Toledo, OH --- On its final night of live racing, Toledo’s Raceway Park brought back four former race announcers to call the last card on Sunday (Sept. 15).
John Pawlak, who started at Raceway Park in 1978, called the final race at the five-eighths-mile track in north Toledo. Pawlak has been with the United States Trotting Association since 1985.
The other voices from the past calling races were Sam McKee, now at the Meadowlands; Steve Cross, now at Hoosier Park; and Ron Sobczak.
‘‘It’s been very special for a facility like this to have such a great history of announcers,’’ said Mark Loewe, currently the general manager at Raceway Park. ‘‘When I listened to them, I keep thinking about something that one of my previous general managers always told me -- ‘it’s very hard to follow the 1927 Yankees.’ It seems like one after another, that’s what they were doing.’’
It was a special night for the four former announcers as they relived memories of Raceway Park, and made one final memory for those in attendance.
‘‘I was sad to leave this place, because it was full of family as far as I was concerned,’’ Pawlak said.
Raceway Park started as an auto racing track in the 1950s. It was converted to horse racing, with both Thoroughbreds (in 1959) and Standardbreds (1962). There were also motorcycle races at the facility and the German-American Festival was held there.
Raceway become exclusively a harness racing facility in 1972.
For many years Sylvester ‘Shake’ Jechura ran Raceway Park with help from his brothers and numerous other family members.
‘‘He was the hands-on leader; he was like the hub of the wheel, and the spokes in the organizational chart just went to each individual from him,’’ said Pawlak, who worked in several different capacities at the track.
‘‘He was a hands-on manager, and I think that’s why this place was profitable. It was impossible for anyone to take it over and run it at the same cost basis as he did, because he did so many things himself,’’ Pawlak added.
One of the major highlights of Pawlak’s tenure at Raceway was when Rambling Willie, who was the subject of the book The Horse that God Loved,’ came to town.
Rambling Willie suffered bowed tendons early in his racing career, and had other problems, but recovered and became one of the top pacers in the history of the sport. Vivian Farrington, a co-owner of Rambling Willie, gave a percentage of his winnings to various churches.
In 1981 Rambling Willie was at Raceway for three days and patrons could have their pictures taken with him and receive copies of the book ‘‘autographed’’ with his stamped hoof print.
‘‘Rambling Willie was like a magnet,’’ Pawlak said. ‘‘We had nearly 7,000 people come back to watch him race.’’
McKee followed Pawlak in the announcer’s booth from 1983-89.
‘‘Raceway Park was a major stepping stone for my career. It was the first big track that I really called at,’’ McKee said. ‘‘When I got hired here I was 20-years-old and this place was larger than life.
‘‘I had so much fun working here, and it was a great experience,’’ McKee continued. ‘‘There were so many great people I worked with, and we had a lot of fun as well as work time. There’s nothing but fond memories.
‘‘The more you do it, the more you practice, the better you get, and the more you improve,’’ McKee added about being a good race caller.
McKee got to know the horses and drivers by watching them jog and train in the mornings on the track.
‘‘We had a great group of open pacers race every week. That was always a lot of fun to watch those horses race,’’ McKee said.
Earlier this year McKee was inducted into the Communicators Corner of the Hall of Fame.
‘‘It was beyond my wildest dreams; I was so surprised,’’ McKee said. ‘‘When I found out, I called my wife and she said: ‘Sam that’s wonderful, and the best thing is that you’re still alive.’
‘‘It’s about opportunity. I’ve been in the right place at the right time,’’ McKee added.
‘‘When he calls a race, he’s worth the price of admission,’’ Sobczak said about McKee.
Cross, the brother of trainer and driver Jay Cross, followed McKee.
Candy Super Star was a horse Cross remembers, calling her ‘‘the queen of Raceway Park. She was an awesome mare; she was so much fun to watch.’’
Cross was also at Raceway when Mack Lobell, one of the top trotters in the history of the sport, raced in 1988 as a 4-year-old.
Hall of Famer John Campbell arrived by helicopter to drive Mack Lobell.
‘‘That was huge. That was probably my highlight that Mack and John were here,’’ Cross said.
Cross said the key to calling a good race is ‘‘don’t stop talking; no dead air. It certainly is fun, and it beats working for a living.’’
However, Cross was speechless one night when Jay was involved in an accident.
‘‘In the backstretch just past the starting line, going to the three-quarters, there was a horse that broke in front of Jay. He tried to clear, and his horse didn’t clear, hit the horse in front of him, and Jay went down,’’ Cross said. ‘‘The protocol for him was to get back up, but he didn’t move a muscle.
‘‘I just shut the microphone off. I couldn’t finish the race. I was watching him,’’ Cross said. ‘‘I’ll never forget that night. He had a concussion and a broken shoulder bone.
‘‘That was scary for me. That’s the only time I can recall shutting the microphone off and not finishing a race.’’
Sobczak was the voice at the track for 15 years.
‘‘I missed two days in 15 years. You don’t work every weekend, if you don’t really love it with a passion,’’ Sobczak said. ‘‘I’ll miss it a lot.’’
Sobczak remembers the night Majestic Osborne, driven by Joe Adamsky, set the track record of 1:52.3 in 1993.
‘‘I had a chance to talk to Mr. Adamsky before the race and I said is your horse good and he said, ‘he’s as good as he’s going to be, and if we can win it, we’re going to win it,’’’ Sobczak said. ‘‘I asked him if he could set the track record, and he said, ‘if we can win it, we’re going to win it; he’s as good as he’s going to be.’’’
Sobczak said that racing horses is a tough business that has changed over the years with better horses, better equipment, and better drivers.
‘‘With the quality of drivers, this has really become a young man’s sport,’’ Sobczak said. ‘‘You have got to be an athlete to be out there. Nobody can ever tell me any different.
‘‘All your good drivers are athletes.’’
Jechura sold the facility in 1988, and it had several different owners before Penn National Gaming Inc. purchased the site in 2005.
Penn National owns the Hollywood Casino located in south Toledo, and will move its racing license to a new facility being built in Dayton.
‘‘We were looking to expand gaming throughout the state of Ohio by having new sources of revenue for us as well as for the state, and for the horsemen,’’ Loewe said.
Loewe said the plan is to have video lottery terminals at the new track up and running in August 2014. Penn National has petitioned the Ohio Racing Commission to hold a 56-day live racing meet starting Oct. 3, 2014.
‘‘It’s bittersweet not just for the patrons, but for the horsemen,’’ Loewe said about the closing. ‘‘This place has been a landmark in this community for over 50 years. It’s been a home away from home for a lot of these people.
‘‘Unfortunately things change, but when something of this magnitude changes, it’s difficult,’’ he continued. ‘‘There’s nothing that I can say to try to make it better. I would like for people to enjoy the memories and look back and say, we did what we had to do, and we’ll always have the special thoughts and memories of Raceway Park.’’
There will still be simulcast wagering at Raceway Park until May or June next year.
-- Jack Carle is the Sports Editor of the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune