Eat. Bet. Drive.

The best damn burger in racing can be found at Ellis Park. The burger alone makes the eight hour drive totally worth it. Every time before I eat one, I photograph it just so I can remember the experience. It's that good.

My evening at Hoosier Park was just the first leg of my swing through the Midwest.

Over the five days of my road trip, I visited four tracks in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Because each stop after Hoosier Park was a repeat visit, this post will lump together the remainder of my voyage with a series of photos.

Picking up where we left off last time, I hopped in my Trailblazer and headed south for Ellis Park. After spending about four and a half hours driving the roughly 280 miles from my home base to Anderson, Ind. the previous day, I traversed another 270-odd miles over another four and a half hours to get to Henderson, Ky.

Over the journey, I re-introduced myself to the soundtrack from the film Crazy Heart. Aside from being an outstanding arrangement of songs, driving around the countryside and hitting a different town every night can make a person feel like Bad Blake pretty quickly. You know, minus all the whiskey. Like any good road playlist, it just seemed to fit the situation.

When I start comparing myself to imaginary washed-up country singers, it’s time to get on with the story.

Behind the jump are photos and tales from the rest of my journey after leaving Hoosier Park.

Ellis Grandstand

The Ellis Park grandstand. Not seen behind my vantage point was the track’s expansive picnic area and pavilions for dining and betting. Until I went to Arlington Park, I considered Ellis to have the best public picnic area I have seen at a racetrack. It still comes in a close second.

Ellis Park has a unique atmosphere to it, almost like a county fair. The mutuel tellers all wear Hawaiian shirts. People in the pavilions crowd around the large oscillating fans trying to get some relief from the heat (because it’s never not hot at Ellis Park). Cornhole boards and bean bags are provided, which is pretty great. I impressed some onlookers when I scooped up a bean bag on the walk and sunk it without breaking stride on my way to the rail. That was huge. Anyway, the track does a great job of keeping patrons entertained should there be a lull in the action.

Peoria Star

Peoria Star is led around the paddock under the watchful eye of the track’s water tower.

2 Biblionico - Victo Lebron 9 Shofar - Corey Lanerie

Shofar (#9, inside) and Corey Lanerie do battle with Biblionico (#2) and Victor Lebron down the muddy stretch.

Between the time I got back to my hotel from Hoosier Park at about 2 a.m. and the time I woke up around 7 a.m., an apparent monsoon hit the Kentuckiana region, because everything was soaked when I stepped out the door in the morning. This turned Ellis’ dirt course into a mud pit. As the day wore on, though, the unrelenting sun helped upgrade the track condition from “sloppy” to “muddy”.

Classic Chant - Greta Kuntzweiler

Classic Chant heads to the wire unchallenged with Greta Kuntzweiler in the saddle.

Little Shimmer 3

Little Shimmer gives her handlers trouble as they make their second attempt at getting the saddle on her back. They would eventually be successful, but she would later break loose approaching the starting gate and get herself scratched.

Ellis Stretch 6

I was eventually met at Ellis Park by Thoroughbred Times news editor Ed DeRosa. He managed to land a table in the track’s Turf Club, so we spent much of the time between races out of the heat and in the comforts of air conditioning. The Turf Club appeared to be a popular hangout for the jockeys’ wives, as that is where we found Jon Court’s wife (a couple some of you may remember from the Animal Planet series “Jockeys”) at a table with several other women who looked to be in a similar situation. They were eventually joined by Court himself.

Later, we met up with Ellis’ director of development Mark Geary, who led us to the roof. As you can see, it is an amazing view. The infield, planted with peas and harvested for charity (hence the track’s affectionate nickname, the “pea patch”), rippled as the wind blew through the leaves. The track is literally in the middle of a huge, planted field, so crops in the distance reached as far as the eye could see.

Ellis 8-21 Race 5

The start of a turf race, as seen from the roof.

Ellis 8-21 Race 5f

The conclusion of that race, won by Ann’s Approval and Amanda Tamburello.

