by Teresa Genaro
Call me “the woman who left Keeneland to drive to Charles Town.” It’s true, even if no one would believe it.
Charles Town Races sits in the Blue Ridge Mountains, roughly equidistant, a 90-minute car trip, from both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It’s been around since 1933, and visitors walking through the facility will see frequent reminders of the track’s history: I counted at least three walls of pictures and plaques and newspaper clippings, commemorating Charles Town’s recent and distant past.
Its place in racing’s present, on the other hand, is a somewhat shaky one, the grandstand and clubhouse dwarfed by an enormous casino on which Charles Town relies for existence, and when I first visited the backstretch five years ago, horsemen were already grumbling about how they were treated by the gaming executives.
I couldn’t stick around for live racing on that visit, but as I planned a recent trip to Lexington, it occurred to me that instead of driving home to Brooklyn on Sunday, I could leave Kentucky on Saturday morning and make it to Charles Town that evening for its fifth Grade II Classic; it’s $1.5 million purse had attracted Caixa Eletronica, Game On Dude, and Ron the Greek, with 17 graded stakes wins among them. [pullquote]It occurred to me that instead of driving home to Brooklyn on Sunday, I could leave Keeneland on Saturday morning and make it to Charles Town that evening for the Classic.[/pullquote]
Yes, that really did occur to me. Even odder, it’s what I did.
Nobody would mistake Charles Town for Keeneland. Its grandstand and clubhouse are marvels of utilitarianism, not aesthetics, and while a few women taunted the chilly weather in sandals and strappy dresses, the lack of hats and preponderance of jeans would have disappointed the myriad fashion and racing mavens that have cropped up recently.
The race wasn’t shown on television; there were no ambassadors or ABRVs to be seen. Bob Baffert, Bill Mott, and Todd Pletcher all had horses in the big race, but none of the three made it to West Virginia. Little in the way of promotion or excitement was found on any official racing social media channels.
As the sun set early in the card (post time was 5 pm), warm light suffused the mountains not far off, and people streamed in to fill the grandstand (in which smoking is still permitted), the clubhouse, and the apron, despite temperatures that plummeted when the sun disappeared.
The $31.95 spread in the clubhouse was a steal, stacked with crab legs and shrimp and beef and the obligatory race track bread pudding, which held its own even with Keeneland’s storied fare (though it did lack the bourbon sauce in which the Kentucky version swims); the quality of the food and the service blew away those on offer at New York tracks.
On the six-furlong “bull ring” track, in most races horses ran by the crowd twice, close to fans on the rail, who cheered appreciatively from pretty much the moment the horses left the gate.
And then there was the Classic. While big-name trainers couldn’t make the trip, big-name owner Joe Torre did, to cheer on his Game On Dude, who had to work for his victory, holding on by a half-length over Clubhouse Ride, a nose in front of Ron the Greek.[pullquote]It’s intriguing to wonder how many more fans might have come to the Classic with a little attention from an industry said to be determined to raise racing’s profile.[/pullquote]
While Charles Town didn’t release attendance figures, the track’s vice-president of racing operations Erich Zimny said that the track set a new handle record, beating the previous one by nearly $1 million…which is what Torre and Game On Dude’s other owners took home for winning the race.
It’s impossible to say how many people ventured from Baltimore and Washington for Charles Town’s big night, but intriguing to wonder how many more might have come with a little promotion, a little attention from an industry said to be determined to raise racing’s profile.
“I’ve never been out here,” said Torre after the race. “It’s pretty cool.”
And indeed, it was.