Friday, August 7, 2009

Not almost heaven

I had not seen the West Virginia Derby since 2003, when Soto held off Dynever in a thrilling stretch duel in pouring-down rain.

That was also the last time I’d seen horses go around a racetrack with my own eyes.

That’s right. I once made my living by watching nine or more races each day, but grown-up responsibilities have limited my racing enjoyment to simulcasting at OTBs—and even then, only twice a year (the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup).

But when I found out that Mine That Bird was running in the West Virginia Derby, I had to go. I pulled all the racetrack memories out of the recesses of my brain and couldn’t recall ever seeing a Kentucky Derby winner who wasn’t on TV.

So Jamie and I made the trip to Chester, W.Va., to Mountaineer Park to see the West Virginia Derby. Mountaineer is allegedly a 30-minute drive from Pittsburgh, but construction and (I think) a major accident made the trip almost two hours. By the time we got there, the fourth race had just been run. Bear in mind that there was a time when I would have gone into a Rain Man-style fit of rage if I missed the first race of a given program. Nowadays, it’s more like, “Wow, that New Cumberland sure is a pretty town.”

We’d been to Mountaineer before (one of our first dates was there), but we were not prepared for what we saw. There were cars parked along the far turn, along the backstretch, and into the casino area. People were walking frantically from the casino lot to get to the track. A guard told me the parking lot was full, but he let me drop Jamie off at the front gate and turn around. I wound up parking by the three-eighths pole.

Inside, we found places to sit on a bench in the grandstand, which was a throwback to the days when the track was called Waterford Park, the home of the $1,500 claimers. The area where we sat was next to a section that was (albeit lamely) roped off due to construction. That area had the first few rows of benches missing, with several ladders lying on the floor. Mountaineer Park is apparently going into the home repair business as a sideline. People cut through the area all afternoon, and one man almost fell.

I headed for the concession stands, only to find a line stretching all the way across the grandstand (50 feet, maybe?). I found the vending machines, only to find they were out of Coke and Sprite, so I headed back to the Home Depot Annex with two Vaults and a bag of pretzels.

The heat started to be too much for Jamie, so she went inside to play the nickel slots (only to be chased out by cigarette smoke later). I waited in line for 10 to 15 minutes before each race to make my bets, but I hit a couple of exactas and began to feel as if I were a kid hanging out in the Beulah Park grandstand again.

Then it was time for the West Virginia Derby. Jamie and I went down to the rail—I should say near the rail, as we couldn’t get down to it. Jamie took some pictures of Mine That Bird with her cell phone (I had been told, apparently wrongly, that cameras were not allowed) and the crowd cheered as he walked by. With horse racing being eclipsed by other sports and forms of gambling, it’s reassuring to hear people applauding a champion.

Mine that Bird at the WVA Derby

He did not win. My guess is that Mike Smith got scared when Big Drama stole off a big early lead and made his move too soon. Mine That Bird is a deep closer and just can’t be rushed. Soul Warrior became another one of many longshot winners of this race.

I didn’t have Soul Warrior, but I still had some tickets and vouchers to cash in. The lines back at the grandstand windows were too long, so I looked for any other window—past hundreds of slot machines, up and down three flights of stairs (the elevator was broken), and finally wound up in the clubhouse dining room, where I found a window with no line.

Maybe Mountaineer wasn’t expecting Mine That Bird to enter the race and didn’t have time to prepare for a crowd of over 20,000. Maybe they just don’t care about the racing end of the facility anymore.

In any case, the track needs to get its act together the next time a Kentucky Derby winner pays a visit. With the West Virginia Derby purse now at $750,000, it will happen again.