Jenna's Lemon - Oriana Rossi 5

A muddied Jenna’s Lemon is led to the winner’s circle with an equally muddied Oriana Rossi aboard.

After the races, Ed and I went to the Log Inn; a restaurant that gained its claim to fame because Abraham Lincoln once looked in the building’s general direction, or something along those lines. The food was good, but the visit was highlighted by my discovery of a dollar bill in a crack in the wall. Considering the restaurant’s ties to Lincoln, it would have been more fitting to find a five dollar bill, but free money is free money. I had registered another goose egg at the windows during the day’s races, so it was not my place to complain.

Riverside Downs 2

Before departing Henderson the next day, I decided to look into this sign that had been taunting me for the last two years. Riverside Downs is a former harness and Quarter Horse track that burned down twice in 2008, following previous fire incidences in 2003 and 2005. After its shuttering as a pari-mutuel facility in 1990, Riverside Downs lived on as a training facility. I was under the impression the last fire did the place in, but I had heard tell from people much more in the know than myself that there were still horses stabled there. Only as I write this did I discover that Riverside Downs had ceased training operations in 2009. Knowing that probably would have saved me a lot of time.

Riverside Downs

After driving down a narrow stretch of road, I came upon what appears to be the former entrance of Riverside Downs. A chain link gate kept me from going much deeper into the facility, but from what I could see, there was not a whole lot going on. The area was so grown up with plant life that it was hard to tell where the action was supposed to be if it were indeed still open, but things sure looked quiet. Because I was on a schedule to make it to my next stop by first post, I decided against investigating any further for a different, more functional entrance, or at least a break in the fence in which to trespass.

Actlikealady - Lawrence Cooper

Actlikealady goes through the post parade with Lawrence Cooper in the sulky.

About 200 miles and three and a half hours on the road later, I was in Lexington. After unloading my suitcase and resting for a moment, I hit the third leg of my Midwest swing, The Red Mile. I have made no secret in the past that harness racing is not really my thing. My only other visit to a Standardbred track was at The Red Mile during my internship with Thoroughbred Times back in 2008. The first horse I bet on broke stride and finished last; at which point I realized I didn’t belong there. However, the notion of hitting four tracks in five days was enough for me to give harness racing a second chance.

Red Mile 8-22 Race 1a

A field of pacers gets ready for the start of the first race.

Shortly after the first field crossed the wire, I met up with Lexington-by-way-of-Long Island photographer Ian Lozada. Though Ian was a little better versed in the ways of harness racing than I, the two of us still spent a good portion of the night trying to teach ourselves the nuances of the different program and cursing my luck as I stared a third straight 0-fer dead in the face.

Josh Seelster - Alvin Parker

Josh Seelster trots past the grandstand with Alvin Parker manning the reins.

The backward nature of Standardbred racing continued to taunt me throughout the night. In one particular race, I cheered home the leader and the second place horse sporting a white saddlecloth to complete my exacta. In any other form of horse racing outside of those goofy purple Breeders’ Cup saddlecloths, a white saddlecloth denotes the number two horse – the one I had bet on. In harness racing, a white saddlecloth is worn by the number three horse. My victorious fist pump had to be annulled, and this upset me a great deal.

1 Mid West Hottie 5 Knock It Off A

A field of pacers gets ready to go as the gate folds up.

7 MM's Shocking Guy - Dan Noble 5 Knock It Off A - Track Tetrick 1 Mid West Hottie - Brad Kramer

MM’s Shocking Guy and Dan Noble lead the field into the final turn.

Despite my confusion over what was going on most of the time, the venue was not bad for watching races. There was a nice ledge for leaning that spanned down the stretch, separating the apron from the trackside box seats (imagine the brick ledge that Charlie Brown and Linus would often lean against, except instead of discussing the existential issues of life, they were trying to crack an exacta). However, the box seats were open to everyone, so it was not hard to get one of the best seats in the house.

As the night wore on, the lights around the track turned on and the Lexington skyline stood out in the background. In terms of racetrack backdrops, The Red Mile has one of the better ones I have seen.

