Saying Goodbye to Gulfstream Park West

Saying Goodbye to Gulfstream Park West

“Thinking will not overcome fear. But action will.”

W. Clement Stone

This week will be the final week ever of racing at Gulfstream Park West and I’m abnormally sad about it. Now I know and respect that there are many people with much stronger ties to the track. There are folks out there who are losing where they work. Others who are losing the track they grew up going to. Or the track they cut their teeth at. All I’m losing is a place I filled in announcing for a few weeks the last couple of years.

I never got to experience Calder Race Course. All I knew of Calder was that it was generally the first track simulcast in the morning at Emerald Downs with the 9:25am Pacific first post time. I remember reading Mike Welsch’s analysis of the races. I remember Phil Saltzman and Bobby Neuman’s distinct voices calling the races there. I do have a strong memory of Ema Bovary winning the Princess Rooney there back in 2004 as she was an Emerald Downs based horse on the big stage.

Whenever I say Gulfstream Park West people often correct me with “you mean Calder. It’ll always be Calder.” I generally reply “respectfully, it’s not Calder anymore.” The Grandstand was knocked down a few years ago, the bushes by the wire haven’t spelled out Calder in years. I truly don’t think I ever got to experience Calder. I got to experience Gulfstream Park West. Gulfstream Park West meant being at the races with maybe 100 people watching in a tent. It meant going over to see Victor in the jocks room to get the changes. It meant climbing the most rickety stairs possible to get up to the top of three trailers that were stacked up on top of each other to call the races. It meant a sore back from leaning out the window to see the horses at the top of the lane. It meant 12 horses running straight at you while you had no height to produce a good depth or angle to see who’s in front. It meant praying the air conditioning would work each day because it was so hot and humid outside that fat me would croak without it. It meant talking to Eddie the camera guy between races. It was easily the toughest and least comfortable place I’ve ever called races. And I loved it beyond belief.

In September of 2018 I was taping an episode of my podcast for BetAmerica when my phone said I had a direct message from my buddy Peter Aiello. Pete calls the races at Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West. Here was the message.

I told Pete to let me think about it. As I wrote in my last blog, anxiety was a MAJOR issue for me for a lot of years. 2016 and 2017 had been pretty tough, but early on in 2018 I had really began to see some progress. Throughout that summer of 2018 I pushed myself more and more and was experiencing significant improvements in all avenues of life. I was traveling, going to baseball games, going to parks, hiking, I lost some weight, I was doing well. And part of the reason for that was because I made it a bit of a mantra to say “yes” to things. So even though I was scared as hell to drive to Miami and maybe even more scared to call races, I told Pete yes, I’d be there.

I asked Pete in the interim before I came down “why did he ask me?” He responded “I thought long and hard about who would really appreciate the chance to do it. And I figured you would.” I get misty-eyed just thinking about how much it means that he thought that and acted on it. My announcing career was dead in the water. I hadn’t called a race in three and a half years. I had applied for a dozen jobs and not gotten a sniff. And truth be told, I didn’t deserve a sniff. And even if I had gotten something in 2016 or 2017, it would have fallen apart because I wasn’t mentally healthy.

Pete was right about what he said, I did appreciate it. But there were any number of people who would have appreciated it as well. And I’ve been really blessed with some great opportunities in announcing the last couple of years that likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten that first shot at Gulfstream Park West in 2018.

Me and Pete on 11/11/18 at GPW

I still remember that drive to Miami. I didn’t tell anyone I was going outside of my mom, my lady friend, and I think Frank Mirahmadi and Travis Stone. I drove from Seattle to Vegas. To Amarillo, Texas. To Jackson, Mississippi. To Jacksonville, Florida. Then to Miami. I remember in Jacksonville it was like 65 and sunny and I thought “oh man this is so nice.” Then as I got further south on I-95 I realized “ok well it’s a little humid.” Then I pulled into the Miami metro area. I went to a Whole Foods and from just the walk from the car to the store I was sweating. Like, a lot. The entire drive in mid-November across the country had been through temps in the 40s. It was 88 and humid and I thought I was gonna die. I went and visited Pete, got the lay of the Gulfstream Park West land, and then went to my hotel.

November 14, 2018 came and I remember being in that booth early that day. I decided to turn my phone off and just try and do my best. I knew I wouldn’t be that good calling races. I had fully anticipated being very nervous. And I was. The first race came. I took a deep breath, and the gates opened.

