Anderson/Madison County Visitors Blog
It was fun and exciting, and most of the time we were flying by the seat of our pants. It seems like yesterday. Hard to believe it has been 20 years already.
It won’t officially turn 20 until September 1, but with the start of the 2014 racing season at the end of this month, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the summer and fall of 1994 and the opening of Hoosier Park.
I was fortunate to be a part of it. I started with the company July 5, a little more than two months from our Grand Opening. My first office at Hoosier Park was in a construction trailer as the facility was far from finished. At the time, I was our fifth employee.
Churchill Downs, the majority owner of the track at the time, had posted a $1 million bond with the State of Indiana ensuring that we would be open by September 1. Much, much work needed to be done to hit that mark, and there was a great deal of doubt that it would happen.
Perhaps we were naïve, but none of us on the staff doubted. We could see the whirlwind of activity at the facility taking place around the clock. I would give two or three media tours of the progress each day, and every time I would hear the same question, “Can this really get done by September 1?”
There were a million things to do, but it seemed like there were a million people on the job site working hard to get us to the finish line (pun intended). The progress and speed that it was being completed was remarkable. One afternoon I was giving a tour to a reporter who asked the daily question about being done by September 1. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon and I pointed at the 1,700 reserved seats that had been installed on the grandstand side. I told him that I was last in the building at 10:00 that morning and that none of those seats were there at that time. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. all 1,700 seats were installed. That was the type of progress I saw every time I walked into the building.
But Hoosier Park is not just the building for the fans. It is also the track and the barn area, and while work was taking place on the main building, there was also a track surface being finished and barns being built. Every day was exciting as you could see the puzzle coming together. I remember shortly after the track surface was finished getting in a car and taking Wayne Fuson, the longtime sports editor of the Indianapolis News, for a riding tour of it. As we drove past the finish line, Wayne leaned forward so he could say he was the first to ever cross the finish line at Hoosier Park. I guess that means I finished second by a head.
September 1 arrived and we were all a ball of nerves. The day started at 4:30 a.m. for me as Dick Wolfsie and the Channel 8 morning news was live from the track that morning. That was my first time to meet Dick. We would go on to do many bits together over the years including one about the world’s tallest jockey (which was actually just Otto Thorwarth standing on a chair), and another bit he conjured up for the opening of the Sybaris hotel in Indianapolis. Dick remains a friend today.
As the day rolled on, it was clear that we were going to have a big crowd. People started to line up early and by mid-afternoon the lines at all of the entrances were very, very long. Every television station in Indianapolis and Louisville had a satellite truck on site. The Channel 6 11:00 news was anchored live from Hoosier Park that night. We had around 120 media credentials issued for the night and a media room that could comfortably seat five people. Luckily, I had the help of the Churchill Downs communications team during the night.
As we got close to 5:00 and the official opening, the excitement and nervousness continued to build. A huge throng of people was gathering to enter, final preparations were being made to open and for the opening ceremonies and ribbon cutting, and the news stations were getting ready to go live.
Norman Cox, the veteran reporter for Channel 6 news, had done extensive coverage of the track during the two months leading up to the opening. He asked me who we were going to consider the first ever patron. I told him that a man at the north gate was the first in line and he was going to be declared the first patron. Norman then said they wanted to start the Channel 6 news by playing the call to the post and showing—and interviewing—the first person to enter. He asked if we could coordinate the timing of the opening with the start of the 5:00 news. We agreed and Norman and his cameraman set up down by the north gate. We had people at each entrance ready to unlock the doors when given the signal. I stood in the grandstand and waited for Norman to give me the green light. He gave the signal, we unlocked all the doors and gates on cue, the Channel 6 5:00 news came on the air, and Hoosier Park was officially open.
I ended up being at Hoosier Park for over 13 years and it—and many of my co-workers—will always hold a special place in my heart. Hoosier Park is bigger and better now and many new faces have arrived since the opening of the casino. It remains an important part of the Madison County community. Happy 20th!
News, notes, and thoughts—I’m happy to report that Chris Williams continues his recovery from the fall he suffered in his home in mid December. Chris, as I’ve noted in previous blogs, is the director of university communications and community relations for Anderson University. He is a genuinely nice guy and has returned to the office on a part time basis…Best wishes go out to another community leader, Kyle Morey. Kyle is the head of the Madison County Chamber and recently suffered some severe injuries in a sledding accident. I’m happy to say he seems to be on the mend…I enjoyed attending the graduation for the 2014 class of the Leadership Academy of Madison County. The dinner had record attendance. Kudos to Maureen Lambert from the Bureau staff on graduating from the academy this year.
--Tom Bannon is the executive director of the Anderson/Madison County Visitors Bureau