For many residents in states outside of Nevada, the local horse racing track represents the only opportunity to place legal bets on athletic competition.
The so-called “Sport of Kings” has been enjoyed by spectators and bettors alike since the era of antiquity, and America’s first colonists set to work organizing races almost immediately upon arrival. The domestic industry dates back to the Newmarket Course in Salisbury, New York, where race fans first began congregating all the way back in 1665.
This rich history begs one big question… Why would Las Vegas, Nevada, not offer even a single horse racing track?
At first glance, Sin City would seem to be the perfect fit for Thoroughbred and harness racing, what with America’s first legal gambling industry set up in 1931. But Las Vegas hasn’t been able to get a local horse racing scene off the ground.
The country’s longstanding gambling capital attempted to bring horse racing bettors aboard several times. Unfortunately, the abundance of gambling options caused the idea to pull up lame each and every time.
In the three entries below, I recount Las Vegas’ often tortured path to creating a horse racing market, including the rise of three local tracks and their respective failures to cross the finish line.
Smoot Arrives in Sin City to Gamble on Las Vegas Park
The year was 1946, and New York City promoter extraordinaire Joseph M. Smoot wanted out of the Big Apple altogether.
After procuring a ride with his lawyer’s partner Hank Greenspun, who went on to found the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, the pair arrived in Las Vegas and went their separate ways.
Having had previous experience helping to promote the Hialeah and Gulfstream parks in Florida, and Santa Anita Park in California, Smoot envisioned a similar project panning out in Sin City. After raising millions of dollars in funds from local investors and civic leaders, Smoot set to work constructing a one-mile track he dubbed Las Vegas Park.
But as Greenspun wrote years later in his memoir, Where I Stand: The Record of a Reckless Man (1966), Smoot never intended on turning the track into a success story:
“Old Joe knew a track wouldn’t have a chance, and he said so when he came here in 1946.”
Greenspun’s assessment proved to be eerily accurate. When Las Vegas Park opened for business on September 4th, 1953, Smoot’s embezzlement scheme began to fall apart almost immediately.
In a Las Vegas Sun retrospective published in 2008 on the failed track, titled “A Sad Saga: Horse Racing in Las Vegas”, the newspaper provided the following rundown of Las Vegas Park’s many failures:
“Before the first race, the Australian-made tote board on the infield went down. And machines inside the $50 and $500 betting windows broke, so high rollers were forced to make many small wagers at the commoners’ windows.
Lines were long. Tempers were short. A disappointing and shallow-pocketed crowd of 8,200 saw Lefty James, with star jockey Tony DeSpirito on top, win the $10,000 Mirage Handicap.
After three days of poor attendance and the continued malfunctioning of the tote board, racing was suspended for two weeks so an American model could be installed.
On Oct. 10, 4,000 patrons bet a total of $100,000. Without a doubt, veteran turf writer Pete Bonamy wrote, it was one of the poorest showings by a racing crowd ever recorded.”
By October 19th, just six weeks after opening, the experiment was over for good as Las Vegas Park closed its doors after only 13 race days.
Thunderbird Downs Only Survives for Three Years
The city of Las Vegas would go without a horse racing track until 1963, when Thunderbird Hotel investor Joe Wells decided to deploy his assets in an effort to build an attached Thunderbird Downs Racetrack.
The half-mile track played host to Thoroughbred and quarter horse racing for three years, but Thunderbird Downs wound up closing down amidst a spate of ownership changes due to lack of funding.
At the time, the track was built behind the Thunderbird Hotel and offers pari-mutuel betting and bleachers for spectators.
The Last Hurrah for Las Vegas Horse Racing Enthusiasts
In 1981, the Funk family settled down in Las Vegas. They were an experienced horse racing track operator who ran venues from Florida to Oregon during the 1960s and 1970s.
David J. Funk joined forces with his brother Albert and the pair’s father David Sr., to open Las Vegas Downs on January 15, 1981.
The track was located on the corner of Boulder Highway and Racetrack Road, and according to GamingToday, the venue suffered an immediate case of whiplash:
“The first night of racing offered a 12 race card featuring a Big Q, a daily double involving the night’s last two races. All signs pointed up.
Unfortunately, opening night was the peak of attendance as an average of 1,000 patrons became the norm. Shortly after, the city of Henderson started foreclosure proceedings after demanding back payments of more than $364,000.”
In an obituary for David Jr. published by the Las Vegas Sun in 2015, the elder brother lamented his family’s inability to make horse racing thrive in Sin City. He stated that the facility just couldn’t be profitable due to timing.
Racing Commission member George Franklin had even attempted to help them out with an extension to find other avenues of financing, but nothing ever pulled through.
Since then, there have been no attempts to operate a horse racing track facility in the Sin City.
Horse racing has its place in locales that lack full-scale casino and sportsbook gambling, but the industry simply faces too much competition in Las Vegas to survive.
Fortunately, local bettors and visitors who like to play the ponies can still get your action down at off-track betting (OTB) racebooks like the South Point, Wynn, or the Westgate SuperBook.
Nonetheless, the specter of horse racing’s failure to get out of the gate in Las Vegas looms large for diehard fans who would like nothing better than to sit in the grandstands and watch their horse come home first.