You can hear the nerves in my voice. I’m running out of air cause I’m breathing shallow. But I got through it. And the next race went better. As did the one after that. My entire goal with that first trip was just to be able to end my announcing career on my terms. I had left Louisiana Downs three and a half years earlier a complete wreck. I was sad and anxious and just a mess. This was my opportunity to call some good races for two weeks and get rid of the bad taste with how it ended. I truly never thought it would lead to more announcing opportunities even though I’m certainly happy it did.

I had a blast those two weeks in Florida in 2018. Calling the races at GPW. Visiting Pompano Park, watching greyhounds at Palm Beach Kennel Club with my friend Gabe, going to see Gators on those cool fan boats. Having a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with the Tweedle’s in Boca. Just great. I even got to go back in 2019 and call the races at GPW for a whole month. The last race I was there for in 2019 I gave a little tribute call to Phil Saltzman. I didn’t know if GPW was gonna be around for 2020, or if I’d be going, so I thought it was appropriate for my last memory there to honor the longtime Calder voice.

Covid kind of killed any chance of me going back this year to fill in for Pete, but that’s ok. I’m filled with memories of my two stints at GPW and the rebirth it meant for my racecalling career.

My favorite memory at Gulfstream Park West actually occurred in the parking lot there. Back on that first day of calling there, November 14, 2018, the one with the nervous video linked a ways back up in this now probably too long blog. I remember walking out to the car to head back to my hotel. I was swollen with pride. Happy to have gotten up there and faced my fears and to have done the job again. I turned my phone back on and was greeted by a slew of texts and congrats. I read them all, and then I called my mom. She more than anyone had had a front row seat to my struggle with anxiety and depression. She’d been to the hospitals, she’d seen the freak outs, she’d seen the spark go out in my eyes. She’d gotten so many phone calls with “I just can’t do it anymore and I’m coming home.”

She answered the phone and I could hear the caution in her voice wondering how the day went. I called her fully intent on telling her that I had fun! And that it was a great day! And that some of the calls were even decent! But when I heard her voice all I said was “I did it.” And then I started crying. I cried for probably thirty seconds before gathering myself to tell her “I’m just so happy mom. This is a good cry.” She sat and listened while I whaled over the phone. After a certain point she just kept saying “get it out. Just get it out.” I must have sat in that parking lot and cried for twenty minutes. Looking back I think it was just all the emotion of not just a victory, but truly feeling I was getting my life back. Maybe I was finally leaving anxiety in the rearview mirror, or at least just relegating it to an occasional nuisance as opposed to the all-consuming, life altering, identity defining problem that it was. And I wanted to share that with my mom because she’d always done everything she could to give me a chance to have the life I wanted. That emotional release is something I’ll never forget. I’ve never been so run over with emotion. It was honestly one of the best days and moments of my life. Sitting there crying in the parking lot at Gulfstream Park West.

Goodbye Gulfstream Park West

Portland and the ‘farce of the past’

“Isn’t it strange how the seasons just pass, when you’re lost in the farce of the past” Mikel Jollett

I moved out of Portland, Oregon two days before new year’s day of 2015. I had lived there full time since 2008, part time since 2006, and I was ready to leave. So I thought. As it turns out I would only be in Louisiana for four months before returning to my “home” home of the Seattle area of Washington. I had backtracked into a sea of anxiety and depression, one that felt all too familiar and reminiscent of what my life was like in Portland. I used to always look for geographical fixes to problems that it turns out I brought with me wherever I resided. For some reason I believed if I just could go somewhere new, start over, that I’d feel better. I tried it several times and it just never worked. Cincinnati. Portland. Shreveport. Las Vegas. All ended with me struggling with my mental health and fleeing to go back to “home” home in Washington.

When I go to Portland, Oregon anymore, it’s generally just passing through. I’ll stay on I-5 and maybe stop in Tigard to get some lunch at Busters BBQ. But mostly I skip the city. When I passed through on Halloween a few weeks ago going back to Grants Pass, this song from Airborne Toxic Event came on my shuffle. Everything I love is broken.

It’s probably my favorite song on what has been my favorite record of 2020. The chorus lyric that I started this blog with, it resonates with me. So much of anxiety was living in the ‘farce of the past’. I realized as the song came on and I looked over at Portland from across the Willamette River on I-5, that going through Portland makes me feel a certain way. A weird mix of nostalgia and sadness. I think about friends that I made there that I don’t stay in touch with. I think about Portland Meadows, which is now just another boring warehouse. But I mostly think about so many of the bad times I had there. They were truly the worst years of my life. And for a long time I think I associated Portland with anxiety and depression and with my hardest times.

