquired in North Strabane Township, ground was broken in November 1962, and seven months later, The Meadows was born.
It has evolved many times, from the initial dimly lit track with a then state-of-the-art synthetic surface, Tartan, to a “racino” on 179 acres that employs about 1,450 – 1,200 in the casino, 250 with the track. Those figures don’t include 600-plus horsemen with the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association.
The racing end also features 18 barns that house 825 horses, back-stretch improvements, implementation of major green initiatives last fall and many other upgrades and additions.
All of it is paying off, literally.
“We now have good purses and good purses beget good horses,” said Bill Paulos, co-founder of Las Vegas-based Cannery Casino Resorts, which purchased The Meadows from Magna Entertainment Corp. in 2004
Paulos was interviewed by business editor Michael Bradwell during a visit to The Meadows last week.
“When I first came here, a fast horse was 1:58; we’re now getting times of 1:51, 1:52, 1:53. We’re attracting better horses, better racing and we’ve already got the greatest rider in Dave Palone.” He noted that Palone set a world record last year at 1:47.
When The Meadows opened 50 years ago, Paulos said, it was a featured track for the harness racing industry.
“It’s now a featured track in the U.S. again.”
For 2012, the track experienced a 15 percent spike in its all-sources handle, at a time when many other tracks around the country were struggling.
After CCR completed its purchase of the track, Paulos made the decision to retain the racing staff, acknowledging that while CCR’s management had decades of gambling experience, it knew nothing about horse racing.
“The nucleus of people working at this racetrack are absolutely terrific,” he said, noting that CCR had an adversarial issue was with Magna Entertainment itself.
“They couldn’t understand why we objected to running the racetrack at a loss. It was losing $2 million a year, and now we’re in the plus column.”
A friendly, welcoming place
Mike Jeannot, president of Meadows Racing, was impressed when he arrived at The Meadows 21 years ago – and remains impressed.
“I think 50 years is a significant accomplishment,” he said during an interview in the corporate offices, below the casino and looking directly at the finish line. “The best thing about it is when you talk to folks who were here 50 years ago and pick up the love.
Jeannot, a company employee for 21 years, called The Meadows “a warm, friendly, welcoming place. You feel like you’re part of the community insteasd of being just another business.”
Sean Sullivan, vice president and general manager of the racetrack and casino, said, “I’ve been here four years and I echo Mike’s comments. The owners have taken the spirit of Delvin Miller and transformed it into the spirit at the casino.”
The casino likewise has lifted the spirit of the track – and its fiscal viability, Jeannot said.
“Were things flagging?” he said, repeating a reporter’s query. “To the 10th power.”
“Racing is an expensive business to operate. Racing was pretty bleak without the casino. We worked on slots legislation for 10 years and got it, and it’s enabled racing to survive and thrive.”
A temporary casino opened June 11, 2007; the existing one April 15, 2009.
This wasn’t the first time Meadows management did something to boost its bottom line. In the 1980s and ‘90s, it opened a number of off-track betting parlors in the region, added simulcasts of races at other tracks, and implemented telephone and online betting.
Changes likely will be necessary again.
“I think racing has a future,” Jeannot said. “But we have to be good business people to make it happen.
“That means we will have to be smarter, quicker and better.”
Life at The Meadows couldn’t have been better for Curby Stillings. She is at the middle of a three-generation continuum there, accompanying her father and preceding her son.
“I still go there,” said Stillings, 66, of Canton Township.
She was 16 and living in Ford City, Armstrong County, a rising high school junior when her father, Chester Welch, got an opportunity to race at a parimutuel track instead of a county fair.
“When The Meadows opened, this was like gold in our back yard,” said Stillings, whose former brother-in-law, Dick Stillings, was a Hall of Fame driver at the track.
She was there on opening night, and grew up there in many ways. “I trained horses, jogged horses and worked at the barns,” and as a teen, became such a familiar figure to supervisors and security personnel that she gained access to areas where she wasn’t old enough to be.
“I worked in the paddock for two years without a license,” she said, chuckling.
Stillings was program director at the Meadows for 23 years, and also has been a trainer and an owner. She has worked at other tracks, and still does. She will leave for Lexington, Ky., in late July to serve as assistant race secretary at a track through October.
In recent years, she has watched her son, Tyler, develop into a top-flight trainer and driver who frequently races at The Meadows.
“I’ve never left racing,” Stillings said. “I feel so lucky because I’m in a business that I love.”
So does John McMullen Jr., whose late father was on the county fair race circuit before The Meadows materialized. They were at the track in North Strabane on opening night, but neither was in sulky. John Sr. did drive there the following week.
“Opening night was big. There were a lot of people. The Tartan surface was kind of like rubber,” said John Jr., 77, of Armagh, Indiana County.
His father “won a few races, not many” at The Meadows before he stopped driving in the late 1980s. John Sr. died in 1990.
The son drove until two years ago, but still trains trotters that race in North Strabane. The McMullens have had a penchant for naming horses after Pennsylvania counties, including the successful Columbia County and Somerset County. John Jr. recently sold Juniata County.
And speaking of three generations … John Jr.’s son, John, also is a horse owner.
Though he isn’t at The Meadows as often nowadays, John Jr. is enamored of the current site. “They have new barns and upgraded old ones, they have a better stable area. Things are going on there that make the whole complex nicer.”
It’s been an ideal venue for Sutton, the paddock judge, who said his job entails calling out the horses and having them on the track five minutes before a race.
His track-related memories are countless, and he revels in recounting many. His duties have enabled him to meet former Steelers Mel Blount and Joe Greene, ex-Yankees standouts Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, and military hero Lloyd Bucher.
He also remembers the excellence of Bret Hanover, which won 20-plus races before losing to Adios Vic, and the Dragon’s Lair upset of Nihilator in the 1984 Pennsylvania Sires Stakes race at The Meadows.
“That’s probably the best race we’ve had here.”
Sutton, his fellow members of the freshman class of 1963 – Curby Stillings’ term – and many others with long- or short-term associations with the track can celebrate good times. Especially this week.
“It has been a very, very friendly place,” Stillings said.
As good as gold.