06 August 2007

WV Derby: thumbs up ... and down

It's been a week, and I find I've been having trouble summarizing West Virginia Derby Day, possibly because I always try to follow my mom's old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Today, it dawned on me that perhaps if you do say something nice, you've earned the right to offer some criticism, at last freeing me to share some impressions of Mountaineer's Big Day:

Thumbs up:

* Mountaineer's new "signature" Derby drink: The Perfecta. For $3.50, one could obtain a refreshing concoction of lemonade and vodka served in a souvenir Derby glass. I may have enjoyed these a tad too much, as our supply of souvenir glasses filled the entire top rack of my dishwasher on Sunday.

* B.E.Taylor's soulful rendition of the national anthem. It's always shocking, and delightful, to hear a live performance of music at the track, even if it's only the Star-Spangled Banner.

* The WV Derby undercard. Eight other stakes races were run at Mountaineer on Saturday, and Steve Asmussen won two of them with a pair of impressive young 'uns: Crackalackin, who won the Mountaineer Juvenile Stakes by 4-1/2 lengths and Elocution, who won the Mountaineer Juvenile Fillies Stakes by 5. There's some nice coverage of the day's other winners at Bloodhorse.

* The WV Derby. A breath-taking finish to this one, as you can tell from Peter Berry's fine call on the replay (NTRA). Asmussen won this as well, with Zanjero, but Bwana Bull gave him a run for his money.

* Bernie Blue. Gotta love this gelding and his win in the WV Legislature Chairman's Cup Sprint. Here's his line from the chart of the 4-1/2f run: "blew by the pacesetter in upper stretch drawing off in the three path for a convincing win." Six lengths -- convincing, indeed!

* M B Sea. Though M B Sea won the 2005 running of the Governor's Stakes, my companions thought the 8-year-old might have lost a step and went with Mr. Pursuit. I passed on this one, so was free to cheer wildly as M B Sea pounded past Mr. Pursuit in the stretch winning by 7 lengths.

* Beautiful Venue. Though three horses scratched on the filly & mare turf event, leaving a poor wagering opportunity, the WV Senate President's Breeders' Cup Stakes (or as we call it, "The Lady Grace Stakes") was still pretty exciting as the youngest of the entrants, 3-yo Beautiful Venue emerged victorious from a speed duel with Afleet Angel while setting a track record for 1mile 70 yards.

* Rex Stokes. The King has often opined that Mountaineer regular Rex Stokes III could ride with the best, and on Saturday, Stokes faced some top-notch names, as Robbie Albarado, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Mark Guidry brought their skills to West Virginia for the day. Stokes held his own against the big boys, riding 4 winners on Derby Day -- Beautiful Venue, M B Sea, Country Diva, and Cowboy Hardware -- with Bridgmohan taking 3 races (the Asmussen entries). Mountaineer regular Deshawn Parker piloted Bernie Blue to his win, Albarado took the final race with Buckeye Buddy, and Guidry, who'd hoped to win three WV Derbies in a row, was shut out.

Thumbs down:

* The new "No coolers allowed" rule. This seemed harsh in the 90+ degree heat. Apparently many of the early arrivals were as surprised as I was to discover that Mountaineer had instituted a new policy and beefed up security to enforce it. Since the program says only "Bottles, Cans, or other containers of alcoholic beverages are not permitted to be brought into Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort," one might assume that unopened bottles of Aquafina and cans of Diet Dr. Pepper might be permitted. One would, apparently, be mistaken.

* The construction throughout the track's interior. Though I knew Mountaineer had been remodeling the ground floor of the track facility for some time now, I assumed that the work would be complete for the track's showcase day. ESPN was there, for goodness sakes! Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss, as well as 14,000 fans, got to walk past a quarter of the mutuel windows and a substantial part of the interior wrapped from ceiling to floor in some dirty white plastic sheeting. I tried hard not to be offended by the signs stating "Please pardon our construction as we upgrade our property," since the part of the construction that is finished -- the newly unveiled simulcast area -- is really lovely, with glistening monitors at roomy cubicles, and its own teller counter. If only those construction signs hinted at some customer, rather than stockholder, benefit.

