04 September 2007

Adventures in Wonderland: Presque Isle Downs

The intrepid Turf Luck travelers have returned from our visit to the first day of racing at Presque Isle Downs. By now, you've read Foolish Pleasure's recaps of the races and heard the Last Filly's disappointment. Now that the excitement and emotion of the first day have worn off, I'll weigh in with my impressions.
Presque Isle Downs as seen from the highway
Situated right off of I-90 at Exit 27, Presque Isle Downs is really, really easy to find. From Pittsburgh, it took us only two hours of pleasant driving -- and no wrong turns! -- before the entrance beckoned us with promises of live racing. Succumbing to the siren lure of the dynamic signage promising live racing, we turned the Quinella Mobile into the main parking lot.

I had been warned that the terrain required a bridge between the parking lot and the casino, so I was not surprised when I found myself walking above butterflies and banks of Joe Pye weed below the bridge. I had not been warned about the greeter at the casino doorway. Unable to spy an entrance directly to the track, we entered the casino where we were welcomed by an aged woman in a fire engine red flapper outfit. Flustered I asked for a map of the track; our sprightly greeter seemed stricken when she discovered none of her brochures included a map. She did however point out the pattern in the rug which would lead us to the buffet, and beyond it, doorways to the track. I had one of those surreal moments when I felt like Dorothy in Oz, as the Good Witch of the North urges her to follow the yellow brick road. (And you know, the King does bear a slight resemblance to the Scarecrow.)

Soon, we were past the slot machines -- which I find I now associate with flying monkeys -- and we entered a bright room with a buffet to one side, wagering windows to the other, and flat screen tv monitors adorning the walls. Brightly colored tables were scattered throughout the large room. Surely we'd arrived at the Emerald City, for through the glass doors across the room, I could spot the gleaming rails surrounding the track.

Once we'd passed through the glass doors, we found ourselves on the trackside patio, lined with a row of silver tables and chairs. At one end of the patio, more teller windows and some tables of Presque Isle merchandise; at the other end, a row of potted shrubs hid the employee smoking area. At 3:00 in the afternoon, it was a delightful place to be. I wanted to sink into a chair, order a drink, and bask in the resort-like feel of the deck with the track sparkling before me.

Instead, I took a trip down the apron, where I discovered that the winner's circle is actually a rectangle. I half-expected the bricks to be yellow, but that's just the flowers.

And yet, even though racing was 2-1/2 hours away, there were cracks in the facade of the Emerald City. For example, it appeared that all of the tables had reserved signs on them. No one knew for whom. (Fortunately, we found a group of five or so tables at the paddock end of the patio that lacked these signs, possibly because the supply had run out.) At any rate, there were only three tables available when we arrived. At 3 o'clock. Two and half hours before the first race. Later arrivals would be relegated to standing or sitting in the three rows of benches on the apron in front of the patio.

Leaving the King (or Scarecrow, whichever you prefer) to handicap at our table, I felt compelled to visit the upstairs dining room. There's a large bar beside a substantial simulcast area on the top level of the upstairs restaurant; beyond this, are tiers of cloth-covered dining tables reminiscent of the Trackside Restaurant at Mountaineer. From the dining area, the view of the track is magnificent. I scampered down to the first row of tables to snap this picture before returning downstairs to snag my free poster and find Randy Moss's handicapping seminar.

As crowds started to arrive, it became apparent that we were in for some disappointment. Rather than continue with Oz-inspired similes and metaphors, I'll just spell them out here:

* Too few employees had been briefed on the day's schedule. Not one of the employees in business attire was quite sure about where Randy Moss would be holding his handicapping seminar -- or when. Not even the woman handing out media passes could answer this question. All of these staffers had "Marketing" on their name tags. Fortunately, I found Barbara, an employee wearing the casino uniform of blue vest and tan pants. I suspect that Barbara is far down the totem pole from the suited ones, but she not only knew where Moss would be, but who he was. She also knew that there 2500 posters to be given out to track patrons. Sadly, there were still some available after the last race, probably because no one, not even our Good Witch Flapper, told patrons they were there.

* There is no grandstand, indoors or out. By four o'clock, it was obvious that this was gonna be a problem. People had no where to sit down, and as they mingled on the apron, it became apparent that the track would not be visible from the lovely deck. Later, I discovered the race was not visible even from the apron, unless you were right on the rail. At right is my view from the patio.

* The brand new infield tote board does not have video capability. This would allow outdoor patrons a view of the race, something that was impossible on Saturday.

* The call could not be heard at the rail. At least not for the first race. I don't know if this was a technical problem or an oversight, but I do know that I had no idea what was going on for 99% of the first race. Not wishing to be in that situation again, I stayed at our table for the remainder of the card. By the fourth, I was standing on my chair during the race. As you can see at right, I might have teetered precariously, but at least I could see the horses.

* Poor traffic paths throughout the facility. I admire the experiment of mingling the buffet crowd with the simulcast area, as it seems to have two benefits: the slots players who come for the buffet disperse the air of desperation and exclusiveness that clings to off-track betting areas while at the same time, the arrangement exposes slots players to the excitement of racing as they refuel. However, the layout of the facility requires customers to carry their plates, piled high with morsels from the buffet, through the lines of folks waiting to make their bets. Also, the idea of having a hot dog stand, the stairway to the upstairs restaurant, the elevators, and the buffet all converge at the same point seems unwise to me.

