Night Life

A Day at the Races: Balling Out of Control at Sam Houston Race Park

Not too long ago, my friend and I were having a conversation about going up to Austin to eat at Shake Shack. If you've never been, it's a delicious hamburger restaurant that got its start in NYC's Madison Square Park and has now made its way all the way down to the Texas capital. The joke was made that Austin is now the only city that has Whataburger, In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack; or as my friend called it, “an embarrassment of riches.”

But lest we forget, we in Houston have our own embarrassment of riches right here in front of us. I, for one, sometimes take the city for granted and forget how much it really has to offer. From major-league sports to the opera and everything in between, we are lucky enough to have a laundry list of things to do on a daily basis. I should know; I once lived in the “nothing-to-do” town of Albuquerque, N.M.

So as someone who has lived all across this great country of ours, I somehow manage to return to Houston time and time again. "I've been everywhere, man" — Johnny Cash's song also tells my story.

So one Saturday night earlier in May, I turned down my friend's free Kirkland/Alvarez boxing tickets to take my wife out to the horse track. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Sam Houston Race Park off West Beltway 8 north has much more to offer than just horse racing. We not only went to see which dachshund and American Quarter Horse ran the fastest, but live country music from Burleson, Texas’s own regional favorites the Casey Donahew Band. All for $7 before 7 p.m.

It was also Mother’s Day eve, so it could be said that we were celebrating the occasion. While we don’t have human children, we’ve managed to take in six rescue animals. One of our three dogs is even a “Chiweenie” (dachshund-chihuahua mix), so the track's Derby Dog Dash made quite a spectacle. What started out as a one-time publicity stunt to get butts in seats has now become a tradition at S|HRP. It consists of few heats of dog races in between each horse race, and when we went Roxy was the clear favorite to win; her (human) mom, Tonya, called her a “natural.” To celebrate, Nathan's hot dogs were $1.

It was tempting.

You could say we were balling out-of-control. We passed up the dollar hotdogs and run-of-the-mill bar setting for something a bit more, dare I say, opulent. We decided to sit in the Winner's Circle — an 800-seat restaurant inside the park with a clear view of the finish line, where a TV sat at each and every table for watching slow-motion replays of dramatic finishes. We decided to hit the lavish buffet, complete with roast-beef serving station, all-you-can-eat mashed potatoes and a chocolate fountain.

I took an interest in horse racing, albeit a passing one, when in the early nineties a combination of two things happened. One, I found out that Bob Nastanovich, a member of some of my favorite bands at the time (Pavement, Silver Jews, etc.) was really into horse racing. So much so, in fact, that he has owned, bred and managed many thoroughbreds throughout the years. The second thing that happened was that one of my best friends moved to Kentucky to study with the Actors of Louisville. Not only did she attend “Derby” (as she called it) every year and give me an earful of how special it was, but she would tell me her Will Oldham sightings and what the singer-songwriter better known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy was up to – and it always had something to do with horses.

My hobby of gambling on horses grew when my wife and I moved to Albuquerque to be closer to her family. Finding work was tough to come by, so we thought it might be a good idea to get my real-estate license; I would become the Barbara Corcoran of the ABQ. An utter failure as a realtor, I would instead spend many of my days drinking cheap beer and betting what little money I had on Taco Tuesday or Heavens to Betsy, or whatever silly name the owners could think of to name their horses.

ABQ is a town of broken dreams. Dire straits. My real-estate career never took off because many of the people there can't qualify for a loan; I've always said that Breaking Bad (which was set there) is a documentary. If you're not there to attend UNM or be in the military, it probably isn't under good circumstances, whether that be poverty, the high dropout rate or the dry heat.

Or waitress at SHRP was named Coralee. She tended to our drinks graciously, and told us she had just graduated from Lone Star Community College that day with an Associate's Degree in Business. Of course, I tried to get Coralee to help us make the right bets on the horses. She was hesitant, telling us that her dad is the one we should be asking.

"I just like petting them," she said. Seemed reasonable.

The whole night was planned accordingly: there were eight horse races in total, with varying distances; and don't forget those puppy races in between. Simulcast races from elsewhere were also available to bet on. After the races, the concert started at ten. My wife kept tabs on her winners, but didn't bet. At one point, she could have won us close to $100 just by betting a buck. The crowd for horse racing was a lot of families, but skewed young for the concert. 93Q was there. The weather was nice because of the light breeze, and it kept sprinkling off and on.

Before the band stepped onstage, I walked around the grounds. I was taken aback a bit by the some of the merch, which was full of Second Amendment, "From my cold dead hands" imagery. Not that I was offended, but if I judged a book by its cover, I probably wouldn't have stuck around. It just seemed unnecessarily heavy-handed.

Even though Donahew and his band got a late start, I was taken by surprise when they came out swinging with a country-fried intro to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” After that, Donahew sang song after song about being white trash, double-wides and whiskey, and that was it. SHRP's spring racing and concert season is now over, but Lynyrd Skynyrd will be there to headline CCA's fourth annual “Concert For Conservation” in September.

You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas.

Catch simulcast racing from Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Santa Anita and more this weekend at SHRP; see for more details.

Send your after-dark tips to [email protected].

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Sean McManus