Grilled cheese and reality TV

The Turfway Park plant. Quite an imposing structure.

The Turfway Park plant. Quite an imposing structure.

(This is part two of my spring break chronicle following my travels to Beulah Park and spots in central and northern Kentucky. To see the first installment, click here.)

After my profitable stopover at Beulah Park, I got back on the road and headed toward Florence, Kentucky; home of Turfway Park.

I could see the track from my hotel room, which is one of  those things that sounds insignificant unless you have been in the situation yourself. Turfway or otherwise, being able to look out the window and say “I’m going there tomorrow” is a neat feeling. I would guess this is what being a rock star feels like.

The plan was to head to Turfway Park around noon, watch and wager on the day’s live races and head down to Lexington in time for dinner.

This plan survived up to the point where I was halfway between my vehicle and the front entrance of the track.

On my way toward the building, a frustrated-looking old man walking in the opposite direction told me the day’s live card had been canceled due to a water main break in the barn area. Had I not been to Beulah Park the day before, I might have wept a little. If driving six hours to see a live race is a sign of a gambling problem, driving eight hours for a canceled card could be considered grounds for a nervous breakdown.

With little else to do, I ordered a grilled cheesse sandwich. I don’t know what they do differently, but Turfway Park makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever had. It has the perfect proportions of butter, cheese and bread size. It’s hard to screw up grilled cheese, but it’s even harder to make eating one a priority at a destination, as they have at Turfway. I have been unable to duplicate it back home and the finest culinary scientists in the central Michigan area (see: family and local greasy spoons) have failed to reproduce the formula either. In case you were wondering, the sandwich was excellent, as always.

After a few stabs at the simulcasts from Florida and New York came up empty, I got back on I-75 due south for Lexington.

After settling into my hotel room, my first stop was Keeneland Race Course. I know what you’re thinking. “Holy crap, Joe. Didn’t you get enough action at Turfway Park? You have a problem, man.”

However, I had a legitimate reason. While reorganizing my room a few weeks ago, I came across an uncashed $4 voucher that was either for Churchill Downs or Keeneland. I figured while I was in town, I might as well run it through a machine and see what happens. I turned it into $9. Like I said before, it’s not a problem if you win.

The next couple days were spent catching up with my friends at the Thoroughbred Times and the apartment complex I stayed at during my internship last summer. Between seeing everyone and the record-high temperatures, it was hard to leave Lexington on Wednesday. It’s always hard to leave Lexington. In many ways, I feel more comfortable there than I do in Mount Pleasant. But I digress…

On the way back to mid-Michigan, I decided to give Turfway Park another shot. This time, the races were on.

My first visit to Turfway Park was last March following my interview with the Thoroughbred Times. In brief, I found it to be an enjoyable mid-level track that could benefit from a fresh coat of paint.

Not much had changed since then. Like many winter tracks, the ravages of the elements kept it from looking its best. However, the neat little touches, like the horse head statues placed along the fences and the big, open paddock were still intact. Though the level of racing is a step or two higher than on my native soil and the races are not being run on soil at all, I still felt comfortable at the track.

My first act was to grab the day’s program. My second act was to get a grilled cheese sandwich. Life was good. Life was very good.

After a day where Kentucky saw temperatures climb into the upper 70s to lower 80s, the mercury sunk like a rock. It was just cold enough that wearing a jacket was uncomfortable, but wearing a coat would probably be overkill. Because of this, the number of people out on the apron and on the rail rarely passed double digits. Outside of the horsemen, interested parties, and a few dedicated punters, most everyone stayed indoors.

Having so few people out on the rail can create something of a surreal experience. Things are so quiet. You can hear everything – each individual railbird’s desperate pleas to their chosen horse, the jockeys’ whip cracks and final urgings as they pass the finish line, the discussions between the gate crew members and the eerie silence just before the gates burst open. Watching a horse race is a completely different experience when all you can hear is the race itself.

After the race, you can hear each jockey’s explanation of his ride to the trainer (I don’t remember which one, but someone in the first five races will win if he goes long. Keep it in mind.) and the riders’ conversations between one another as they walk through the apron amongst the scattered racegoers. Then, if you stand under the right TV sets inside the plant, you can listen to the trainers give their spin on the race to the owners as they watch the replay. After only a few races, I felt more in the loop at a non-Michigan racetrack than I ever had before.

It felt like they were putting this all on just for me.  With the access I had just from being in public areas, I became the producer and cameraman of my own reality show, and the people of Turfway Park were the stars. I didn’t need the Animal Planet reality show, this is as real as it gets.

