Retired jockey Steve Cauthen may have won the 1978 Triple Crown aboard Affirmed, but he has fond memories of River Downs, the Ohio racetrack at which he won the first race of his career in 1976 at age 16.
"Obviously I have a little history here and some great memories," said Cauthen, an invited guest May 8 for the first day of racing at Belterra Park Gaming & Entertainment Center, which was built by Pinnacle Entertainment on the old River Downs property. "It looks a lot different. It's great to see the investment (Pinnacle) put into it.
"I think owners, breeders, trainers, and jockeys in the area are going to be delighted to be part of this adventure. I might be running one of my horses here."
The first racing program at Belterra Park, which opened its gaming and dining facility a week earlier, attracted about 3,000 people on day that felt more like July than early May. Pinnacle invested on the racing side of the operation with expenditures in outdoor amenities that were a hallmark of scenic River Downs.
There are outdoor terraces outside of the simulcast and gaming areas, as well as restaurants. The company spent at least $200 million, not including the $50 million license fee for the right to operate video lottery terminals. About 830 jobs were created.
Ohio State Racing Commission and Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association officials were involved in the planning process on racing matters.
One of the opening-day guests was OSRC chairman Robert Schmitz, who recalled doing tripleheaders with his friends while in college at Ohio State University. Schmitz said the group would attend the races at River Downs, swing by nearby Coney Island amusement park, then drive back to the Columbus area in time for the first harness race at Scioto Downs.
"It has been interesting watching this place take shape," said Schmitz, who credited Republican Gov. John Kasich with pushing for racetrack gaming after four full-scale casinos were approved by voters in a separate referendum. "Belterra Park will have the only turf course in Ohio, and if you've never seen a turf race, it's a wonderful thing to see.
"This facility is the crown jewel of Ohio Thoroughbred racing. This is exactly what (the racetrack VLT law) is all about. The sight lines for racing are great, and the integration of gaming and racing is great. The Pinnacle people have been great to work with."
The turf course, planted during construction last year, will be ready for the 2015 season. The one-mile dirt track and seven-furlong turf course were moved slightly east on the 122-acre property to accommodate the VLT facility and parking.
Trainer Jeff Greenhill, a longtime River Downs regular, won the fifth race opening day with No Rain No Rainbow, who is owned by his wife, Sherri. Greenhill offered a quick assessment of the rebuilt facility.
"You've got to call it Belterra Park, because this isn't River Downs anymore," he said. (The barn area) is a lot better. The track is a little deep now, but it just needs some time."
There are more than 1,000 stalls at Belterra Park. Half of them are new; the old ones were upgraded with new roofs.
For the record, the first race was won by Billy, Donna, and Justin Hays' Hard Way Six, ridden by Perry Ouzts, who has won multiple riding titles at River Downs. The feature, the $50,000 Tall Stack Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-olds, was taken by James Drive and H. Ywachetta's Rivers Run Deep for trainer Cody Autrey and rider Jareth Loveberry.
The meet extends through Oct. 19 with racing mostly on a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule.