For me, it all begins at Mount Pleasant Meadows.
It was at Mount Pleasant Meadows where in 1990 I stood in the winner’s circe for the first time with my grandpa’s horse, and future Echo Hills matriarch, Janie’s Echo. I was four years old. Richard Rettele was the jockey.
Mount Pleasant is also where I picked my first winner, an Arabian colt named Fast Dance, again at the age of four, maybe five. Using all the handicapping prowess I had at the time, I picked the horse with the best name.
Nineteen years later, I was again headed toward the winner’s circle, but an Echo Hills horse hasn’t run at Mount Pleasant in at least 15 years. Instead, I was on my way to get a picture of the race’s victor, Anniversary Annie, a horse I overlooked because her odds were too low to justify the risk. Richard Rettele was the jockey.
No matter what goes on in the outside world, it’s good to know some things never change.
After canceling its initial Kentucky Derby-corresponding opening day due to a lack of entries, Mount Pleasant Meadows kicked off its 2009 meet on Sunday.
It was a cloudy day, and there were still a few puddles on the track from the previous day’s storms. If the track surface does one thing well, it’s holding water.
The place was pretty quiet when I got there, about an hour before first post. People began filing in at a quicker rate as the horses reached the paddock for the first race.
The thing I love most about Mount Pleasant is its communal feel. The trainers and their assistants double as the pony riders, often taking horses other than their own from the barn to the paddock and to the starting gate. From there, the same horsemen put on yet another hat and become the gate crew. Try finding that kind of trust at Churchill Downs.
Speaking of trust, the trainers/outriders/gate men display an awful lot of it before each race. While the trainers saddle their horses in the paddock, they leave their pony horses in the care of whomever is standing near the paddock at the moment. Normally, this means young-to-preteen children, though I sometimes find myself holding one or two on slow or unseasonable days. Parents often look on as their children, usually new to the sport or horses in general, try to figure out what exactly they are holding the reins to. Just as often, the kids get sneezed on.
There are plenty of other things at Mount Pleasant Meadows a racegoer will not see at most tracks. Among them is previously mentioned jockey Richard Rettele, who at the age of 68 continues to be the big money rider at the track. He may not ride in every race, but when he does climb aboard, he usually removes his tack in the winner’s circle. ESPN.com mentioned Rettele in a story it did a few years back about older jockeys, which can be read here.
Also, because Mount Pleasant is a mixed breed track, fans are treated to races of varying distance and horse type. Not good at picking out Arabian closers at five furlongs? Give it a few minutes and a 250-yard quarter horse dash will be on the card. Want to see a paint horse go up against a Thoroughbred? Every once in a while they’ll make it happen.
Only at Mount Pleasant Meadows will you see an 0-for-three years paint horse lose a match race by five lengths, but win by DQ, then see its jockey get jumped by a chipmunk waiting inside the mailbox holding the phone to the stewards after the race.
Despite the attractions of the out-of-the-ordinary, Mount Pleasant Meadows is something of a track in crisis. The number of horses being sent to the gates has dwindled to four or five per race when the cards fill at all. The track is consistently and significantly last in the state in both live and simulcast handle year after year (according to Equibase, the total live handle on opening day was $3,267). Competition from a casino ten minutes away saps away even more of the gambling dollar, and outside of Triple Crown race days, the the live attendance is a long way from robust. Things are tough, and with the economy giving people a tight grip on their cash (especially in Michigan), and the state government’s almost daily report of bad news for the racing industry, thinking about the track’s future can be a little scary.
It’s a surreal experience visiting a track that knows it’s in trouble. Upon cashing a $9 winning ticket, the clerk said, “Hey, that’s pretty good for where you are.” I ended up making about $20 on the day, all from win bets because the fields were not big enough for exacta wagering for all but the last race.
The tension was spread out among the regular racegoers as well. Conversations tended to focus around the people who weren’t there, be it those listed in the program as having passed on, or more frequently those who left to chase bigger purses in Indiana. Notably absent were the pink and black silks of Ron Raper, usually good for 1.5 horses per race, who has moved his operation to the Hoosier state. However, when slots-enriched Indiana Downs is offering more purse money in one quarter horse race than Mount Pleasant is in its entire quarter horse portion of the card, it is hard to blame anyone who takes up a new residence south of the Michigan border.
Still, it was great to be back. It was nice to catch up with the old friends I hadn’t seen since the meet ended last October and introduce myself to new friends I had made through this site. Not everyone may know my name there, but they all knew my grandpa, who was a regular since the track’s opening day 25 years ago.
For all the ragging I do on Mount Pleasant Meadows, it is the one track I always find myself longing for. Throughout my time in Kentucky last summer, I often found myself wondering what was going on at the dirt oval north of town. Simply put, without this track, the course of my life would have been dramatically altered. Hopefully Mount Pleasant can make it through its current struggles, because the racing world would lose something special if the lights go out.
Here are a few looks at opening day at Mount Pleasant Meadows…