11 September 2008

Looking for a little love at Presque Isle Downs

Here at the Quinella Castle, we're beginning to feel the ramifications of breaking up with Mountaineer. It's been more than a month since we last crossed the state lines to play the ponies, and the absence of live racing has left us listless, with ample time on our hands to actually do the yard work and clean closets. Likewise, that easy excuse for avoiding annoying family commitments is gone; where once I could glibly say, "Nope, sorry, we won't be able to make it to second-cousin-once-removed's step-daughter's dance recital; I think we're going to the track that day," now I find myself accepting all sorts of painful invitations.

So, of course, we have been trying to find another track to fill the void. Proud Pennsylvanians that we are, we've found ourselves considering venues in the Keystone State. Twice in the past month, we've sallied forth to Presque Isle Downs in northeast Pennsylvania. While I'll admit to a twinge of angst at visiting another track owned by Mountaineer Gaming, it's off-set by the virtue of supporting my home state's racing efforts.

Last year, we visited Presque Isle twice: opening day and Master's Stakes Day. Though Presque Isle has made some "enhancements" since then (as was announced on the racino's anniversary), nothing major has been changed. Still no grandstand, and of course, no jumbotron.

Still, it seems as if there are more tables on the patio, and the interior has been rearranged, offering a modest improvement to the traffic patterns. The line for the buffet still extends to the front of the elevators, but it doesn't seem to be blocking access to the stairs as was the case last year. A low wall now divides the buffet area from the simulcasting area, and the ticket windows have been relocated to the wall opposite the buffet, so tray-toting buffet-goers won't be wandering through the ticket lines with their prime rib platters. Bottlenecks do occur where the buffet enclosure funnels those headed from the casino (or the buffet, the upstairs dining room, the restrooms) through a narrow walkway to the simulcast area. And, since the only door between inside and outside is in the simulcast area, this could become a major bottleneck indeed.

However, on the nights we visited, the crowds were manageable. We were on hand for the $100,000 Windward Stakes, and the King and I were able to snag a table 30 minutes before the first race. As the evening progressed, all of the patio tables filled up, and there were folks on every bench. Lines at the windows got long, but never too long, and there was a certain electricity in the air, due, I suspected, to the appearance of Michael Matz's Street Sounds in the feature event. (Street Sounds finished fourth to the gray trifecta of Graham Motion's Drop a Line, Michael Trombetta's Spectacular Malibu, and Merrill Sherer's Trainee.) I'd estimate the crowd of outdoor racegoers to be in the neighborhood of 3000 or so. It was a comfortable crowd, and I was delighted to see so many groups of 20-somethings and families with school-age children milling about.

On our second visit of the year, the feature race was a $50,000 claiming race -- and the crowd was only a tad smaller. I noticed a number of racegoers stopping to chat at other tables or shaking hands across the patio railing. A friendly group of regular horseplayers seems to be growing in Erie, and apparently, even on an off-night, there's a bit of a buzz in the air.

Personally, I really enjoyed the fact that drinks, snacks, and wagering can all be had without stepping inside -- and one can spend the entire night without hearing the incessant bing! bing! bing! of the casino's slot machines. Also, I find twilight racing has a certain charm that simply enchants me. Twilight, where the weary may find repose as the gentle breeze ripples the pages of the Form, the sun sinks below the horizon, and still the horses circle the paddock in rhythm with the cosmos. Then the bell sounds, bringing with it the cathartic combination of hope and adrenaline that may revive even the jaded psyche.

OK, yes, I'm a sucker for an evening on the veranda at twilight. But truly, for sheer sensual pleasure, the patio at Presque Isle Downs beats Mountie's l'il ole deck by a mile.

Local media has been kind to Presque Isle Downs, with the Erie Times-News featuring articles about the racetrack and jockeys. Also, the track, following in the success of Mountaineer's simulcast team of Mark Patterson and Nancy McMichaels, recently hired youthful Katie Mikolay and the more mature Ron Mullis(pic) to provide some pre-race patter. (On the nights that we attended, Katie's picks did a tad better than Ron's, but were also a bit chalkier.) Reportedly, the two also co-host the "Saturday Morning Works" program featuring interviews as well as comments on the workouts.

Perhaps because the track is new, perhaps because it's in a bigger town that has tourist attractions and colleges, perhaps because Pennsylvania is the only state to have a gaming commission postion dedicated to racing, or perhaps it's just because I'm still miffed with Mountaineer -- whatever the reason, we enjoyed our evenings at Presque Isle Downs quite a bit more than our recent outings to West Virginia. Can't say I'm ready to go steady with Presque Isle yet, since e-mails I sent in July still haven't garnered a response -- but, hey, there's nothing wrong with flirting, right?


kevin morris said...


Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog. I haven't completely devoured your break up with Mountaineer, but can tell you that the place quit being a race track the day that the machines rolled in.

I fell in love with horse racing at Waterfor Park (pre casino Mountaineer). It did not matter to me that I was playing $1200 claimers. I just enjoyed the game and to those people the horses on the grounds and at local farms were the kings.

Now racing is hidden in the corner as an excuse play poker. It hurts.

I agree that Presquele is doing a nice job promoting the races so far. It is a nice place to play the races.

I hope that they don't go broke soon. I also enjoyed Commodore Downs in Erie. I think they struck out twice . . .


QQ said...

@kevin morris: OK, I get the point about the linebacker ... but what if there aren't any QBs in my neighborhood?

@anonymous - Welcome! I suspect you're right about Mountaineer's racing taking a dive once the machines moved in, and I gotta admit, it doesn't feel the same since they added the poker stuff. What's funny, is that I've read that a number of poker fans don't like the low ceilings on the ground floor. I really thought the second floor would be a better fit...for poker and for racing. I'm trying hard not to like Presque Isle, but golly, a girl's gotta play!

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