Lebanon Raceway manager reflects on 45-year career

He was like a lot of college students looking for a part-time job, for a few extra bucks.

Mel Hagemeyer, whose family was extensively involved in harness racing in the area, was a sophomore at Ohio State University in 1968 when he took a part-time job in the program department at Lebanon Raceway.

He retired last week.

After 45 years.

Hagemeyer, 65, the general manager at the Warren County harness track for two decades, said he wanted to retire on Dec. 7, the last day of live racing before the track closed and moved its operations to Miami Valley Gaming & Racing on Ohio 63, just off Interstate 75. Lebanon had been his home for most of his life, and he didn’t want to start over in a new place.

“Mr. Lebanon Raceway” didn’t want to change his name.

Hagemeyer, 65, a longtime member of the Warren County Fair Board, will keep his office at the track, at least for a while. He will work a few hours a day, mostly in the morning. When he wants, he will vacation in Las Vegas with two of his good friends, Pacey Mindlin and Lou Carlo, mutual manager at Lebanon Raceway. Since they no longer have responsibilities at the track, they will be in Vegas for the Kentucky Derby, one of the busiest days at Lebanon Raceway.

He also will vacation in Clearwater, Fla., with his wife, Pam.

He no longer is tied to the track. He can leave for more than a few days and not worry about answering his cell phone.

During his career at Lebanon, Hagemeyer served as program director, mutual clerk, paddock judge, director of operations, and since 1992, general manager. When he wasn’t at the track, he probably was asleep.

“This became a way of life,” he said. “It was a 24 hours a day, seven days a week job.”

Carlo, 79, called Hagemeyer “the greatest” and said without his tireless work the track would have closed years ago.

For the last five years, Hagemeyer was one of the driving forces behind getting video terminals legalized at Ohio’s horse tracks. He said the electronic slot machines at the tracks will provide the revenue that will save the horse racing industry in the state.

He said Lebanon had lost 10 percent of its revenue for the last several years and the track would have “gone under” in the next couple of years without the video terminals. The slots are “a big shot in the arm,” he said.

Now, he said, for the first time in years, Ohio tracks can compete with tracks in Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York, which have had slots supplementing their racing. He said the average purse at Lebanon Raceway was $2,500, while it was $4,500 at neighboring states. Within three to four months, Hagemeyer said, the purses at Lebanon will jump drastically.

Live racing will begin at Miami Valley on Feb. 7, 2014, and run five nights a week, Wednesday through Sunday, through May 4, 2014. Miami Valley is a 5/8th-mile track while Lebanon was a 1/2-mile track. He said the reconfigured track and the increased purses will attract the horsemen who abandoned Lebanon for tracks in nearby states.

All because of the slots.

“We finally did it,” Hagemeyer said. “This changes the game. We no longer are on the outside looking in. We’re back.”

Hagemeyer remembers the “glory days” at Lebanon Raceway when the 2,800-seat grandstand was packed on Saturday nights. “It was the place to be,” he said.

On Dec. 7, several of the former drivers at Lebanon Raceway, known as the “Cradle of Drivers,” returned for one last night, and Hagemeyer was presented with a plaque and a proclamation for his years of service. He called the ceremony “very emotional.”

Then he added: “I have a lot of memories here. It’s been 45 years of fun. I wouldn’t change one minute of it.”

And how many college kids can say that?

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