Beck is on the road again

Updated: March 1, 2001, 11:30 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

While most racing fans are anxiously awaiting the next major Triple Crown prep or the Santa Anita Handicap or the beginning of the spring race meets at Keeneland or Belmont, retired school teacher Bob Beck can't wait for the doors to open at tiny Manor Downs. It is then, and only then, that the quest can continue. Beck hasn't just been to a lot of North American racetracks. He's been to every North American racetrack. Bar none. But racing's greatest fan and greatest racetrack collector found there was a void in life in the summer of 1998. It was then that he completed his amazing 35-year mission: to attend every racetrack in North America. With a visit to Hualapai Downs in Kingman, Arizona, Beck had attended them all. Two hundred and twenty one racetracks later, there was nothing left. "It was a strange feeling," he recalled. "I got so used to always traveling somewhere and knowing that I had to be in such and such a place on such and such a day. It was different being so bound to the home." But that's about to change. The first ever thoroughbred meet at Manor which used to run just quarter horse races, begins April 21. Some time on or about opening day, Beck and his saint of a wife, Beverly, will walk through the gates of the Austin, Texas track. Later this year, Beck, 57, will visit still another new racetrack, Yavapai Downs in Arizona, which is slated for its inaugural meet. Build a racetrack and he will come. "Absolutely, I'm excited about this," he said from his Maryland residence. "It will be fun to plan another trip and try to blend in as many racetracks as I can. I get a lot of enjoyment out of plotting out the trips." Beck's obsession started innocently enough. He attended his first racetrack in 1962 when going the races at Monterrico in Peru. He was there visiting his brother, who was working overseas for General Motors. To this day, it's the only non-North American track he has been to, but his trip to the Peruvian track started him on his way. Two years later, he had made his mind up, he would visit every thoroughbred track in the United States, Canada and Mexico. "A guy who wants to see every major league baseball park can make a hell of a run during one summer," Beck said. "With racing, there are plenty of small tracks that just run a few weekends here or there and I was tied up teaching school." Beck started to pick away at the hundreds of tracks in the U.S., some of them so small that they won't ever appear in the Daily Racing Form. His only rule for a track that was it had to include at least one thoroughbred on a racing card, even if that horse was racing in a mixed breed race. Sometimes Beck would have to stick around bush tracks for days before he would find a race in which a thoroughbred competed. But sometimes it seemed the smaller the track the better the story. "I was at a track in Burns, Oregon one time and only four jockeys showed up for the races," he said. "The problem was, they had five horse in every race. I figured they'd just have a draw to scratch a horse in every race. Instead, they brought a guy out of the stands to ride, some guy with a cowboy hat. He rode all the fifth horses. He was a normal sized guy. He must have weighed 160 pounds. I think he was last in every race." A small bettor at the time, he made many of his plays by assessing the size of the jockeys. It wasn't uncommon, he said, to see half the riders at a track weigh 140 pounds, even though they were listed at 120. By throwing out the fat jockeys, he was often able to turn a profit. Of course, Beck has also made all the major tracks, from Saratoga to Santa Anita. "When people ask me what my favorite track is I always say that it's a mixture," he said. "If you could take the beauty of Hialeah, the tradition of Saratoga and the rider colony in Southern California and combine those three aspects then you'd have the perfect racetrack." He also soft spots in his heart for Blue Ribbon Downs, Whoop Up Downs and Anthony Park. By the end of the summer, Beck will have added Yavapai, a new track built to replace Prescott Downs, to his resume and will return home. Once again, his collection will be complete.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com