Weatherford Democrat

September 4, 2008

Mystery and legend

Trinity Meadows still alive and waiting

By Karen Mitchell Smith

It sits to the north of Interstate 20 at Willow Park, not too far off the road, but hidden from the hustle of rush hour traffic by a thick row of pecan and hackberry trees. If you didn’t know to look for it, you would miss it altogether, except for the bright, teal-blue roof in the distance, towering above the tree line.

The sign adjacent to the interstate proclaims it Squaw Creek Downs, but the actual name for the racehorse training facility is Trinity Meadows.

The current name is actually the third associated with the track.

“People who aren’t old-timers from around here may not know it, but there’s been racing in Weatherford since the late ’40s or early ’50s,” facility manager Marshall Ferrell said. “They called it Clear Fork Downs back then.”

Ferrell, who has been the manager of the track in its current incarnation since 2001, is a slight man with a tanned-leather face and piercing blue eyes. We stood in the receiving barn on a rainy day in early May discussing the history and some of the mystery surrounding Trinity Meadows.

From the shelter of the barn we watched the comings and goings of trainers, jockeys and racehorses. Across the lane from us, three horses tethered to the walker took their daily exercise in the drizzle. One, a dark gray filly named Shine On Elizabeth, kicked and bucked excitedly, refreshed by the rain.

“She feels so good she can’t stand it,” Ferrell said with a laugh.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at the number of horses and trainers represented at the stables. Turns out, the facility I, like many other drive-time warriors, had taken little notice of has stalls for 1,097 horses; although, currently about 100 horses regularly hit the track for training, Ferrell said.

Charlie Smith is one such owner-trainer who stables at Trinity Meadows. A Tarrant County lawyer, Smith happens to own the darling of the track, Miss Missile, a filly he bought in a 2-year-old training sale last year for 35,000 dollars upon the advice of his “unofficial bloodstock agent” and girlfriend, Terry Propps.

With the success Miss Missile has brought him, he’s likely to listen more often to his “agent.” The filly promptly set a track record in the four-and-a-half furlong at Lone Star and has gone on to win three stakes races and has placed in several others, bringing her total winnings to 235,000 dollars.

The filly trains on Trinity Meadow’s track everyday. Two laps around and back to the barn, like all the racehorses there.

“I used to race here when it was Squaw Creek Downs, until it closed,” Smith said as he walked Miss Missile for her cool-down. “That was in the summer of 1996, in the middle of race meet. A disagreement between owners,” he added vaguely.

It was a refrain I heard often as I made the rounds of the stables meeting various owners, listening to their war stories while we waited out intermittent rain bursts by sitting in their makeshift offices — their pickup trucks — or shuttled to the track to watch their horses run. No matter what else we talked about, the conversation always came back to the mysterious, sudden closing of Squaw Creek Downs. A disagreement in 1996. Three owners. One in Ohio. A court-ordered bankruptcy sale in 1997.

“It was a real nice meet,” owner and trainer J R Holmes, who was my first contact at the track I had not even known existed, said of Squaw Creek Downs. “They handled more money here than they did opening day at Lone Star Park.”

Holmes received his first training license in 1968, and is one of several “old-timers” at Trinity Meadows. Having raced everywhere from Raton to Louisiana and up to Colorado, he is a wise horsemen who knows what to say and what to leave alone. I asked him if he believes racing will come back to Weatherford.

“Yes,” he said. “I believe racing will come back to Weatherford.”

But if he had a precognition of when, he didn’t share it.

Actually, according to Ferrell, Jim Dunnegan, of Arlington, who purchased the 210-acre property in the 1997 bankruptcy sale and renamed it Trinity Meadows, has taken the request to reopen the track before the Texas Racing Commission three times this year alone. For whatever reason, the commission has denied Dunnegan’s requests. Another mystery it seems, although the horsemen have their theories, none of they would publicly share.

So, the 160,000-square-foot grandstand with its four-level seating capacity of 9,000, which hosted 20,000 people in 1991 on opening day, sits like a jilted lover awaiting a gentle hand to restore her numerous bars, restaurants and private boxes to the glitter and drama they last enjoyed in 1996.

And men like Ferrell, Holmes and the others bide their time, racing in other parks around the country.

Ferrell was another owner-trainer who ran his horses on this track that was the second parimutuel facility to open in Texas.

“Even before that,” he said, “in the 1970s and early 1980s, the track was an American Quarter Horse Association recognized track where they ran a couple of big futurities every year. The old-timers come around here and talk about what a good time they used to have here and how sad it is that it’s closed.”

In the meantime, the track is home to around 25 regular trainers, including a couple of women, but primarily men, like John Tally who breaks and trains racehorses for sale.

We sat in his truck waiting out yet another shower.

“I broke 70 colts this year,” he said as the rain drummed on his flatbed. “I’m down to about 30 head and by July, I’ll be empty. When October comes, I’ll start over.”

Tally, who’s been a cowboy all his life, said he got into racehorse training and selling to make a better living than the ranch-hand salary of 300-a- week-plus-board he had years ago in New Mexico. We talked about his conjecture as to why the parimutuel track closed and what it would take to reopen it. Like the others, his tone and words became vague, mysterious. The parimutuel world of racehorses is much smaller than anyone would think, and none of these horsemen were prepared to burn a bridge.

Nevertheless, while there may not be crowds of 3,500 to 5,000 people three days a week in the grandstand as there was in the “old days,” the track sees plenty of action. In addition to the long-term trainers who use it for their everyday bread and butter, the track sees a large number of “haul-ins,” horsemen and women who stable elsewhere, but use the track to train.

Saturdays see the biggest number of off-track horses.

“We have people come in with barrel racers or cutting horses who want to extend their horse’s gallop,” Ferrell said. “Or we’ll get maybe a three-day competition horse and the owner wants to really leg him up. We get a lot of hunter jumpers.”

Ferrell, who lives on the property, went on to explain that being primarily racehorse-oriented, there has to be some rules.

“I try to regulate the safety,” he said. “The track is like the interstate. The inside lane is for fast. Middle is for gallop. The outside is for slow, so you don’t interfere with those going fast. Everything happens to the left. As long as your moving to the left, you don’t get into trouble.”

Barrel racers, cutting horses, ropers and other non-racehorses are kept to the outside lane.

“I tell them, your horse may stop when you pull up on the reins and yell, ‘Whoa,’ but a racehorse won’t. It will run over you.”

When the rain finally quit and I prepared to take my leave, I asked Ferrell the same question I’d asked all the other horsemen that morning as I had pickup-hopped between the track and the barns. Would Trinity Meadows ever reopen as a parimutuel facility? He squinted his marble-blue eyes and shrugged.

“I get depressed waiting for it,” he said. “I’m not cut out for politics, but Mr. Dunnegan ... he’s the biggest optimist I know. He believes racing will come back to Weatherford.”