People seemed quite talkative at the track as well. The old guys on the rail were more than willing to talk to me, a complete stranger and a newcomer to the track, about their picks and who they thought was due for a clunker. Maybe they were so thrilled to see somebody new on the rail who half looked like he knew what he was doing that they felt the need to be welcoming. Maybe they saw my Thoroughbred Times hat and thought I was somebody important. Maybe they just liked to B.S. with anybody within earshot. Either way, it added to the experience.

Perhaps you have noticed I have made very little mention of my betting fortunes so far. That’s because I laid a big goose egg for the day. Didn’t cash a single ticket. I played some daily doubles that only hit one leg and some exactas where only one horse hit the board and lost about 20 bucks while I was at it. It still left me about $65 or so ahead for the trip, but it was a big hit to my ego.

Because I had to cover a county road commission meeting back home at 8:30 a.m. the next day and my good vibes had apparently been used up elsewhere, I decided to cut my stay short after race five. As a horseplayer and someone who just likes to see a live horse race, leaving a live card early is a hard thing for me to do, but seven hours on the road laid ahead of me and I needed to get home early enough to get something resembling a good night’s sleep, because like the Beastie Boys mused in “Remote Control,” “things get hectic quick.”

If you can handle racing in the frigid climates, Turfway Park is worth a stop. Parking and admission are free every day except this Saturday’s Lane’s End Stakes day, so you ought to have plenty of money to spend on what I consider to be a member of the holy trinity of racetrack concession stand products (the others being Ellis Park hamburgers and Mt. Pleasant Meadows pretzels circa 2006). If the sandwich does not hook you, the behind-the-scenes tour you will get in front of the scenes ought to do the trick. Just dress warm.

Finally, I would just like to extend my gratitude to everyone who read and commented on my Beulah Park post (the link’s at the top of the page if you want to read it). With the help of sites like the Paulick Report, Equidaily and readers like you, I experienced the two highest-traffic days I have recorded.

I was pleasantly surprised to see such a passionate response to the track considering its size and the fact that Ohio is not considered among the top-tier racing states. Also, I found it ironic that as a Michigan-focused blogger, my most popular entry is about a racetrack in Ohio.

Anyway, I appreciate your visits and comments and hope you all continue to enjoy my posts as much as I enjoy writing them.

Oh, and have a look at how Equidaily labeled my story…

Diehard!… Blogger visits Beulah: “I drove six hours to watch $3,500 claimers lope around in the middle of Ohio just because I hadn’t seen a live race since last November.”

Here are a few pictures from my day at Turfway Park. Hope you like them…


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The Turfway plant. Quite a large place. I actually got myself lost in it the first time I visited the track.

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The Turfway Paddock.

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James Sunseri aboard Codeofthebayou.

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Perfect Vacation (#5) chases down Denham to win the first race.

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Sun Button in the post parade with William Troilo in the irons.

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Sun Button holds off Trip North to win the second race.

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Rodney Prescott unsaddles Cold Feet following the race.

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William Troilo gives us a victory fist pump in the winner’s circle aboard Sun Button.

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One of the lead ponies at Turfway is a mule. This is among the coolest things I have seen at a racetrack.

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Step 1: Silver Digger in the post parade under Casey Chavez.

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Step 2: Silver Digger takes the inside path to beat Just Like Janie in race three.

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Step 3: Chavez and Silver Digger in the winner’s circle.

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Dean Mernagh unsaddles Mather.

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Prince Kong under the shadow of the Turfway paddock.

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A close-up look at the Turfway Park saddlecloth, worn by Prince Kong.

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Stormy Atlantis heads out to the post parade with Leandro Goncalves aboard.

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Dancing Don overtakes Prince Kong to win the fourth race.

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Da Da Da Dum heads to the track under Leandro Goncalves. It seems announcer Mike Battaglia failed to catch the reference to Beethoven’s fifth symphony or just didn’t care (or maybe I’m looking too deep into it), because he pronounced the horse’s name as da DA da DUM instead of sounding like the musical piece. I bet Durkin would have done it…

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They’re off in fifth race at Turfway Park…

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…And there they go.

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Royale With Speed closes to win race five.

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Moe Money and jockey Orlando Mojica come back to unsaddle after the race.

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Thomas Pompell and Distorted Gem gallop back to the grandstand after costing me a daily double.

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Royale With Speed and Rodney Prescott in the winner’s circle.

