DU QUOIN, Ill. — Like an explorer of old, Michael Podd arrived midweek in this southern Illinois town of 6,000 all ready to figuratively plant another flag, to make an addition to an ever-growing list. He had driven all the way from suburban Chicago accompanied by his wife, Tammy.
Traveling couples have been known to collect states, countries, or scale mountains together, maybe baseball parks if they’re both sports oriented. The Podds’ own twist on this variation is they collect racetracks.
For a group of friends and devotees that have been following Michael Podd on Twitter (@PudstudNA) for the last several years, the hashtag #loveitlive has become synonymous with his and Tammy’s visits to tracks around the world. Whether it’s Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses or Standardbreds, the Podds are in their element being on site where the action is right in front of them. While they also watch and bet the races from home, the insular nature of that activity pales in comparison for this gregarious and extroverted pair.
“The essence of #loveitlive is the people we meet and the new experiences that each race facility brings,” said Michael Podd. “The people culture unique to each racetrack in each region, whether it be families, food, or facilities, is what is at the core of #loveitlive. It’s the friends and culture we meet and learn along the journey that’s special.”
For Michael Podd the journey began in August 1976 when, during a family vacation, his parents took him to Atlantic City Race Course.
“I just remember going and thinking ‘My God what’s going on here?’ They gave me a few bucks to bet and I hit the daily double. It paid like $30 and I look around and I felt like I was stealing. Of course, I was wrong. But that day it sunk in and ever since then I’ve had the interest.”
By 2012, Michael Podd’s travels had taken him to 17 tracks. That spring, he met Tammy through a mutual friend. Having grown up near Iowa City, Tammy had already immersed herself to a degree in the race tracking lifestyle around the Midwest.
“My first trip was to Ak-Sar-Ben with my sister,” she said, referring to the now-defunct track in Omaha. “We had a blast there. After that I’d been to Arlington and a few other places.”
Seeing this common interest as a potential avenue to get more serious, Michael Podd was ready to ask Tammy to join him in a trip to the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
“The story we like to tell is that she missed the Kentucky Derby in 2012 because she blew me off for a couple weeks,” he said. “Our second date was the Preakness. She saw the passion. It was a beautiful day…It was just one of those perfect dates. After that she hasn’t missed the Derby.”
Michael Podd’s long-standing desire to make his interest in racing a higher priority soon became possible. In the printing ink business throughout his career, Podd’s current position at the Flint Group involves extensive worldwide travel.
“Instead of having a partner who wanted to go to dinner or go to a play or have a second home, we found through my job, and as much traveling as I do, this amazing, fun time to be able to go and visit different places and meet different people and see racetracks and the way they’re set up differently.”
Since that second date at Pimlico, the Podds have journeyed far and wide. In addition to visiting dozens of tracks in North America, they’ve also experienced the sport in Hong Kong, Japan, Ireland, Singapore, Chile, England, Dubai, France, Germany and Malaysia.
“It’s just amazing all this stuff that’s done differently in different parts of the world,” Michael Podd said. “Every track is an experience and this is what we decided what we were going to do with our fun time. The fun time is when we’re not working, or when I’m working we’ll attach something to it. If I have to be in Europe for a week, she might make it over the weekend and we’ll hit Ascot. We’ll try Chantilly. It makes it more affordable as I’m traveling anyway, but it just kind of became the thing we wanted to do.”
The #loveitlive train began picking up steam in 2014 when Podd visited seven new tracks, at the time his highest annual total to date. He equaled that amount in 2015, added 21 tracks in 2016, and 26 more in 2017.
At the dawn of 2018, Podd only had to visit 16 more tracks to reach the century mark. He did so on August 24, enjoying an afternoon of racing at the Maryland State Fair at Timonium and then reaching the goal that evening at Penn National outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Joined at Penn National by several friends in addition to Tammy, Podd celebrated with his customary cigar. In commemoration, Tammy gifted to Michael a custom-made, powder blue T-shirt with a chronological list of his first 100 tracks printed on the back.
When people discover how many tracks Michael Podd has visited, the inevitable question that arises is if he has a specific favorite.
“It’s the hardest question that I’ve had to answer,” he said. “I don’t have a favorite racetrack. I have things I like most about one track versus another. One of the nice things about going to so many different places is that they all hold some charm in some way.”
The drive to 200 kicked off a mere 24 hours later at Pocono Downs, a harness track in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. However, a curve ball was thrown at Du Quoin in a visit planned weeks in advance.
The one-mile oval at the Du Quoin State Fair carded two programs of harness racing this week of the meat-and-potatoes variety, a far cry from the days in the 1960s and 1970s when it hosted the most coveted prize in the sport, the Hambletonian, the trotting equivalent to the Kentucky Derby.
Although a Wednesday evening card was scheduled, a not-very-well publicized or disseminated decision to move up post time to the morning hours, to beat forecasted inclement weather that never came, did not reach the attention of the Podds, nor their guest from Kentucky, until they had reached the unexpectedly empty grandstand. Photos were taken of the historic venue, but in keeping with the ground rules of #loveitlive, Du Quoin was not installed as Podd’s #102.
An opportunity to add Du Quoin may come next year. In the meantime, Podd noted the likely additions of Ruidoso Downs, the Downs at Albuquerque and the newly-refurbished Longchamp outside Paris as tracks soon to be added to the list.
With the number of North American tracks Podd has not visited seemingly narrowing, their guest from Kentucky suggested that a larger reliance on foreign tracks might be needed to reach the magic number 200.
“There’s a lot of tracks domestically we haven’t been to,” Podd countered. “Maybe more harness, more smaller meets, more boutique meets. The problem with the international tracks, unless you decide to pick up and spend a month over there, which would be cool, that’s not the way we roll. We work. We kind of hit it, hit it and run. We pick up a couple tracks here, a couple tracks there.
“Who knows when it will end?”