Horse racing in Las Vegas? In 1947 Joseph Smoot, a "fast-talking promoter from New York" caught a ride to Las Vegas with future journalist Hank Greenspun and fantasized along the way about the possibility of adding another gambling element to Las Vegas. (Las Vegas Sun, April 29, 2008) Smoot confided to Greenspun that horse racing could never compete with casino dice games and slot machines but this knowledge did not deter the promoter from selling the dream to thousands who invested over $2 million in his scheme.
As part of his plan, Smoot announced the formation of the Las Vegas Thoroughbred Racing Association and proposed construction of a $2.5 million racing complex in Paradise Valley near the city limits. Smoot and his "gang of sharpies worked together in a gigantic plot to mulet the innocent people of Las Vegas out of their hard-earned dough." Before the saga ended a mob of angry stockholders met at a local Las Vegas Elks Club and demanded the promoter's ouster. Eventually Smoot was charged with felony embezzlement and a trustee was appointed by Judge Roger Foley to complete construction and run the track.
The track, named Las Vegas Park, was finally completed and racing began on September 4, 1953. A crowd of 8,000 attended the opening day, but a series of snafus, poor planning, and technical difficulties shrank attendance to 3,000 in a few short days. "More ominously the daily handle (amount bet) was less than half of the $400,000 needed to break even. Officials called a temporary suspension of racing." (Frank Wright. Nevada Yesterday, 2005) Though a racing season of over 60 days had been promised, Las Vegas Park only lasted 13. Many years later turf writer Pete Bonamy described the track's showing as one of the poorest ever recorded n the annals of American horse racing.
Several attempts by investors were made to restart the racetrack but none succeeded. With debt climbing Las Vegas Park went into bankruptcy and the 480 acres were sold to oil man Joe W. Brown. One section of the land would became the Las Vegas International Country Club and golf course (1967). The rest would be developed into the International Hotel (Hilton) and the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Image 2 shows famed racetrack designer Arthur E. Froehlich and Paul R. Williams in 1950 as they look at their completed plans for the proposed racetrack. Joseph Smoot hired both men to add cache and credibility to the project. Froehlich had designed Hialeah Park and Hollywood Park and Williams was known for his upscale design sensibility, a sensibility that would appeal to the "high rollers" the track's Jockey Club hoped to attract. Though Smoot's ideas for the track were often fantastic, the two architects were determined to build a facility "with the spirit and future of Las Vegas in mind and that the plant will be a pace setter throughout the world." (Las Vegas Review-Journal. December 23, 1949)
Horse racing on the level Smoot promised his investors would never return to Las Vegas. Ten years after the closing of Las Vegas Park a more modest track opened on land located behind the Thunderbird Hotel. Hesitant to overwhelm their potential patrons with a big name architect or famous track designer, the new owners of Thunderbird Downs opted to underwhelm customers. Described by sportswriters as pint-sized, the track opened to a "pint-sized" crowd of 3,852 and a financial loss. Live horse racing and Las Vegas were a mix not meant to succeed. (Los Angeles Times. October 5 and October 6, 1963)
(Special thanks to Las Vegas historian Dorothy Wright for her insight and help with sources.)