Former Track Announcer has High Hopes for Racing’s Return to Raton

15 07 2008

RATON – JULY 11, 2008 – Billy Donati perhaps knows more about horse racing in Raton than anybody – including the horses. For 16 of 17 years between 1975 and 1992, Billy was the “voice of La Mesa Park,” the track announcer who called hundreds of races right down to the wire.

On Friday, after the Thursday public meeting here of the New Mexico Racing Commission, Billy gave voice to his feelings about the whole deal, including why racing in Raton was so great from 1946 until La Mesa Park closed in 1992.

“The people,” he says from his desk at KRTN Radio, where he is owner and general manager. “It was all that horse racing is anywhere in the world, but it was on a more personal level. The thing that bound people together from all different classes was the love of the sport, the excitement of the gambling and our unique setting.”

He pauses. “I’m waxing poetic.” He laughs. “It was almost storybook.”

Billy also was director of publicity for the track for a number of years, but he says there was nothing like the races themselves.

“As far as public speaking,” he says, “it was absolutely the most fun and exciting thing I’ve ever done – especially the call of the race. Horse racing to me is excitement and drama.”

Asked if any single race during his career stands out, Billy has to think a bit. “I remember my mistakes,” he says, laughing. “My philosophy was, every race is important.”

He did note the Land of Enchantment Futurity races, which during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s came with the biggest purses of any futurity west of Chicago. But as he said earlier, even more special than the actual races were the people who flocked to La Mesa Park to take a chance, meet some friends and have a good time.

Billy’s work overseeing KRTN Radio keeps him hopping these days, so what if the racing commission makes the right decision and puts horse racing back in Raton? Will Billy get back in the announcer’s booth?

“If I’m given the offer, I would be glad to help them and have some fun myself,” he says. “It was very fulfilling. Like a good addiction. I can’t describe what a rush it is to say something and have fifteen hundred or two thousand people respond to that.” He pauses to show the goosebumps on his arms as he considers taking over the microphone again.

Like so many in Raton, Billy attended the commission meeting Thursday. He believes chances are very good that racing will return to Raton.

“Everything points to the fact that Raton should have this,” he says. “Our past ties with horse racing alone dictate that we should have this.”

A Brief History of La Mesa Park

In 1982, KRTN Radio owner Billy Donati wrote the highlights of La Mesa Park racetrack for a local newspaper’s supplement section. Here are the highlights of Billy’s highlights.

1946: Construction on La Mesa Park begins, with a cost of $150,000. The horse Midnight Lad is the first to trot into the new winner’s circle, paying $15.80, $3.80 and $3.40 out of a $270 purse.

1947: Total purses double, from $54,620 to $104,153.

1949: A fire sweeps through the barn area, killing 20 horses. Dean Turpitt is pinned in a stall by a burning beam while trying to save the horses. After being rescued, he has to be forcibly restrained from going back in after other horses.

1950: The caliber of horses keeps improving; every track record is broken.

1952: The horse Stella Moore, a 20-to-1 longshot, wins the Raton Quarter Horse Handicap, setting a new world record for 400 yards.

1953: Locals begin calling La Mesa Park “the Little Santa Anita of the Southwest.”

1954: The racetrack joins the Thoroughbred Racing Association of America.

1959: A six-furlong chute is added; the mile chute is lengthened by a furlong.

1960: Purses for the Raton Derby and Futurity both exceed $5,000 for the first time. Also for the first time, a purse tops $10,000 as the horse Try It wins the Raton Mile Handicap. An all-time mutuel handle record of $236,752 is set on Sept. 4.

1965: On Sept. 5, the modern attendance record is set at 4,892, and a new mutuel record of $242,599 is also set.

1966: The horse Texas Maid with Bobby Harmon up sets the world’s record for four and a half furlongs with a time of 51.2. A new attendance record is set Sept. 4 as 60,684 fans show up.

1967: Just before the 11th race on May 27, a Piper Comanche airplane loses control and crashes into the barn area. Two people and one horse are killed and a third person is injured. As a result of the crash, a new 40-horse barn is built, and the airport runway is re-aligned to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

1970: The Land of Enchantment Futurity purse tops $100,000, making it the richest event for two-year-olds west of Chicago.

1972: Kantrec, with Donald Eikleberry up, wins the last running of the Raton Derby.

1973: The yearly handle mark is set at $7,645,314, and the Land of Enchantment Futurity purse tops $200,000.

1974: J.R. Adams of Guymon, Okla., buys the track and begins $150,000 in improvements that include a new racing strip on the track and a paint job and facelift for the grandstand area. In September of that year, the one-day mutuel record is broken when $263,854 is wagered. The total handle soars to $9,065,872 for the year.

1977: Video tape is used for the first time; the finish stretch is extended from 510 yards to 550 yards.

1978: A new daily handle record of $368,396 is set Oct. 1; the yearly handle jumps to $11,967,687.

1981: Leonard Larsen of Trinidad, Colo., collects $18,934 for the biggest Big Q payoff in the track’s history.

1982: An all-color video monitor system is bought for $150,000.