* No cameras allowed. Yes, dear readers, for two years, I have been committing some sort of Mountaineer crime. That photo of Punk, those pics of the paddock -- all apparently in violation of a Mountaineer rule! A security official told me to "bury my camera at the bottom of my purse or it would be confiscated." Of course, your ever polite Quinella Queen complied, but I did ask why this was necessary. After stumbling a bit for an answer -- apparently nobody else asks these kinds of questions -- the official informed me that "people don't want their pictures taken, the numerous dignitaries, for example. You can't ever take photos at the track."

Huh? Though I did bury my camera and its brand new batteries in the bottom of my seemingly bottomless purse, there was much muttering at the Turf Luck table. Some questions we would have liked to ask, but didn't:

What dignitaries? The politicians who give the trophies for the events named for their positions? When was the last time you met a politician who didn't want to be photographed? And why is it ok to take photos at Saratoga, Keeneland, Churchill Downs? Are these not tracks? Are these not tracks that attract much more illustrious dignitaries than we can hope to see in Chester, WV?

The only answer we could derive, with the help of a few of those Perfecta drinks, was that Mountaineer is not really a track -- it's a slots palace with a track on the side, so slots rules are the rules. I suspect the ban on cameras is due to the fear that some camera-wielding slots spy will sneak upstairs and take a picture of the blinking lights that denote the real business at Mountaineer.

Sigh. Even on Derby Day, with ESPN covering the race, and Jerry Bailey sitting twenty feet away, even on this kind of a day -- it's not really about the horses, the trainers, the jockeys, the track records. It's not about the fans. Nope. It's all about the slots, baby.

Here, dear readers, is my last photo from Mountaineer. I took it prior to my encounter with security, about 2 hours before the first post.

Mountaineer Racetrack Paddock
Look at it, and imagine that it's five hours later in the day. Imagine it's twenty minutes before the West Virginia Derby. Imagine a group of seven or so, standing in the fresh mulch to the left of the ring of greenery before the horses arrive. Imagine this group of six or so men and one woman are all in race day finery. At the center of the group, there's a small gentleman wearing a suit and fedora talking with great animation. Every eye in the group is riveted on this dapper little man as Pete Anderson, former jockey of Forego, current trainer of Delightful Kiss, regales some of his rivals with a track story that causes the group to break into grins. It is a lovely scene, capturing that calm before the race routine begins and a respect among competitors, that hints at the marvel and mystery of racing.

It's an image I'll carry with me in my mind, because, of course, that's the only way: you can't take pictures at the track.


Neal said...

Good report on Derby Day! I wish I had gone.

No cameras? What's up with that? I love taking photos of race horses.

No coolers? Sad. Back in the day when I used to go up to Waterford Park, they had Double Headers on the holidays, a full afternoon and evening card. We'd bring our lawn chairs and coolers full of beer and sit on the apron all day drinkin' beer and pickin' winners.

photogchic said...

Steve Asmussen is a jerk and should be banned from racing horses. He should be booed everytime he runs for drugging his horses the way he does. Cocaine in his milkshakes??? The industry needs to step up and bar him. Anyone who loves the sport should protest this guy. To bad so many great horses end up in his care.

Rising Rainbow said...

I've already previously stated where I stand on old Stevie Boy!! so won't waste my breathe again.

But what no camera's at the racetrack. Then they wonder why attendance is dropping off. Did it ever occur to them that people sharing their pics from the track with the friends might look like so much fun the friends might want to go next time. How dumb can some people be?? They definitely haven't a clue about good PR!!

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for your exclusive Derby Day report. I decided not to go because of the heat and humidity, so I did appreciate hearing from someone who was on the ground.

I'm not surprised at the no liquor, no drinks of any kind rule. Perhaps it was not previously enforced as it used to be in the past both at "old Waterford" and at the Meadows. Maybe the mob doesn't hold the concessions contract anymore. When they did, that was one of the quickest ways to be escorted from the grounds at either place (even at the Old Show's former antiques show at the Meadows, but ONLY if you tried to sell soft drinks, water, etc.)

The ban on photos and cameras is shocking. I think you have figured out why, but it's insane to have a photo ban on the horses IMO.

Again, thank you. Your account was much appreciated.