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Long shots never win here

Fair Meadows Race Track—free entry, full bar, 10-cent minimum bet

Horses racing in 1922

Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

How to bet at the horse tracks: walk up to a wagering window, state the race number, amount to bet, type of wager,1 and horses’ numbers—in that order. There’s an automated kiosk too, but it’s more fun when a pretty brunette watches you set your money on fire.

I placed an exacta box bet on Paleface Kitty (horse #6) and Comin N Hot (horse #2).2 

I grabbed a Jack & Sprite from the outside bar near the betting window and found an open metal picnic table overlooking the mile-long oval track. I scrutinized the program, confused by all the data and sure I’d just placed a bad bet. As if on cue, a man wearing a pink-and-black Hawaiian shirt and red reading glasses walked up. 

“Anyone sitting here, girlfriend?”

He looked like he knew something I didn’t. 

I introduced myself and said I didn’t know what I was doing. Which horses did he like for the sixth race, I asked, and how the hell do you bet on horses, anyway?

He told me the first rule: don’t bet your rent money. Good advice, I thought. 

He was up $300 from the day before and told his wife he brought $100 “to piss away” and “have fun.”

But when that $100 is gone? Dig around in your pocket for the $20 your wife doesn’t know about, he said. 

Paleface Kitty actually came in first, but WI Homeboy (horse #5) placed second and my other pick trailed in third—I could’ve won if I’d gone for the trifecta. 

“You gotta stay in the game,” my new friend said. 

The ice in my drink was melting quickly. A man in a cowboy hat and denim joined our table. He said he had his eye on the #10 horse, Swayed Senator, for the next race. With 12–1 odds, he’s a young horse with modest stats. But, the cowboy noted, he’s got a hell of a jockey and the data showed that when he’s fast, he’s fast. He explained a little about what to consider when betting: speed index, jockey, lineage. 

“Long shots never win here,” the cowboy said. For the better bettors, like this man, this is a numbers game. 

At the paddock, where the horses are corralled between the track and the betting window, bettors sized-up the ungulate contenders, trying to glean insights not available in the program. A bugle rang out in the air. 

“Fiiiive minutes to post!” the announcer’s voice boomed. 

Horses, jockeys, and trainers sauntered toward the track. This post parade is a long walk for a short race, but it lets spectators and bettors take a closer look at the horses. 

And they’re off! 

There, north of the Golden Driller’s shadow, between the old Big Splash and the old Drillers stadium, it’s difficult not to see the horse and jockey as a single creature.  

Swayed Senator placed first. The cowboy punched the air, victorious.

Live races at Fair Meadows (4609 E. 21st St.) run from early June through late July, typically Thursday through Sunday, with occasional events on Wednesdays, starting at 5pm.

1) This is the trickiest part. Typically, you’ll bet exacta, trifecta, or superfecta, which means you wager on the two, three, or four horses to place (respectively). If you “box” them that means the order to show doesn’t matter. 

2) The best horses’ names always sound like the white cards in Cards Against Humanity.


1903 | Tulsa County Free Fair begins at Archer Street and Boston Avenue. Horse races, baseball, and fireworks are popular.

1913 | Fairgrounds move to Archer Street and Lewis Avenue. 

1914 | Oklahoma Governor Lee Cruce declares martial law over the fairgrounds to stop gambling.

1916 | All gambling becomes illegal in Oklahoma.

1921 | Thousands of black people are detained at the fairgrounds following May 31–June 1 race massacre.

1923 | Fairgrounds move to between 15th and 21st streets. 

1951 | Bell’s Amusement Park moves to Expo Square.

1982 | Horse racing becomes legal in Oklahoma.

1984 | Tulsa Speedway closes after noise complaints. 

1989 | Fair Meadows Race Track opens at 15th Street and Yale Avenue. 

1992 | Fair Meadows’ average daily attendance is 7,309.

2004 | Creek, Osage, and Cherokee nations agree to pay Fair Meadows $2 million collectively to not host Class III electronic gambling systems, like slot machines, every year. 

2011 | “The live meet at Fair Meadows Racetrack has become an embarrassment, with pari-mutuel clerks unable to provide change and TV monitors so foggy viewing is impossible,” Kevin Canfield writes in the Tulsa World. Fair Meadows live racing season totals a loss of $823,819.

2017 | Demolition project currently is in progress at Fair Meadows. Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association Executive Director Debbie Shauf says: “It should be a lot nicer than the old grandstand.”

For more from Kathryn, read her article on OK Freewheel.