Like many people with mental health issues, my struggles ebbed and flowed. I’d go for months doing alright. Working, socializing, dating, doing things. Then I’d start slipping into isolation and go months where I did nothing at all. I remember stretches of time where I only left my apartment for curbside food pick ups and to go sit at the hospital. I spent entire days reading in hospitals because I was so scared and anxious that I knew if I had a panic attack or wanted to hurt myself, at least I was already at the hospital. I made the hospital a “safe place”. One day I’d go to Providence Portland over off 47th and Glisan. The next day to St. Vincents on the west side. From 2011 to 2013 I mostly went to O.H.S.U. because I lived right next to it.

In 2013 I announced an entire season of horse races from an office downstairs because I was too scared to go up to the booth. I had started having panic attacks there and just couldn’t make it anymore.

There was a stretch of time where I’d leave the track after barely getting through the races and I’d drive to Legacy Emanuel Hospital and sit in the parking lot for 20 minutes and try to calm down. Then i’d drive across the broadway bridge to Good Samaritan Hospital and park there. Try and calm down. Then I’d either go to OHSU and eat dinner or go home and try and distract myself until the bliss of tiredness came upon me.

I missed a couple weeks that season because I finally checked into the hospital after a particularly frightening episode. I remember being up in the psych ward and one of the other people there telling me “up here there’s either people having psychotic breakdowns or sad kids.” I was a sad kid I guess. Anxiety was always my primary symptom. But it got so bad that my life was in near complete isolation, that depression became a problem. I skipped coming home for Thanksgiving. For Christmas. I just sat in my apartment hoping to get better and feeling like I never would.

I get sad thinking about those times. I’m so happy that I made it through those times and maybe without the struggle I wouldn’t be so appreciative of how much better I’ve done these last two or three years. But I still grieve about all that time. Time spent being scared. Hopeless.

I remember a great therapist I worked with, devora, one time telling me to bring in a picture of my younger self. We were working on self-esteem issues and we talked about how I was so hard and mean to myself. I would constantly belittle myself about my weight, my looks, my anxiety, my abilities, everything. She had me look at this picture of me from when I was in first grade.

She would tell me to look at that child and would I say those same things to him that I’m saying to the 30 year old him? Of course not. He didn’t do anything to deserve that. We spent months working through my early years, my relationship with my dad, my relationship with myself.

In a weird way, the last few months, I feel like i’ve been working through my years after therapy. My last years in Portland and my first years back in Washington. Working on trying to accept that those years are gone. That ‘youth’ is in some ways gone. Maybe that’s just part of turning 40, reflecting on where you were. I do think I’m getting better at just realizing that I was sick, and I was doing the best I could with my illness. I don’t think 30 year old Jason would be so kind about his struggles. I’m glad his older counterpart can be more forgiving and accepting. I’ve moved on from shame about my anxiety and those years. I think I’m moving on from feeling sad about those years. I don’t know if I’ll get to feeling grateful for those years, but I can certainly continue working on acceptance of them.

I’ve made some incredible strides in recent years in regards to my anxiety and mental health. Who knew happiness was so much work. I used to always hope it would just show up one day. Turns out it doesn’t work that way. To me the biggest difference between then and now is that back then I truly dreaded a new day beginning. I would be upset when I woke up because it meant I had to try and get through the day again. Now I truly wake up ready for a new day, excited about it, and hopeful for what the day and the week and the month will bring. I can’t convey how grateful I am for that to be the case. Because I know how hard it is when it’s the other way.

Today when I passed through Portland I had those same feelings of nostalgia and started to feel a little sad. But I tried to shift my focus back to acceptance. I pulled off the freeway and drove around. I went to a couple of my old residences. They looked exactly the same. Much of downtown looked the same. Some looked different. But overall, it’s still Portland. I texted some old friends from there I hadn’t talked to in years. Just to tell them hello and see how they are. I met some of the most caring people I’ve ever known in Portland. It’s a great city in that way.

I want my relationship with Portland to move forward. We’ll still just be occasional acquaintances, but I hope going forward that visits to PDX, or even just passing by, will be more celebratory and enjoying the beauty of the Rose City and what is happening now, as opposed to what was.

Me in Portland today

“All the things we’ve done, trying to harden our shells”

Goodnight….to The Beemie Awards

Wanted to make a formal announcement that a couple months ago I decided to end The Beemie Awards. Well I shouldn’t say end, never say never, etc, but I’m not planning on doing them anymore. I wish I could blame it on the craziness of 2020, but the truth is, I just think they’ve run their course. I try and be a creative person and I thought last year’s show was good, but it was certainly just the same stuff as previous years. I think to continue on they would have needed to really change and grow and unfortunately right now I don’t see that as a possibility.

