by NICOLLE NEULIST
I made my maiden voyage to Turfway Park February 22-24, and I’m glad I did.
I feared the entire trip would be rainy: a few days before flying down there, the weather forecast called for downpours, but Thursday and Friday the weather cooperated. There was a bit of mist in the air on Thursday, a bit of chill, but nothing a jacket couldn’t beat. Though still mid-winter on the calendar, Friday felt like a spring evening at the races: the skies were clear, the weather was mild, and the apron was lively for the 37th running of the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes.
Friday and Saturday were Latonia Days: full of talks, movies, and exhibits to tell the stories of horse racing in the area. Much of it featured the old Latonia racetrack, Turfway’s predecessor, though the exhibit also contained some photos of the new Latonia racetrack that we now know as Turfway Park. A corner of the third-floor Party Deck became a museum full of pictures, postcards, papers, and paraphernalia from the old oval, and I spent Friday afternoon before the races enjoying the racing artifacts.
Most fascinating were the postcards, with pictures of Latonia on one side, notes on the other. I had expected happiness, even frivolity. Some of the postcards were just that: light, airy notes letting friends know that the Latonia meet was about to start, suggesting that it’s time to come visit, to come and lose a few coins playing the ponies. Other postcards were morose. One asked for sympathy, saying of Latonia, “Here is where I left most of my last sumers [sic] wages.” On the back of another racetrack scene, another writer lamented that the Latonia meet had ended without her lost lover coming to take her there, pleading “on my bended eyes with tears in my knees” for him to love her again.
Other parts of the exhibit were lighter. The display case contained a USA Today article from 1989 about a deer launching from the infield right into Biztop Booking during a race. Horse and deer escaped injury, and though jockey Brian Peck broke his arm, even he joked afterwards that the incident brought him a lot closer to a deer than any of his deer hunts with his father the previous fall. In terms of sheer absurdity, that reminded me a bit of another Turfway moment that was unfortunately not memorialized in the exhibit: the escape adventure of Dortmund’s mischievous big brother, Joseph the Catfish. The display case also featured a program from Memorial Day, 1887 that led with a grave admonishment: “Beware of counterfeit programmes. This is the only Official Programme, and all others are bogus.”
After my foray through the museum, I ventured back downstairs for the races. Friday’s feature race was the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes, the local prep for the Jeff Ruby Steaks, the former Spiral Stakes that this year offers 34 Kentucky Derby points with 20 to the winner. The race was, true to its name and to Turfway’s legacy, a Battaglia family gathering. For that one race, Jimmy McNerney yielded the microphone to the voice that had filled Florence for so many years as Mike Battaglia narrated the action of his dad’s namesake race.
Though Battaglia’s return to the air was expected, the story he told had a surprise ending. So much of the light before the race shined on Wesley Ward trainee Arawak, New York invader Roaming Union, Presque Isle maven Driven by History, and the maiden bearing a familiar red R, Family Kitten, but after 8 1/2 furlongs, the second-longest shot on the board found the wire first. 39/1 outsider Magicalmeister, a distant third in his only try at Turfway, saved his better form for the big day. Kicking clear into the final furlong, he held off a furious late rally from Sky Promise to prevail by half a length. His connections bounded over to the winners’ circle afterward, triumphant and less surprised than most of the racetrack visitors that night, to share a photo and a victory celebration with the extended Battaglia family.
“Simulcasting will close after Turfway’s last race,” warned the television screens a few races after the Battaglia. Yet, even when the windows closed on Battaglia Friday, the grandstand remained as lively as ever. Once the last race went official, the second and third floors of Turfway turned into a nightclub crowded enough to be lively, but spacious enough to be comfortable. Gee, Your Band Smells Terrific kicked into another set of seventies music. The Longshot Lager — Turfway’s wildly successful ploy to get people of legal drinking age to drink Natty Light — continued to flow. People who had come to bet stayed for the party, and Friday night at Turfway had the smoothest race day to nightspot transition I had ever seen at a track.
Saturday, the rains finally came. Everyone fought through it as long as they could. Grooms and horses got soaked on the way over from the barns, took a few laps around the walking ring, and found refuge in the saddling stalls. Instead of crowding the paddock rail, the horseplayers intrepid enough to eyeball the fields did so from the covered walkway past the track office, or from a sheltered second-floor balcony.
With six minutes until race five, after a night of pouring rain, a grating noise filled the grandstand. It sounded familiar to anyone who had ever watched TV or listened to the radio; no one could be faulted for mentally filling in the words “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System…” The simulcast screens did not flicker. Yet, it was no test: hundreds of heads looked down at their phones, silencing the siren as they cleared the flash flood warning notifications.
Racing fought on for two more races, long enough for Tiz Sardonic Joe and Private Spot to enjoy soggy, well-earned moments in the winners’ circle. The time had come for Saturday’s feature: an open allowance for older fillies and mares. Appropriately for Latonia Days, the race was intended as the local prep for next month’s Latonia Stakes. Yet, with water pooling, with rain heavy enough to impede visibility, the night ended three races early. The field for the seventh race was unsaddled; horses and grooms took one last walk through the deluge. I returned to the grandstand to gather my thoughts before I left; my next race at Turfway will have to come on my next visit to Florence.