The Meadows set to celebrate 50 years of horse racing


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Fifty years ago, betting on a horse racing track was far from a sure thing.

Would people from Pittsburgh and the surrounding region trek all the way to Washington County for a couple of hours of weekend entertainment and a chance to win a few bucks?

The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.

"People loved the horses back then," recalled Mike Jeannot, president of Meadows Racing.

Delvin Miller found that out in 1963, when he and his partners in the Washington Trotting Association opened The Meadows, a harness racing track in North Strabane.

These days, The Meadows is perhaps better known as the home of a popular casino, where plenty of celebrations will be held this month to mark the racetrack's 50th anniversary.

But old-timers from the track fondly remember the days before slot machines, days they spent in stables, tending to horses, or on the track.

"Delvin said he couldn't pay a lot, but he needed people to work at the track," recalled Bob Sutton, who went to work at age 12 as a caretaker for Miller at his Meadowlands Farm on Pike Street.

Now 72, Mr. Sutton, of Chartiers, eventually became a paddock judge, a job he still holds. When Mr. Sutton was 20, his father -- who worked as Miller's main caretaker on the farm -- died unexpectedly. Miller gave the young man the house he had lived in with his father plus 2 acres of land.

"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here," Mr. Sutton said of Miller, who died in August 1996.

A look back

In archival footage posted on YouTube.com, Miller can be seen in a television interview in late 1962, explaining how construction was progressing at the track.

With the opening day set for June 28, 1963, it was difficult at the time to imagine how 154 acres of hills and cattle pastures could eventually become a harness racing track measuring five-eighths of a mile with new roads, a grandstand and stables.

Interstate 79 was under construction, as Miller noted in the interview, and the property owned by Bud McCarrell was being transformed after a $4.5 million investment from the trotting association and its investors.

Miller also explained how he came up with the name for the track.

"I think it's a wonderful name," Miller said in the interview, noting that the track would be named after a nearby Native American encampment called Great Meadows.

Fifty years ago, Curby Stillings was a sophomore in high school who had just made the majorette squad and had signed up for a typing class.

Her father, Chester Welch, was a friend of Miller's and a new horse owner and trainer.

One visit to the track was all it took for her to see that her future was not batons or typewriters -- her future was horses.

"I went through the ranks, from groom to trainer to owner," said Ms. Stillings, 66, of Ford City. She worked not just at The Meadows but at tracks throughout the U.S., and her son, Tyler Stillings, is now a trainer and driver at the track.

"It was in your blood," said Sean Sullivan, vice president and general manager of the casino, during a recent gathering of racetrack alumni.

Terry O'Brien, 73, of Hopewell came to the track 50 years ago to train Miller's horse, Hondo Hanover, which was recovering from a tendon injury.

Mr. O'Brien stayed, eventually becoming an owner and driver.

He also worked as an assistant racing secretary, organizing each day's races.

Miller's most famous standardbred was Adios, a highly decorated pacer that sired more than 500 offspring and served as the namesake for the track's most prestigious annual race, the Delvin Miller Adios Pace for the Orchids -- or simply "the Adios," as local race enthusiasts call it. Standardbreds are grouped into two racing gaits: pacing and trotting.

The Adios is part of harness racing's Grand Circuit week every August, and it accounts for purses totaling about $500,000.

When it started in 1967, the race generated less than $100,000 in winnings, but as gambling and racing changed, so too did the track's business model and purse structure.

When The Meadows opened, betting on horse races was virtually the only state-sanctioned form of gambling available.

"If you wanted to wager, it was horse racing," recalled Mr. Jeannot, 60, of Moon. "There was no lottery."

By 1983, gambling was becoming more widespread and the track expanded by offering telephone wagering options and a live daily telecast of races. Eventually, The Meadows opened off-track betting parlors in the Pittsburgh region to accommodate more customers and, as the ownership changed several times over the years, so too did wagering styles.

"All of these have happened over the years to support racing," Mr. Jeannot said.

The current owner of the track, Cannery Casino Resorts of Las Vegas, purchased the The Meadows in July 2006, shortly before it secured a gaming license for slot machines from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

It renamed the facility The Meadows Racetrack & Casino.

The advent of slots has been the biggest game-changer for the track, all the employees agreed.

"As far as support of the racing product, slots have been everything," Mr. Jeannot said.

"Horse racing is very, very expensive to operate."

The state's Act 71 of 2004, called the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act, provided for slot machines at racetracks and set aside part of the revenue to enhance horse racing and breeding programs throughout the state.

For The Meadows, those funds have translated into bigger daily purses of $135,000 -- a threefold increase from the previous limit -- and $9 million in infrastructure investment, including six new barns and a new central paddock.

Certain portions of the law, including one caveat that gives Pennsylvania owners and breeders preference in race participation, have meant a lot for the generations of horse owners and trainers who call the track home.

"That saved a lot of small horsemen," Mr. Sutton said.

"That saved everyone," Ms. Stillings said. "Racing would not have survived without it."

Although the first year of racing was limited to just 50 nights -- from June 28 to Aug. 24, 1963 -- the track now operates year-round, except in bad weather.

On average, Mr. Jeannot said, three race days per year are canceled due to inclement weather, which can present a safety hazard for the horses and drivers.

The horses have special shoes for racing through snow and ice, and harness racing horses -- all standardbreds -- traditionally were plow horses and are more sturdy than their thoroughbred cousins in the horse racing world.

"They are a tough animal," Mr. Sutton said. "Much more so than a thoroughbred."

Other things about the racing world have changed over the years, including improved treatment of horses and more stringent regulations regarding the care of the 825 horses housed at the track.

Horses are inspected by a veterinarian and tested for drugs before each race.

The 22 barns at the track now contain fire suppression, insulation and ventilation systems to make conditions safer and more comfortable for the animals.

A section of nearby Woodruff Memorial Park, called Peaceful Pastures, has been set aside to bury horses.

For Mr. O'Brien and other original employees, the most memorable day at the track came in 1965, when a local celebrity horse named Bret Hanover came to race at The Meadows.

About 14,000 spectators turned out to see the unbeaten, locally born horse, one of only nine pacers in the country to win the Triple Crown of harness racing.

He won that day at The Meadows, too.

Horses weren't the only animals racing on the track.

"We've had some fun over the years," Mr. Sutton said. "We even had ostrich races here."

The track also has hosted buffalo and chariot -- and even camel -- promotional races.

The group agreed that the worst day at the track was the barn fire of July 6, 2001, which killed 28 horses.

The fire began in a barn that didn't have sprinklers. Now, all of the barns have sprinkler systems.

The track will celebrate its 50th anniversary the week of June 23-29 with a 1960s-themed celebration. Prices on concessions will be reduced to 1960s levels, and prize drawings will be held.

Entertainment for the anniversary will feature Grammy- and Emmy-winning entertainers, including Gladys Knight and the O'Jays on June 29.

For more information: www.meadowsgaming.com.

For archival footage of The Meadows, go to YouTube.com.

For a look at Bret Hanover: www.flickr.com.

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867. First Published June 13, 2013 4:00 AM


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