* Not enough windows or machines were available. The lines for the inside tellers extended to the doors to the patio; outside, the lines were nearly as long, and often the queue extended down the stairs from the patio to the apron. Overall, it was extremely difficult to move. Lines for machines were little better, and generally moved slower, as many bettors were unfamiliar with the operation of the wagering machines, and slowed down the lines. Most worrisome to me was the breakdown of some of the outdoor machines later in the day. Somehow, I thought these were new machines and thus, less likely to fail.

Some of the other disappointments of the day were definitely technical difficulties that I assume are rather easy to fix: lights on half the patio didn't ever come on (yes, I was handicapping by candlelight!), and many of the heaters on the patio went out (and yes, that gentle lake breeze can be chilly!). Other mishaps could have been avoided fairly easily; for example, maybe someone could have checked Randy Moss's microphone before he actually needed it.

Still, there's a lot to like about Presque Isle Downs. The paddock is much nicer than Mountaineer's, and the general atmosphere is more resort-like. I loved being able to buy a drink or place a bet without going inside. The fact that it's the only track in the U.S. running races on Tapeta may lead to some interesting visitors. And I have to thank whomever was responsible for bringing Randy Moss to town; he was really accommodating to the fans and dealt with the technical difficulties gracefully. I overheard him conversing with someone about the West Virginia Derby, which Moss covered for ESPN. The fan mentioned how nice West Virginia was, and Moss concurred that yes, there was some beautiful country near Weirton before adding, "but this is nicer."

I agree. OK, it's not the Emerald City, it's an Emerald Village, but what with the state of racing nowadays, that may be enough reason to start shopping for some ruby slippers.


Valerie said...

Fabulous! You did a great job of giving me a sense of the place. Actually, much of it sounds like Charles Town, except there, in addition to the trackside apron, there is an air-conditioned grandstand (a real one!). That part missing from PID really bothers me. Unless they are content with merely simulcasting the races without actually having to deal with patrons at the track, they really should have thought to put in real seating. Have they condemned themselves to that? What a wasted opportunity, if they wanted to become a destination, and a real diservice to the taxpayers of PA who funded this project. Hopefully they can get some of the logistical issues dealt with soon...

alan said...

But 1) did you have fun? and 2) do they have quinellas?

Saratoga Shawn said...


With much curiousity, I tuned into night 2 of Presque Isle Downs at Sports Haven here in CT. I have to say it was some of the worst camera work I ever saw. The frame shook as if the wind was blowing or more like how it did in those old stadiums when the fans jumped around in the stands. I could not follow the races. Also, the host of the broadcast -- although fairly informative -- talks as if we're all beginning horseplayers and he refers to the horses as "animals" too often as in: "12-1 is a great price on this animal."

suebroux said...

What?!? No infield Jumbotron?!? How in the world am I suppose to view race replays so I can watch, dumbfounded, that my "sure thing" that I have piled a heap of money on, really did come in last?!?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your detailed report of Presque Isle. I've been thinking about making a trip up to Erie to have a look. Curious about the tapeta track and am unlikely to get a closer look any time soon.

It seems after all the preparations, there were several things missing at the opening besides the seats for spectators. Read that horsemen were greeted by gravel bottomed stalls as the rubber matting had not arrived!

Thanks again for your account of the facilities.

Lorilei said...

Wow -- no grandstand??
I'd love to forward this info to TPTB at Presque Isle Downs.

I hope my home track (Kentucky Downs) doesn't disappoint people too badly during our own upcoming live racing meet (where I work as a parimutuels teller), and so inspire a negative account in a blog.

And, most of all, I want to know the CORRECT pronunciation of this track name! Is it "presk"? Or "press-cue"? Or "priesk"? Or one of the many other names I've heard, some too terrible to repeat? I've had people referring to it as "Prison Island" "Pikachu," this week.

Clever blog! I'm bookmarking it. :)

Rising Rainbow said...

Two hours of driving, that would be enough to do me in. I have to go a half hour and I'm complaining. I guess I better appreciate what I've got!!

We don't have quinella's though! That is disappointing.

Lorilei said...

I'm back!
According to Merriam-Webster Online dictionary, the correct pronunciation of this area is something like "press-kyle," almost as if it's one word.

I forgot to confirm that, no, there are no quinillas. They still have exacta boxes, though, so take heart.

Karen said...

I'm surprised that you did not list among your disappointments the fact that a horse was killed during the inaugural race. Of course racing types never use the word "killed". They use polite euphemisms like "broke down" and "vanned off". As an Erie resident and a PA taxpayer I do not lament that there is no grandstand at PID. I lament the two horses that have already given up their lives for your viewing and betting pleasure. And I also deeply lament the more "breakdowns" and "van offs" that will inevitably occur.

Susan said...

Hadn't really thought about how cruel and inhumane horse racing is until I witnessed a horse trip and fall at Presque Isle Downs yesterday.( my first ever horse race) The horse was euthanized on the track and everyone went on their merry way.

Horses have no choice in participating in this very dangerous " sport". I will never go to a horse race again.