Monday, March 3, 2008

A Night at the Races

Indulge me, please, as I rescue some old pieces from oblivion. Here, a short account of an evening at the local harness-racing track.

It's a warm December night, and colored neon signs beckon across the starless sky. "AMERICA RACES HERE. CLEVELAND'S CASINO." A flickering image depicts a driver piloting a trotting racehorse.

We are at the gate of Northfield Park, home of harness racing in Northeast Ohio for forty-one years. It was on this spot in 1934 that Al Capone built Sportsman Park, a dog-racing track. After that venture failed a couple of years later, new owners introduced midget-car racing, which drew crowds until 1956, when the place was demolished to make way for Northfield Park.

The park has recently undergone a seven-million dollar facelift, which added a sports bar, a microbrewery and a prime rib buffet. There's a video arcade and childcare facility, as well as a gift shop offering equine souvenirs. Just as Las Vegas has transformed itself from mob-run citadel of sin to family vacation spot, Northfield Park has repackaged the racetrack as wholesome fun.

In the clubhouse, a multi-tiered restaurant with a view of the illuminated half-mile track, patrons assiduously study tonight's racing program.

There's a race every nineteen minutes, as Northfield's broadcast commercials promise, but in here, few of the bettors "go crazy." Most of them are regulars, accustomed to the vagaries of winning or losing. More than halfway through tonight's race schedule, Frank, 44, pronounces his fortunes "mediocre." Contemplating a plastic bucket filled with bottled brew, he says, "I've got six more beers, and six more races."

The clubhouse is not restricted to high rollers — admission is only three dollars, with a seven-fifty table minimum. There's the expected complement of toupee-wearing cigar smokers, a retired couple enjoying a meal, and two young mothers watching the horses while loading their plates with whipped potatoes.

What draws some people to harness racing, in which drivers ride behind the horses in light two-wheeled vehicles called sulkies? Dave Bianconi, Northfield's publicity director, explains the distinctions between harness and thoroughbred racing.

"It's a different breed of horse. These are standard bred, and they're trained as pacers and trotters. They race on a different gait." Though most people prefer thoroughbred racing, the kind offered several miles down the road at Thistledown, harness racing is particularly strong in Ohio.

Bianconi says he likes the mental puzzle of horse betting, something casino gambling doesn't offer. "A chimpanzee can drop coins in a slot machine. There's no challenge to that." Amateur hunches may pay off in the movies, but in real life, he says, it takes some research to win

"A lot depends on the 'trip' the horse gets — whether the wind is on him, did he get a good cover. And a lot depends on the post position, the driver, and the trainer." Still many of Bianconi's picks tonight come up laggards.

Though the clubhouse offers a refined vantage point, to get a real feel for racing, you must join the spectators outside by the rail, watching the horses' elegant, sinewy forms in motion. There, you can sense the sport's grandeur while at the same time get a sense of the democratic nature of harness racing, which grew up on family farms and at county fairs. It takes a lot of hay to keep a thoroughbred, but standard-breds are available to ordinary folks.

Copper and Tin, the sleek filly who just won Race Eleven, stands contentedly in the winner's circle, awaiting her victory photograph. Her owners, a family from Galloway, Ohio, pose proudly beside her.

"These horses are milder-mannered and quieter than thoroughbreds," says track spokesman Brian deJong. "After they retire, they tend to make better pets."

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