My intention with the show was always to just make a light hearted and fun night for racing folks and fans. The best part of it to me was always everyone else’s tweets and interactions and them playing along.

Thanks to everyone who watched and supported the show over the years, including our sponsors Little Red Feather, SIMHorseracing, and of course, Runhappy. The “Beemie Awards” team of Mark, Danny, and Carly were so fun to write and create with. Such funny people. So big ups to them.

Thanks everyone!

Jason

More Trip videos!

Been a few weeks on the road and I’ve been enjoying getting to make these little travel videos.  Here’s three more from this trip including Bakersfield to Las Vegas.  A day hike at Red Rock Canyon and finally a day at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco.

VLOG! Touring Buckley and Carbonado, Washington

Took a short drive this morning out to the towns of Buckley and Carbonado, Washington.  There really isn’t too much to them, but each little town has it’s own feel, so it’s fun to go and walk around them.  Carbonado is one of those places that a million people pass by as it’s on the way out to Mt. Rainier National Park.  But you have to pull of the highway to get to the actual town and I can’t imagine many folks actually make the turn.  So here’s a video of the trip as well as a visit to the Carbonado Cemetery, which had graves from all the way back to the mid 1800s.

Road Trip to Twin Lakes and Grand Coulee Dam

 

What a fun day today.  Took a long road trip (250 miles each way or so!) out to Eastern Washington to Twin Lakes.  Along the way stopped at Soap Lake, Grand Coulee Dam, and Nespelem.  I hadn’t made that trip since 1993 when my Grandpa Chuck passed away.  Twin Lakes was where we spent our summers and it was so fun to go see it.  It looked exactly how it did in my minds eye.  Just beautiful.  I did a vlog of the trip, which you can watch here:

 

Everyone have a good weekend!

Working on my Youtube Channel

One of the favorite things I’ve learned in recent years is video editing.  I’m still very much a beginner at it, but it is so enjoyable to tell a story using video.  And with Iphones being such a solid camera nowadays, you really can make little movies just with a few clicks.   Personally I just like to document my travels and every so often I’ll go back and watch a video and it’s just fun to be transported back to that time for just a few minutes.  My goal for 2020 on Youtube is to produce multiple videos per month and to grow my subscriber number up to 1,000.   If you want to check out my videos and help get me to my subscriber goal, here’s a link to the channel.

Jason’s Youtube Channel 

There’s lots of videos of visits to horse tracks as well as just personal travel.

subscribe

Locks on the Doors; Portland Meadows is closing.

Locks on the Doors; Portland Meadows is closing.

“You think they’ll run here next year?”

Just past the finish line. The toteboard is still there, and to it’s right, the old Portland Meadows Golf Clubhouse. There was a 9 hole course in the infield for years.

From the time I started working at Portland Meadows in 2006, every Summer that familiar question came up hundreds of times.  “You think they’ll run here next year?”  My answer was usually the same to everyone.  “I think so.  I hope so.”

Dr. Jack Root who has been a long time owner/breeder/trainer/veterinarian in Oregon told me once “Jason, I’ve been coming here for thirty years, and every year I hear from countless people that Portland Meadows is closing.  It’s been closing for thirty years!”  But then Dr. Root followed that statement up with another.  “What will happen is some day, I think several years from now, we’ll show up one day, and there will be locks on the doors.  That’s when we’ll know it’s finally closed.”

Well for me, this past Sunday, when I walked up to the front doors and saw the locks, Dr. Root’s prognostication finally hit home.  I only stayed there for maybe thirty minutes or so on Sunday.  Walked around and saw the grass growing over the main track.  The inner rail torn down in places.  The lights removed from the toteboard.  The old golf course clubhouse empty.

PM from out front. The neon horse was still running, but the front doors are now locked.

I talked with one of the security guards who I’d known from my time at Portland Meadows.  He said the day before was the last day of simulcasting.  This coming Saturday would be the last day of poker.  Then January 1, the new owners, a logistics company of some kind, would take over ownership.  They’ll turn the property into some kind of trucking/shipping facility, the grandstand will go down, and life in North Portland will go on.  I’ve seen it in other places.  Where my beloved Longacres once stood there is now a Boeing building and a bunch of walking trails.  Where Playfair in Spokane once ran races there is now a business park.  Yakima Meadows is still standing but it looks condemned and I believe is only used to house motorcycle races.

