Back Where It All Began

I’ve hinted in prior writing for Picks & Ponderings that even though I’ve covered the Chicago circuit of Arlington and Hawthorne for years, I’m not originally from Chicago or its collar communities.  I’ve just never disclosed the information as to where I was prior to Chicago as it’s almost never germane to the discussion of races at hand.

Before settling into Chicago, I was born in Pennsylvania.  I did all my K-12 and undergraduate schooling in that state as well.  And when I lived in the Keystone State, racing wasn’t on my mind or a focus of my life the way it would be in future places and in future times.  And it was during that time that I first grew exposed to racing.  It was 2004, and I had graduated from college that past winter.  In that first calendar quarter, Kentucky Derby preps were contested.  In those preps, a Pennsylvania-bred by Elusive Quality out of a Smile mare had won a listed stakes on the Aqueduct inner dirt track, and then swept the Arkansas series of preps: the Southwest, the Rebel Stakes, and the G2 Arkansas Derby (at the time, only the Arkansas Derby was graded).  He’d then capture the first two legs of the Triple Crown.  He functioned as my hook horse, perhaps in a similar way that California Chrome and his legions of fans have brought fans out to the tracks and to check their social media.  Nowadays, Chromie may be your homie.  A decade prior, it was the Smarty Party.  But both horses – California Chrome and 2004 Dual Classic winner Smarty Jones—worked in similar ways: horses with pedigrees that were more rugged than regal, each who dominated their regions in Kentucky prep races, each who took the Derby and Preakness.  I don’t hide the fact that Smarty Jones was my “hook horse”, in the same way others claim Calfornia Chrome or how older fans similarly claim, for example, Secretariat.

The idea that one could gamble in races didn’t set in until the Preakness.  Sure, I was fine with the Derby as a spectator – but the Preakness had a smaller field and a shorter distance and word on the street was that “new shooters” didn’t fare well.  It may have been handicapping naiveté, but it was an opinion.  And I was willing to put my money where my mouth was.

I didn’t make a wager, but not for lack of trying: I was on the move to Ohio for a new chapter of life, and that move took precedence.  But from afar I watched Birdstone upset in the Belmont, and then an injury would knock out the rest of his career.  And I watched the Smarty Party go from raucous roar to simple noisemaker.  Yet despite the double-punch of summer, the racing bug was inside me. (Editor's note: it still is, but on a lesser level nowadays that I've entered graduate school.)

But it was a five-hour drive from my new place in Ohio back to my family, back to Pennsylvania, back to where it all began.  And I found myself back in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2005.  I thought that in this state I could head to the off-track-parlor.  I thought I could test new-found handicapping skills in a real setting, to do what I had wanted to do on Preakness week a year plus before.

Instead I found through phone calls and reconnaissance that Pennsylvania had closed a few of its off-track betting parlors – mainly those away from Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.  I had been raised and educated in the state’s vast middle – far removed from those metro areas.  The idea of an ADW was still foreign and such OTBs would’ve been a better and closer option than a three-hour drive to Penn National – and Philadelphia Park (nowadays, Parx Racing) was beyond that.  There was no Presque at the time.  (I had no clue Charles Town was closer despite being across state lines.)  Yet Pennsylvania’s state legislature had legalized slot machines at its tracks, paving the way for racinos.  Perhaps the Smarty Party had been the impetus of slots.  Yet instead if I ever went back to PA – and my family still resides there – I would be hard pressed to place a live wager while seeing family.

And herein lies the rub: that instead of Smarty Jones serving as a spark to light the fire of racing and making it easier for those to see him or the next one that came from Parx – slots notwithstanding - there instead was a narrowing of the market by the state.  And of course as I developed more knowledge of racing came the further knowledge of Pennsylvania – the 30% exotic takeouts that give HANA cold shakes, the unsavory reputations of some trainers, the at-times restrictive and confusing ADW rules and perhaps I began to look at some other horse going on a tear at three and being my hook horse.

It left me disengaged and disenfranchised.  It left me no desire to visit Parx, an oval I’ve never been to and with no plans to visit.  And when the Pennsylvania Derby comes around each fall – I often hurl rotten eggs and shade at that race, that oval, that jurisdiction.  I can forgive Songbird winning the Grade 1 Cotillion. (News bulletin: she’s good.)  Maybe I can accept a race that went from Travers Lite to Last Chance To Duck Elders.  I can’t forget how Pennsylvania found ways to turn off its racing fans despite more bountiful resources of other states.  It turned me off, perhaps to the point of petty grudge.

I felt a mix of vindication and schadenfreude when Connect –who two back won a restricted stakes at the Spa - win the PA Derby instead of a G1-level runner like Nyquist or Exaggerator or Gun Runner.  I felt it was Pennsylvania in a nutshell: confusing and disengaging.

After the PA Derby, one of my tweets became fodder for Teresa Genaro’s latest piece in The Racing Biz.  I had come out as the staunchest of those against the PA Derby - with me as counterpoint to her point.

I can forgive a piece like Genaro’s – that skillfully attempts to balance the accusation with the splendor, but I can’t forget what has happened in these aforementioned words at P&P.  I can forgive some errors on naiveté, but I can’t forget how it was in the nascent days of slots.  I can forgive that the PA Derby has improved since its move away from Labor Day, but I can’t forget enough to bestow it a G1 status just because of recent strength. I can forgive the current successes of the PA Derby Day card, but I can’t forget how it was frustrating it was back when it all began.

The aforementioned piece serves as commentary to Teresa Genaro's piece on The Racing Biz.

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