Tiaras Bluff - Brad Hanners 1

Tiara’s Bluff and Brad Hanners prepare to cross the wire in front.

Sugar Nips - Mark Evers 1

The winner of the above race is named Sugar Nips. No idea how the horse’s connections got away with that one. Needless to say, the announcer was having a good time announcing Sugar Nips on the lead at each point of call and crossing the wire.

Red Mile 8-22 Race 6

A field of pacers enters the first turn.

After a night of frustration and cursing the sport of harness racing, the three-day, three-track winless streak was finally snapped in the 12th and last race on the card. The payoff from the exacta was enough to put me ahead about $10 for the night and left me with a good feeling as I walked out to my vehicle. For now, I am willing to call a truce between myself and harness racing. I won’t be seeking out Standardbred tracks to play at the neighborhood simulcast, and I still intend to make the sulkies the whipping post of several jokes, but I won’t mean it as much as I did in the past. If I should ever make it down for the Quarter Horse races, we may get along just fine someday.

RD Grandstand

After a day of rest, relaxation, reunions and spending way too much money at CD Central in Lexington, I packed back up and headed north an hour and a half and roughly 85 miles to Cincinnati’s River Downs. I got to the track just as the first field prepared to enter the gates.

2 Homeroom Angel - Dean Sarvis 4 Princess Kaylyn

Homeroom Angel (#2, Outside) and Dean Sarvis power down the middle of the track to win the day’s opener. Horse racing would be better if more horses were named after J. Geils Band lyrics.

After this race, I headed to the photog office to hang out with Track Photographer Emily (not to be confused with Sale Guru Emily or Assistant Trainer Emilie from previous stories). As someone with a working knowledge of the happenings and history of River Downs, it was fun hearing all the inside stories that made a $5,000 Ohio-bred claiming race fascinating.

Arturo Perez 2

For a mid-to-lower rung racetrack, River Downs has one of the more scenic paddock and walking rings around. As such, it provides for many different photo opportunities like the one.

Arturo Perez waits for his mount in the River Downs paddock.

Twin Cove - Arturo Perez

Twin Cove and Arturo Perez in the post parade.

5 Just Otis - Hactor Rosario, Jr. 7 Mickey's Rib - Gabriel Lagunes

Just Otis (#5) and Hector Rosario, Jr. battle Mickey’s Rib (#7) and Gabriel Lagunes as they come down the stretch.

Not long after this race, I heard “Joe Nevills, please report to the press box” over the track’s public address system. Track announcer Pete Aiello had spotted me on the apron and called me up to hang out. The two of us are rarely at a loss for conversation topics, running the gamut from crazy small track stories to Ric Flair’s post-WWE career. I also added “River Downs Track Bugler” to my ever-expanding resume, sharing the honor with greats like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, the cast of the film “Major League” and anyone else that comes to Pete’s mind as the taped recording of the Call To Post finishes playing. Unfortunately, I did not get to wave at the camera like the bugler from Arlington Park.

1 Doc Holiday 123 1A Shaggin Bye 2 Shamu Moon

By a stroke of scheduling luck, I happened to be at River Downs during one of the days the track carded Quarter Horse races. Michigan-based Quarter Horse conditioner Tony Cunningham brought two horses for both of the races carded for the breed. I spoke with him for a little while between races and we compared travel schedules. Having just seen Tony a few days ago at Hoosier Park, they were not that far apart. With that said, I was feeling pretty drained, and all I did was drive and gamble. Keeping up that schedule on a weekly basis along with actual physical labor must be quite the task.

Cunningham horses Doc Holiday 123 (#1) and Shaggin Bye (#1A) are led around the walking ring, followed by track record-holder Shamu Moon (#2).

2 Shamu Moon - Jeff Hogan 1 Doc Holiday 123 - Juan Delgado 1A Shaggin Bye - Julie Veltman

Shamu Moon (#2) drives for the win under Jeff Hogan, ahead of Doc Holiday 123 (#1) with Juan Delgado and Shaggin Bye (#1A) with Julie Veltman.

