Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Randy Birch recounts the glory days of The Woodlands in new book


Books are written to enjoy and Randy Birch’s look back at The Woodlands certainly does that.

The public address announcer whose elongated “He-e-e-e-r-e Comes Woody” made him a folk hero, Birch has authored a paperback book entitled “Where Winning Happens” that recounts some of Birch’s favorites experiences, events and characters in his years at the track.

For someone who lived and worked at the track for all of its 19 years, I didn’t put the book down until I had read all 115 pages (wondering all along if I were ever going to make it!) Just $9.95 plus shipping, the book can be ordered on-line at www.createspace.com/3927245.

For those 90 or more minutes, I was able to return to those wonderful days at the “Puppy Palace” just off Leavenworth Road and revel in the names and events that I were such a big part of my life. But I also found myself saddened by the fact that those great days are gone forever – and with no good reason.

For those who weren’t around or never came to the track, The Woodlands quickly became a national racing phenomenon when it opened Sept. 14, 1989. Opening night drew 6,203 fans who wagered $602,582, an average of nearly $100 per person.

Two weeks later, 9,802 fans turned out on a Saturday night and four months into its initial season, 11,814 turned out to bet more money on a single race, the Winter Sprint Classic ($159,843), than any previous race in history.

In less than seven months, the track welcomed its one-millionth fan and drew 1.7 million fans in 1990, more than some major league baseball teams.

Dogs with the monikers of Blendway, T-Bone, HB’s Prince Red, KC Bobbywillwin, G.R.V. Velocity and DG’s Dealer became household words. A match race between Blendway and T-Bone drew nearly 12,000 fans.

In March 11, 1992, The Woodlands set a national record when $1,457,609 was wagered on one afternoon.

“I’m proud to say that’s a national record that still stands today,” writes Birch.

The day I remember most, however, came during the horse racing season. It was a Sunday afternoon and fortunately I showed up early and noticed an unusually large early turnout, enticed I quickly realized by a ‘Wallet Day’ promotion in which some of 15,000 wallets to be given out included money and gift cards.

Climbing to the roof, all I could see was cars in every direction as far as the eye could see – an estimated 22,000 fans and that didn’t include countless fans who simply gave up and turned around and went home.

On July 23, 1994, The Woodlands held its first Wiener Dog Nationals, a phenomenon that annually drew in excess of 10,000 fans year in and year out. In 1994, 10,000 showed up to see radio personality Mike Murphy race against Mike Murphy, the greyhound, with Mike Murphy the man winning by a half-length.

That same year the Great American Greyhound Futurity conceived by Jim Gartland was written into the Guiness Book of Records as the world’s richest greyhound race and was televised nationally by ESPN2.

The track also drew its share of celebrities. Famed jockey Bill Shoemaker made an appearance in 1990, Bill Grigsby and Mike Murphy were two of the track’s biggest supporters and Yankee manager Joe Torre was a regular patron when the Yankees were in town along with any number of Chiefs and Royals.

Wrestling legends Bob Geigel, Bob Brown and Rufus T. Jones worked security and one of the track leadouts would become the world’s fastest man and an Olympic 100-meter dash champion, KCK’s Maurice Greene.

In its first five years, The Woodlands drew 6.8 million fans only to run afoul of first riverboat gambling just across the river and finally and fatally the Kansas Legislature.

While the riverboats severely cut into greyhound racing, the track got what it thought was new life when on April 12, 2007 before a packed house at the track, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed an expanded gambling proposal into law and The Woodlands was awarded up to 800 slot machines.

However, within months joy turned to tears. While a new state-owned casino was assessed 22 percent of revenue, 40 percent was demanded of greyhound tracks.

On July 22, 2008, Woodlands owner Bill Grace announced the final races would be run Aug. 23 – a heartbreaking blow to the more than 300 employees, trainers and state officials as well as a Kansas industry that produced more greyhounds than any state in the country.

Fans packed the track for the final performances that included the “Dr. Joe and Betty Swanson and Family Run,” the “Randy Birch Run” and yes, an “Alan Hoskins Run.” It is good to report that Birch is still in greyhound racing as host of a nightly podcast, “BigJackpotbetting.com.”

But for the rest of us, there are only memories. Albeit they are great ones, no one yet has given me one good reason why greyhound racing doesn’t deserve the same tax deal given the casinos – an inequity that has cost hundreds of jobs at state tracks and the industry and deprived additional revenue for a state desperately in need of money. And that’s a shame – and so sad.

EDITOR’s NOTE – Alan Hoskins’ “Track Talk” column was a regular weekly feature in The Kansas City Kansan for many years and earned him back-to-back national greyhound writing awards. In addition, he was a regular contributor to The Greyhound Review.