Portland Meadows opened on September 14, 1946 and was the first North American Thoroughbred track to offer night racing according to the track about page on the website.  The track survived a flood in 1948, a fire in 1970, and several different ownership groups.  Gary Stevens career took off there and in 1982-83 he won 126 races before heading down to Southern California and creating a Hall of Fame career.  Bill Shoemaker won the Portland Mile in 1989.  There were other great things that happened on the track, but those things are all just PM’s biography.

To me it will always be about the people.  I used to love to walk the backstretch and talk with wonderful trainers like my friend Ben Root.  Folks like Dr. Ryland Harwood who was a career dentist and became a trainer, owner, and breeder in his retirement.  Small barns like Bubba Bullene, and GD Khalsa, who despite never having a huge stables, are fabulous horsemen.  Jockeys like Joe Crispin, and Mark Anderson, Javier Matias and Juan Gutierrez.  Portland always had many female riders as part of the colony.  Kathy Mayo won several titles there.  Shawna Barber, Becky Abernathy, April Boag, Connie Doll, Debbie Hoonan, Marijo Terleski, Shawna Whiteside, Darlene Braden, Anne Sanguinetti, and in recent years Kassie Guglielmino and Eliska Kubinova.

Whatever track I go to I always make sure to make friends with the jockey agents.  They always have the best stories and usually have some useful information.  Steve Peery was an agent there for years and became one of my best friends.  Keith Drebin was always fun to talk with.  I remember at the first Portland Meadows Golf Tournament I played in, Mike Delnick was the leading agent and was in our group.  I muttered at the first hole “Well I hope we can win today guys.”  Delnick looked at me and said “Don’t worry, I’m keeping score.  We’re gonna win.”  I laughed and then he said “Jason, the most dangerous wood in my bag isn’t my driver.  It’s my pencil.”   We won the tournament by a stroke.

I also used to love to hang out with the tote room guys.  Brothers Lucas and Ben.  One racing night they were having a contest who could fit the most grapes in their mouth.  So I participated and stuffed like 10 of those buggers in my yapper before eating them.  After I finished them I ran upstairs to call the next race.  As the horses reached the gate I could feel the acid from the grapes bubbling up in my stomach.  I reached down and hit the mute button and let out a big burp.  Then I heard my burp echo over the loud speakers.  I looked down to my mic pack and saw the light was still green.  The TV department even made a video of it which you can see HERE.  It’s pretty gross, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I know the racing wasn’t world class or much class at all.  But it was our track.  I called those races like they were the most important races in the country because I knew to the owners, trainers, jockeys, and gamblers, they were important.  I always felt a sense of pride that when an owner would watch the DVD of their horse winning a race, even years from now, that it was going to be me who got to describe the victory and call their horse.  What a privilege.

When I left Portland Meadows in late 2014 to pursue another announcing opportunity, I remember being very sad about it.  Even though I was taking the next step in my career (which I would of course completely blow), I didn’t like leaving.  I remember tearing up saying goodbye to Jerry and Vestal in the main office.  Shaking hands with Will who was my boss and is now my friend.  I get emotional thinking about Will because he always supported me even though my professional time at Portland Meadows was the height of my personal life mental health struggles.  One year my panic and agoraphobia got so bad that I would get crippling anxiety if I had to be far away from my car or medical help.  So Will set up a huge TV and a microphone in the downstairs office so I could call off the TV and be close to the parking lot and the nurses station.  I eventually made it back upstairs, but I told him countless times if he needed to fire me I would understand.  I look back at those times and feel bad that it was such a struggle.  But I also now have such an incredible appreciation for a boss who didn’t give up on me and ALWAYS had my back.

That’s why seeing Portland Meadows close up hurts so bad.  I haven’t gotten a paycheck from there in 5 years.  But I still am friends with many people from there.  I still have memories of that tiny booth.  The view of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens from that booth.  The good times and the horrible times.  So many of both were had on that plot of land at 1001 Schmeer Road.

The two tracks most dear to my heart have shuttered.  I love horse racing and hope to be involved with it in some way until my final furlong.  Just gotta keep working to make sure it can keep going, and god forbid, maybe thrive again.  I urge everyone who loves the game and might particularly love a certain track.  Treasure the times there.  Take photos.  Take videos.  Make memories.  When and if the doors get locked at your track, the photos, videos, and memories will be what you have to take with you.

 

A tour I did of Portland Meadows in 2011 can be seen HERE .  My youtube page there has several videos from PM as well.