Why I Left Racing
…and what it will take to get me back.
Doug "Hajck" Hillstrom
Is the frost on the pumpkin?
While growing up as a lad in the fertile Yakima Valley of Washington State, I would eagerly awaken every morning and devour the contents of the local newspaper, The Herald-Republic. First stop would always be the box scores from Major League Baseball, or the line scores of the NFL/AFL and the NBA/ABA. Next would be the college scene and prep scores from around the Valley. This ritual was interrupted by only one event, and that was when the Yakima Meadows meeting was running, because it was then that I first turned to Poor Paul's Picks before committing Carl Yazstremski's stats to memory.
Paul George was the paper's public handicapper, and back in the 60's and early 70's he would go head to head with the paper's sport's editor, Jim Scoggins, in a mano y mano contest of who could make a determined bankroll last the longest over the course of a meeting. This type of coverage was common back in the day every where horses were running in this country. I seem to remember a kid by the name of John White making the scene in the mid-70's and developing some pretty decent handicapping skills while joining in the fray against the two more seasoned railbirds. It was the first time I could actually interact with participants in a sporting event by following their prognostications
I also recollect hearing stories of tracks to the east and west of the centrally located Yakima Meadows, Longacres to the west in Renton outside of Seattle, and Playfair to the east in Spokane. I could only imagine how exciting those now defunct ovals must have been, because I wasn't allowed in the racetrack growing up, but that didn't stop me from watching the races from outside the fences during my annual visit to the Central Washington State Fair.
While I was being introduced to the game in my unobtrusive way, two other lads, one to the east, and one to the west, were throwing themselves headlong into the sport. They would be at the track almost everyday finding ways to get a bet down before it was even legal for them to do so. Their passion for the sport was engrained before Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and they weren't just observers of the sport… they were part of the game. When their local plant wasn't running, they were catching rides to points east and west, following the then robust Washington circuit.
The man growing up in Seattle's name was Lee Rousso. Most handicappers that have been around since the early `80's remember Lee, as it was difficult to open a western edition of the DRF and not see his face advertised for his on-track handicapping seminars.
Lee, who grew up on Mercer Island, remembers the day he first attended the races, as he, his father, and his brother drove the 150 miles north to Exhibition Park (now known as Hastings) on October 5th, 1968. It was a right of passage for the 10 year old as his Dad could be described as a "hardcore player," and from that day forward Lee considered himself a "track-rat." For an interesting perspective on Lee's journey through the sport, check out this article written about him in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Since the article was written nearly four years ago, Lee has been named the president of the Washington State chapter of the PPA (Poker Player's Alliance), a position from where he is championing the rights of the online poker player in Washington State, and even manages to reference horse racing in his complaint to the King County Superior Court.
In an interview I had with him this week, I heard him echo many of the sentiments serious handicappers everywhere have about the state of the sport of horse racing.
Once you become knowledgeable about the game, you realize how nearly impossible it is to expect to make a reasonable profit at it. With an average take on any wager over 20%, the churn will eat a player's bankroll faster than lone speed on a sealed track. Couple this with the fact how difficult it is to market the sport to the youth of today, and you can't help but seeing limited growth for the game. Handicapping the horses for profit is hard work. Even if one has the useful determination to spend 3-10 hours preparing for a given card, or a combination of cards, the odds are against you with the product put on many of today's tracks.
"Five and Six horse fields just aren't going to cut it. Back when the average field at Longacres was ten-twelve horses per race, you had the opportunity to realize a return, plus it was a pretty cool place to take a date. There was an air of excitement, a buzz you just don't see anymore except on racing's biggest days." It is pretty safe to say that the vibe of today's live horse race has diminished in recent years.
Lee has attended the races but twice in the last five years, both of those were the Breeder's Cups held at OakTree in `03 and `08. "Before the advent of satellite wagering facilities in SoCal, it wasn't unusual to see 60-70 thousand at the track for some of racing's bigger events, and even over 80 thousand for the Big `Cap." Hard to believe when Day 1 of this year's BC announced attendance was 35,000, but a more accurate total was certainly more like 25,000.
Racing lost one of its true ambassadors when Lee Rousso walked away from the game, and along with his departure left some of the spirit of the game as this is a man that is passionate about his gambling. He even ran in the Washington State Democratic gubernatorial primary this year against incumbent Christine Gregoire on a Pro-Online Poker platform, so as you can see, he doesn't shy away from a fight, and has probably demonstrated he has enough common sense to hitch his wagon to a fresh team of horses before the tired ones drag him over the cliff.
Next week we will take another look at one of racing's great characters from east of the Cascades that has been involved in the game for more than half a century, and how he perceives the direction the sport has taken.