After hanging out with Pete for a few races, I headed down to the office of publicity director John Engelhardt, yet another friend at River Downs with whom I looked forward to catching up. After some chatting, he suggested we climb one of the perches between the dirt and turf courses to photograph the upcoming Quarter Horse race. Of course, I was all about it. They treat me so well there.

Aka Lady - Julie Veltman

Cunningham-trained Aka Lady heads out to the track with Julie Veltman in the saddle.

RD Stretch 2

The view down the River Downs stretch following a Quarter Horse race.

After hitting the last race on the card, I found myself up about $20 on the day. The grand total profit from my days at River Downs and The Red Mile was not enough to offset the shellacking I took at Hoosier and Ellis Park, but I was glad I managed to finish strong.

With the final track on my itinerary checked off, I decided to make the six and a half hour, 350-mile drive home and try to get home that night. My journey through four states, four racetracks and more miles than I care to count had come to a close.

Before I end, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone at Hoosier Park, Ellis Park, The Red Mile, River Downs and all points in between for making my Midwest swing such a good time. Hitting the road to visit new and exciting racetracks is a good time, but it is better when one can do it with friends.

The month of October looks to hold plenty more adventures. Will I visit your home track next? Stay tuned to find out!

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10 Comments

Filed under Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time

10 responses to “Eat. Bet. Drive.

  1. Ian Lozada

    You know, the only little bit of extra knowledge I had about harness racing than you did was the location of the burger stand.

  2. PTP

    Outstanding post and great pictures!

    One note: Harness did color saddle pads first. It was the thoroughbreds who changed the color of the two pad for some reason. (another in the long line of curious decisions in the history of our sport!)

    PTP

  3. mibredclaimer

    Ian,
    Perhaps, but that was still one up on me.

    PTP,
    Thanks a bunch! It is strange that there is not some kind of universal color scheme for the numbers. I mean, the differences threw me off and I’d like to think I halfway know what I’m doing. I can’t imagine what it would do to the wiring of a new fan. I guess it all depends on which side of the tracks you grew up.

  4. Old Time Race Fan

    Nice posts and info on the midwest tracks. You give McChump a run for their money with the commentary!

  5. bob kaiser

    Great article and photos. Good to see some ink about the smaller racing sites rather than the usual Sar-DelMar-Mon. These workers do their best to keep racing alive across the US.

  6. Sally in Indy

    Thanks for sharing your adventures with us!

  7. chasham

    Next time, stop at Fairmount Park in the shadow (well, ALMOST!) of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis!
    You will be welcomed and treated with gracious hospitality, good food and some exciting racing!
    Most tracks in this country are having troubles keeping their doors open, and Fairmount Park, surrounded by eight casinos in the St Louis metropolitan area, is not immune to those worries, but management is fighting hard and we look forward to many more years of racing excitement!

  8. Old Time Race Fan

    Joe,
    Nice photos. I love the ones from the roof. I could handle a box seat up there! The one of Julie Veltman, however, the three subjects all look to be in quite a funk at the moment of the shot! 🙂

  9. mibredclaimer

    Old Time Race Fan,
    Thanks! Somehow I overlooked the expressions of the subjects in that photo. The horse looks really nice, though.

    Bob,
    Thanks a bunch! Small tracks are awesome. It’s hard to find one that’s not filed with charm.

    Sally,
    Thanks you for your kind words! Glad you liked it.

    Chasam,
    I was actually considering heading west from Ellis Park and checking off Fairmount, but it would have thrown off the rest of my schedule. I have some friends who live near the track, so I’ll be getting there eventually. I’m glad to see the Quarter Horse racing really start to take off there.

  10. Okay, I am late to the post, but you really need to go to the Delaware County Fair for the Little Brown Jug. Where else, will you find races going for $2,800 as well as races for over $100,000. More impressive, is a track which will be filled to the gills with people. When was the last time you saw that on a Thursday afternoon.

    Will admit, if you are not a harness racing fan, the handicapping can be challenging since a lot of these horses have been racing at county fairs in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But it is an experience (positive) that you will never forget.

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