words and photos by NICOLLE NEULIST
Of course, the sport on people’s minds was horse racing, not baseball. Deep, stained wood lined saddling stalls, not a bar. People sat in lawn chairs or at picnic tables, not stools. But, just like a cozy corner watering hole, the apron at Presque Isle Downs was where people went to catch up with friends and see the horses run after work. Whether you’ve been coming for years or for days, everyone knows your name, and they’re glad you came.
And, it’s the best kind of local haunt: close-knit, but excited to welcome new faces. I had never seen a live race there until September 17, Presque Isle Mile day. I knew one of the racetrack regulars from Twitter; we had been chatting horses and exchanging pictures of our favorite greys for years. I met her in person that Sunday and met the folks she knew, and then met the folks they knew. When I ran into people I had been introduced to earlier on my trip, we didn’t trade curt, awkward nods. We may only have known each other for a few minutes here and there, as we walked around the track. But, we said hello, warmly. We debated race analysis with two minutes to post, then offered sincere congratulations after the race to whoever was right, even as we shredded losing tickets. By the time I left Tuesday, after three days of wandering between a picnic table on the finish line out to the paddock and back, Presque Isle Downs felt like my home track away from home.
The central reason for my visit to Erie was the Grade 2 Presque Isle Masters. The Masters has long been one of my favorite races of the year, because there’s no race like it. It’s a specialist distance, six and a half furlongs. It’s Tapeta, not dirt or turf. It draws a full field of fillies and mares from different circuits, with different strengths. It’s a handicapping puzzle like no other during the racing year, and always seems to play out as competitively on the track as it looks on paper. I make a point of handicapping and watching the Masters every year, and experiencing it in person for the first time did not disappoint.
One of the great joys of a graded stakes at a track that rarely runs them is seeing the locals defend their turf. Though rising Canadian star Ami’s Mesa and repeat New York invader Bar of Gold swept the top two spots, Presque Isle local Cavalia represented her track with distinction. Claimed for $25,000 two starts back by trainer Gerald Brooks and owner Ronald Clarke, Cavalia wired the prep allowance for the Masters just eleven days off that claim. The Pennsylvania-bred daughter of Ghostzapper returned in the meet’s flagship race. She rushed to beat Code Warrior to the lead, dug in when confronted by Bar of Gold, and held a clear third at north of 40/1.
My bus home didn’t leave Erie until late enough on Tuesday night that I could catch the first six races at Presque Isle before I had to go to the station. Tuesday’s card had no stakes races; the feature was a two-other-than. As much as I enjoy big race days, I love arriving a little early or staying a little late so I can be there for a regular day. That way, I can get a firsthand idea of what parts of my experience are part of each track’s own big race day atmosphere, and learn what always the track.
I showed up a couple hours before post to do a bit of handicapping. I dragged my suitcases upstairs, grabbed a seat at the upstairs bar, and opened up my past performances on my laptop.
“Want a Railbender?”
I’d had a Railbender before the races on Sunday; I wanted a taste of Erie, and it was a locally brewed Scottish Ale. It was delicious, but I wasn’t in the mood for a beer at three-thirty on a Tuesday. Still, I was impressed she remembered.
After my late lunch, I headed back down to the apron. No sooner did I step out the door than I heard a voice. “I thought you were headed home today!”
Back down at the rail, I set my suitcase down at the same picnic table that had been my home back for the last two days. The line of lawn chairs that had been there on Mile day and Masters day wasn’t just for stakes days; it was back for Tuesday. I’d had a conversation the day before with one of the lawn chair regulars about Turfway Park racing on a synthetic surface through the winter; the next day, as soon as he saw me, he came over to chat about what he had learned from articles he had found since our chat.
The enthusiasm for horses went beyond the stakes days, and there were fan favorites at all levels of the class ladder. Among the locals who ran when I was at Presque Isle, the regulars’ excitement buzzed most intensely for Mr. Freud, who made his tenth start of the year on Tuesday. Anyone who followed the Derby trail this year can relate to why he was such a fan favourite: the nearly black gelding was missing his right eye. Though he finished two lengths adrift of favorite Samurai Zip, it did nothing to diminish the racetrack regulars’ love of Mr. Freud. He’ll have his cheering section back next time he enters.
I hope to be back in his cheering section again soon: at the picnic table on the Presque Isle Downs finish line, behind the lawn chairs, among new friends.
Nicolle Neulist is a Chicago-based racing fan. Follow her on Twitter @Rogueclown