Photo by Chris Casella

A Night at the Races

went to the track with a bad bias.

Long a fan of thoroughbred horseracing, I used to be a regular at the Kentucky Derby. When circumstances have prevented me from making the trek to Louisville, I’ve even thrown my own Derby parties, making mint juleps by the pitcher and organizing bicycle races with the kids in the neighborhood, placing bets on Huffys and Schwinns. 

And I was long a fan of Beulah Park, Grove City’s dated-but-venerable thoroughbred track. When it closed down last year, a little piece of me was mucked out of the stalls with it. 

So it was with suspicion and no small amount of trepidation that I ventured far south on High Street to Scioto Downs, located just outside the 270 outerbelt, to explore the world of harness racing for the first time.

Harness racing differs from the more popular (at least here in the U.S.) thoroughbred racing in a few important ways. In a thoroughbred race, a tiny man sits atop each horse and goads his neurotic and high-strung steed to its personal maximum velocity, from standstill to photo finish.

Harness racing, by contrast, is far more laid back. The horses are “standardbreds,” and if a thoroughbred is a coiled spring, a standardbred is a bored-out pickup truck. The horses’ speeds are even contained; there’s no galloping, or even cantering. Races are either “trotters” or “pacers,” determined by which pairs of horselegs are doing what at any given time; if a horse breaks into a run, it’s moved to the outside of the track until it is brought back into stride by the driver.

Which leads us to the last and perhaps most important distinction: there are no tiny men riding these creatures. Instead, “drivers” ride on “sulkies,” two-wheeled lightweight carriages, pulled by the horses, hence the “harness” terminology.

And whatever you do, don’t call them jockeys.

And Don’t Call Them “Slots”

Arming myself with an-hour-on-the-Internet’s-worth of harness racing knowledge, photographer Chris Casella and I headed to the track – but, long before we caught sight of the ponies, we had to pass through the new “racino” facility: 2,500 Video Lottery Terminals, or “VLT”s. 

They are slot machines. 

“We can’t call them slots,” said our guide for the evening, Ashley Redmon.

“But they have handles on the side,” I pointed out helpfully. “And reels that spin. Cherries and whatnot.”

“We’re not allowed to call them ‘slots’ because we’re licensed through the state lottery,” she explained as I squinted dubiously at all the flashing lights and spinning reels.

While the facility doesn’t have table games (as per the same strange regulations that don’t allow them to call their casino a “casino”), it does have nearly as many VLTs as the Hollywood Casino, just a few hundred less. And their amenities rival the official casino’s offerings, as well: full-service bars and two spaces for live performances – Jamey Johnson, Carrie Underwood, Brett Michaels, and Travis Tritt all having graced their main stage, with regional acts filling out the regular entertainment on the smaller Veil Bar stage.

The Grove Buffet, too, is a sort of high-end Vegas-style buffet, offering you-pick-what-we-stir-fry Asian offerings, an expansive pizza buffet, and a robust selection of American comfort options, from roast pork to prime rib. Noteworthy is the dessert buffet – especially noteworthy for the four tasty desserts I vanquished.

The folks running the racino seem aware of its competition and location, going above and beyond to provide incentives for first-timers to get out and see the transformation; the entire facility housing the VLTs, bars, buffet, and café is brand new as of 2012. Newbies sign in at Guest Services and receive a card that they use in the machines, with perks such as discounted food based on gameplay on the video terminals. Once the card is activated, gamers get their first “play” on the house, spinning a digital Wheel of Fortune to receive between $5 and $500 free play.

Currently, if guests return within a week of their first visit, they get another shot to play with whatever amount the Wheel of Fortune had added back on their card.

I walked confidently from the digital Wheel over to a $1 slot machine VLT, an employee helped me untangle the interface, and I promptly lost the $5 I had been awarded in one fell pull of the arm. Damn.

Back to the Ponies

The white Cadillac awaited us at the Winner’s Circle. Originally built in 1989 as a means of luxurious transportation for a wealthy family, this car was at some point blindsided by the revelation that it would have big ol’ gates attached to both sides, the rear seat torn out to make room for a backward-facing stool, a public-address system installed, and that it would then live out its days driven by two men (one steering and one in the rear controlling the gates and the throttle) while chased by horses pulling chariots around a dirt track.

The venerable old motor carriage didn’t seem to mind its new lease on life, and that famous suspension kept the ride surreally smooth as the horses charged up behind us, visible in the rearview mirror occasionally banging their long faces into the white metal, their sinewy flanks wet with perspiration as they got up to speed.

For animals that are kept from flat-out running, these pacers were still burning horseshoe; a glance at the old analog speedometer read 32 mph at one point, and the horses were right behind us, waiting for us to get out of their way. 

So we do, with the driver speeding up and folding up the gate, and then pulling to the outside as the horses move to the inside of the track. There the race begins in earnest, with each driver trying to inch his way forward, the majority of his field of vision filled with his horse’s ample rear end. 

I didn’t bet on the ponies, but I did find that my knowledge of thoroughbred racing would have been more than sufficient to do so. The system of betting is almost identical, with To Win, Show, Place, and Trifecta all still wagering options. One difference, and a fascinating one, is that many drivers ride several times a night, often for different owners’ horses, so the dedicated sports bettor can adjust his expectations based on the horse, the driver, and how similar match-ups may have fared in the past. All in all, it added an intriguing layer of nuance.

Our photographer Chris Casella and I broke for dinner at the buffet and then journeyed back out to the track for a night race, held under lights. It was one of the most memorable of the evening, with the great beasts glowing under the lamps, fading on the far side of the track before exploding back out of the darkness on the race’s final curve and thundering past the finish line. As the victorious drivers wheeled their sulkies back to the Winner’s Circle, I realized that the trifecta of prime rib, beer, and slight adrenaline borne of watching a large animal work hard made Chris and I the real winners of the evening, and so we departed.

(But I still have a few days left to go back and try my $5 on the slots VLTs again.)

September is the last month for live racing at Scioto Downs, so if you haven’t been, send off the summer in high style; races are typically held Wednesday through Saturday, but check for off days before you go, where you can also find information on the other offerings at this unique entertainment experience.