GIDDY-UP DOWNFALL: Horse-racing trips out of the gate at Las Vegas Park, October 1953
Wind your way down Joe W. Brown Drive behind the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, and look just to the west where the Las Vegas Country Club sits now. If you squint, you might be able to see the backstretch of what once was Las Vegas Park.
In retrospect, hosting a thoroughbred meet in Las Vegas — even in the relatively placid weather of October — wasn’t a winning proposition. Racebooks already dotted the Strip, and for visitors from Southern California used to Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, a racetrack was far less novel an experience than casino gambling.
That didn’t stop Joseph M. Smoot from trying. With other people’s money.
Smoot and horse racing went way back. The man Bill Corum of the International News Service called a “suave, silver-haired promoter” had been involved in starting Santa Anita, and Hialeah and Gulfstream Park in Florida. But he never was around long enough to see those tracks open, either being forced out, or cutting bait before the gates opened. Keen to try again, he persuaded future Las Vegas Sun founder Hank Greenspun to relocate to Las Vegas in 1946. They hopped in Greenspun’s Buick and headed west, according to the Sun.
Smoot sought investors, collecting $2 million toward the track’s construction from some 8,000 investors. With the park 70 percent complete, Smoot was facing bankruptcy and felony embezzlement charges, spending the dough on houses and cars, Greenspun charged.
Court-appointed trustees were determined to see the project through, though. On Sept. 4, 1953, the track — called Las Vegas Park, though it was apparently referred to interchangeably as the Las Vegas Jockey Club, which managed the races — finally opened on a 480-acre site. Sixty-seven glorious days of racing promised “Fun in the Sun as Champions Run” four days a week from opening day until Dec. 21, when the meet was to cap off with the 1954 Silver State Derby.
There was an exuberance about the track on opening day. The Las Vegas Review-Journal printed a special section filled with congratulatory ads from businesses, everything from the Sands to the Rancho Grande Creamery. Of the facility, the Review-Journal’s Chet Sobsey wrote, “In a surrounding of luxury magnificent desert living the Las Vegas Jockey club, which comes alive for thousands of racing enthusiasts September 4 in Las Vegas, represents the last word in futuristic design and structural elegance.”
Another story crowed: “The track and racing structure were built to last more than a lifetime.”
Titanic, unsinkable, etc., etc. And then …
The tote board died before the first race. Mutuel machines at the $50 and $500 windows — the latter billed at the time as the only ones in racing, equivalent to a $5,000 window in 2019 — suffered a similar fate. Just 8,200 people came out, peanuts in an era where the Sport of Kings ruled the roost. After just three days of racing, the meet was suspended for two weeks so the fickle infield totalizer could be replaced. When racing resumed, the handle on Oct. 10 came to just $100,000 — a meager showing for the $4.5 million facility.
Still, up until its final weekend, there was optimism around horse racing in Las Vegas. As late as Sunday, Oct. 18, The Jockey Club, which oversaw racing, anticipated an increased crowd and handle for the racing week, which concluded on Monday.
It wasn’t the only thing concluding on Monday. After the day’s races, the track was padlocked, and most of the staff cut loose. Liens from creditors outstripped operating cash, and the venture didn’t have the money left to continue operation.
After meeting in the cafeteria to figure out their future, horsemen and track workers “became drunk and engaged in a battle among themselves … one person was struck by a two-by-four in the melee,” according to the Review-Journal.
Hearings were set to assess the track’s future. Lou Smith and Clement Hirsch, president and vice president of the Jockey Club, respectively, and Alfred Luke, the track’s general manager, testified in court that the track couldn’t compete with the lure of machines and tables.
The facility would limp along, for seven weeks of poorly attended quarter horse racing in 1954; and three major auto races took place there through 1959. Brown, the onetime Horseshoe Club owner who lent his name to the road there now, bought the park out of bankruptcy. The land was parceled off to Moe Dalitz for a convention center, and Kirk Kerkorian for the then-International Hotel. Marvin Kratter got the rest for the country club.
Maybe Smith, Hirsch and Luke should have thought a little harder about what they were getting involved with in the first place.
“All three agreed a major mistake had been made,” deadpanned United Press International.
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