With its rusting roof, peeling paint, tattered window coverings and weed-choked track and infield, the shuttered Rocky Mountain Greyhound Park looks like it has been through a war.
I visited the 28-acre complex, at 3701 N. Nevada Ave., last week after calls from readers. Some were worried about activities they’ve observed there recently. Others were simply curious about the fate of the park.
I saw the old, west grandstand, erected in six weeks in 1949 after Colorado voters a year earlier legalized gambling on horse and dog racing. (Track staff used to build charcoal fires under it to keep gamblers warm on chilly race nights. Later, a concrete apron was built with steel pipes inside so hot water could be pumped in to provide safer radiant heat for fans.)
And I checked out the newer, larger east grandstand, built in 1971, and I looked at its restaurants and clubs, paddock and kennels.
As I wandered around, I had a hard time imagining this was the place where hundreds of thousands of Colorado Springs residents and tourists gathered each summer starting in 1949 and gambled hundreds of millions of dollars over 50-plus years on greyhound dogs chasing Rocky, a mechanical rabbit.
Not only does the old park look like it’s been through a war, it actually is a war zone these days.
On weekends, DMZ Airsoft hosts war games inside the east grandstand.
For decades, folks in fur coats and suits used to pay 35 cents to enter, study racing forms, have a drink at Rocky’s Roost and bet on the dogs.
Now, competitors 14 years and older pay $15 apiece to run around, blasting each other with round, plastic pellets. Makeshift walls create hiding places along with old furniture strewn about inside the 135,000-square-feet space of the east grandstand to allow room-to-room pursuit of opponents.
The rotting structure isn’t all about kids games, however.
On the north side of the complex, Ukrainian immigrant Rustam Filimonchuk rents office space for his Unlimited Express trucking company. He stages his nine trucks from the parking lot for long-haul and local jobs.
Then I drove to the far west end and the canopy where the Springs elite used to drive up for a white-tablecloth steak and lobster dinners and an evening of races at the Cloud 9 restaurant.
Today the space is occupied by Medibis, a medical marijuana dispensary. (In a way, I guess it’s still Cloud 9!)
But of all the things I saw, perhaps most sad was the way some of the old concrete-block dog kennels are being used today: as shelter by homeless people.
In fact, it was a neighbor who said she sees homeless living in some of the 17 kennel buildings as she walks along the Templeton Gap waterway each day.
Sure enough. I drove the perimeter and saw the signs of doors busted open, windows smashed and screens ripped down and scattered beer bottles and cans where squatters have been hanging out.
Intrigued by park, I called Richard Kelly, whose Trend Commercial Real Estate is marketing the property as a development site. He represents the owners of the park, who paid $1.5 million in 2009 for the park after it ended an eight-year run as Post Time, an off-track betting facility which offered live racing a couple seasons.
Kelly said he’s hopeful to have a buy soon for the land, which he described as the single largest building site within Colorado Springs city limits. He envisions it as a major redevelopment project that likely will involve removing the old racing facility and starting over.
“With favorable zoning, it can be used for just about anything,” Kelly said.
A bulldozer would be preferable to the rotting hulk that now exists in the eyes of the Cloud family, which owned and operated the park from its inception until they sold it in 2001.
“I feel really sad when I go by there because of the weeds and disrepair,” said Don Cloud, 81, whose wife, Patricia, was the daughter of Jerry and Red Wagner, part of the original ownership group in 1949.
“I feel like they trashed the property,” he said. “Probably the best way to go is to just tear it down.”
It’s painful to see now because of what it meant to his family for so many years.
“All I think of is all the memories we have there for 50 years,” he said wistfully, recalling how Patricia’s parents got involved with the track almost by accident.
Gazette archives from 1949 tell of a race to open.
Attorney Martin Murphy incorporated the Rocky Mountain Kennel Club, won a racing license from the state, secured the site then two miles north of Colorado Springs, ordered concrete poured and a prefabricated steel grandstand erected in the sprint to open.
Jerry Wagner was president of Transit Mix Concrete Co. and won the contract for the track. When Murphy wasn’t able to pay, Wagner took stock in the racing company and he and Red became partners.
A year later, Wagner became president of the club and took over management. Don and Patricia were junior high sweethearts and worked at the track even before they were married in 1954.
“We had five children and every one of them worked at the dog track,” Cloud said. “It’s really has been a family thing for a lot of years.”
A sell-out crowd estimated at 2,500 attended opening night on July 21, 1949. But the first year was difficult with allegations of ticket fraud by management staff and included a near foreclosure.
Soon, however, the business thrived.
By 1955 attendance was reported at a record 165,929 for the three-month season and the track reached $6 million in wagers in 1961. By 1988, the annual total wagered approached $50 million.
Don Cloud recalled the track as a precise choreography of hundreds of staff — about 350 a night during the racing season — selling admission tickets, taking bets, operating the restaurants and snack bars and clubs, taking wagers, counting money, trainers and grooms, recording the results and getting the next day’s programs printed overnight.
And, of course, he fondly remembered the dogs.
“During the season, we’d have 500 or 600 dogs there,” he said. “We raced eight dogs per race with a dozen races a night. So we needed about 100 dogs a night. And they could only race every three days. That’s a lot of dogs.”
The family also diversified, opening a flea market in the spacious parking lot during off-season weekends beginning in 1968. By 1991, the flea market had grown so popular the Cloud family bought 120 acres on East Platte Avenue near Powers Boulevard and relocated it.
And when casino gambling opened in 1991 in Cripple Creek and crowds at the race track began to fade, the family made another strategic move. In 1995 it spent $9 million to open Red and Jerry’s, a huge complex with off-track betting, sports bar and other entertainment options in Sheridan, south of Denver.
The family sold the greyhound park in 2001 and live racing one continued sporadically a couple years, ending in 2005. The track limped along as an off-track betting facility until it closed in 2008 and Kelly’s group bought it a year later.
Meanwhile, the Cloud family spin-off businesses thrive and are managed today by Karen Cloud and her brother, Randy Cloud. And both pay homage to the greyhound park: Red and Jerry’s is named for their grandparents who started the business and the flea market offices are filled with track memorabilia and photos.
I sifted through their scrap books and was amazed at the museum-worthy collection of the oldest form of legal gambling in the state: historic photos, numbered racing blankets worn by the dogs, programs, even the printing plates.
Karen and Randy, like their father Don, are disappointed to see the old race track deteriorate.
“It’s disheartening when I think about what it once was and what has happened to it,” Karen said.
But they are busy carrying on the other businesses and don’t spend much time ruminating on it.
“It’s in our past,” Randy said. “We’ve moved on.”
Rather than mourn the current condition of the track they prefer to laugh at memories, like the wiener dog races that brought out kids and big crowds. Or the “mongrel marathons” that invited the public to bring their pets to run around the oval.
And they smile at the thought of all the people who worked there — typically a staff of 350 or so during the season — and the thousands more who looked forward to evenings at the track.
Randy summed up the family’s thoughts about the old track.
“Our family was blessed to have the opportunity,” he said as Karen nodded. “It was a great 50 years at the track.”