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12 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time

12 responses to “Grilled cheese and reality TV

  1. I visited Turfway in March 2006 and had a great time (although, not a grilled cheese sandwich, which I now regret). Also did not cash any tickets, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and seeing Polytrack racing (then still a novelty) up close. It is a friendly place, and hanging out by the clubhouse rail does give a pleasant sense of being in the middle of everything. If it were my local racetrack, I’d be a regular.

  2. Nice work Joe,

    It reminded me of the Burritos at Rillito when I was in college. The horses at Rillito may have been cheapbut not as cheap as the burritos.

  3. mibredclaimer

    Jessica,
    “If it were my local racetrack, I’d be a regular.”
    My thoughts exactly.

    You could argue that Polytrack and other synthetic surfaces are still a novelty. Think about all the scrutiny the California platoon recieves on the Derby trail. Of the 120-some racetracks in North America, only nine run on fake dirt, so there is still an element of curiosity to it. I know I often find myself staring down at the stuff trying to figure out what exactly I am looking at.

    John,
    Thanks!

    There are few things more satisfying than finding something trancendent at a racetrack concession stand. Were the Rillito burritos (say that five time fast) good or did the price make them taste better?

  4. Turf Link

    Joe,

    Sounds like your spring break beat the crap out of your classmates! All that and a grilled cheese on top…

    I never paid much attention to the Beulah/Turfway paddocks, but they both look very picturesque.

    Being that he just got back from Florence, does the Haiku Capper have any thoughts on the Lane’s End?

  5. mibredclaimer

    Andrew,
    Yep, my break did rule with authority. Who needs sunshine and alcohol when I have winter racing in the midwest? And the grilled cheese just made it that much better.

    As for the Lane’s End Stakes…

    No time to break down
    Future Derby also-rans
    Let’s go four, six, two

  6. Oooh, I hate to be the nay-sayer. I went to Turfway for the Lane’s End last year and had one of the most awful days I’ve ever had at the races. It was cold and miserable; my reserved table on the ground floor was cramped and the track was barely visible; the buffet was limited and overpriced. The program–which included Turfway only–was a gouging $5.

    On the other hand, I did cash some tickets–including on the feature–and the track probably deserves a second chance, on a non-big race day. But I have to say at this point, when I hear “Turfway,” I have a nearly Pavlovianly negative reaction. And like you, I’m someone who seldom meets a racetrack she doesn’t like…

  7. mibredclaimer

    Teresa,
    Oh sure, just go ahead and be Captain Bringdown…

    Just kidding. I could see that place getting quite uncomfortable on Lane’s End Day. I have very little desire to go there on the big day, especially considering the weak fields it tends to draw.

    I’ve heard other people complain about the program prices at Turfway too, but I don’t recall them being more than two or three bucks. Maybe they learned their lesson or maybe it was a Lane’s End gouging. Either way, that’s definitely unacceptable.

    First impressions can definitely mean a lot when it come to racetracks. One of my least favorite days at the races was actually opening day at Pinnacle, which for me made it all the more crushing. It finally grew on me after a few visits, but it took a while to shake the initial stigmas.

  8. Tim

    Rusty Shackelford,

    You cannot complete a perfect holy trinity of track food without the beer-battered onion rings at Delaware Park. Big underrated props to the Del.
    Sorry i missed you in lexington, hopefully you can get back for Keeneland soon.

  9. mibredclaimer

    Tim,
    Great to hear from you! However, because you have linked me to my secret identity, you must now be eliminated…

    I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of onion rings, but if I ever find myself in Delaware (Like Wayne’s World: “Hi…I’m in Delaware”), I’ll be sure to give them a try. Being as though MPM stopped serving pretzels last year, there is a position open in the holy trinity.

    Sorry I missed you too. I’m going to try to get back down there for Keeneland, but with my punishing class load, it’s probably going to be pretty tough to get away. I’ll keep you posted.

  10. Next time you drive back, I suggest stopping at Lebanon Raceway in Lebanon,Ohio.It is about 30 miles north of Cincinnati off I-71 going back to Columbus.If you like different track concessions this is a must eat place, and you can still bet on 1500 harness claimers.It is Ohio’s smallest track and definetly worth adding to your list of tracks you’ve attended. Keep up the good blogs!

  11. mibredclaimer

    Jerry,
    I saw a few road signs advertising Lebanon Raceway on my way from Grove City to Florence. I was in a bit of a rush to get home, so I couldn’t stop in on my way back, but I’ll try to hit it up if I’m in the area again. Glad you like the blog!

  12. Pingback: 5. Grilled Cheese (Turfway) vs 12. Grilled Cheese (Saratoga) | whatdoibeton

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