Three things not to like about New Jersey:
1) Newark Airport - undoubtedly one of the most user-unfriendly in the US of A.
2) Rental car prices in the NY metro area - Ye Gods!
3) New Jersey Turnpike, aka I-95 - No road should have this many cars on it.
One thing to like a lot about Delaware:
1) The Delaware Memorial Bridge - A huge steel monster spanning the Delaware River at the head of Chesapeake Bay that whisks travellers right the heck out of New Jersey. Toll: $3.00. Every penny well spent.
What a beautiful, peaceful part of the country to visit and find a racetrack. Just down the road from Harper's Ferry and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, just the other side of the Appalachian Trail, nestled in forested hills, Charles Town is a welcome small town sight after a day battling trafiic through Newark, Wilmington, and Baltimore. The track itself is located just off the main road into town, and there are two very reasonably priced motels right outside the main gate.
After visiting West Virginia's other track, expectations were fairly low for Charles Town. What a surprise to find a good sized, good looking facility, neatly done up in a kind of yellow/tan paint with dark red trim and dark red tiles, and looking quite inviting from the outside.
Parking was free, as was admission. Track program: $2.00.
Just inside the door was a gentleman serving as "greeter", and when he was told of the traveller's surprise at finding such a nice facility, he explained that nearly $32M had been pumped into the facility over the past year to spruce it up. And, presumably, to build the casino, which occupied the space under the clubhouse stands, nicely isolated from the horse playing facilities by a couple of doors and a short passageway. The invitation to go visit the casino was declined, for the time being.
Just inside the main door is the indoor saddling area, kind of a saddling "pit" a la Mountaineer, but in far better condition, with a landing encircling it for patrons to see the horses in the paddock. Just out front of the paddock is the non-smoking area for horse players, a rather odd "historical preservation district" that must reflect the "old" Charles Town, with peeling paint, exposed ducts, and pretty crummy seating arrangements. But farther toward the grandstand end on the main floor there's an absolutely state-of-the-art and quite plush simulcasting parlor that would be the pride of many casinos. A lot of that $32M must have gone into this particular room.
As simulcasting wasn't the goal of this particular visit, a trip out onto the apron was in order.
Out front is a good sized asphalt apron, with lots of free bench seating, and some bleacher type seats up against the building. The track itself is a 6f dirt model, raised up above the surrounding hillside to bring it up to the level of the stands, which creates a large bowl of an infield, mostly bare grass except for a few bushes, and with a small but full-function toteboard sunk down in that bowl a little, which makes it easy to see the entire race over the top of it, but makes it difficult to see the bottom of the toteboard. Tradeoffs. The barn area is further on down the hill to the grandstand end of the building, and the horses have to come to the track up a small hill. The barns look pretty new, or at least newly refurbished, roofed in red with the same motif as the track, and look pleasant enough. Small Winner's Circle right down front. Oddly, inside the rail next to the apron there is a long, raised, rusting 1/2 section of corrugated piping filled with dirt, garbage, and a few weeds. Perhaps it was a flower planter in ancient times. Now it is just weird, and entirely out of place.
The stands themselves are completely glass enclosed, with one main seating level, and from what could be seen from the apron, looked very nice. Further investigation was in order.
On the grandstand side, there are nice boxes with individual chairs nearest the center of the facility, and then stadium type seating down on the far end. Looks quite pleasant. On the club side the main seating level is absolutely plush, with beautiful lighting fixtures overhead and tables with fancy pink tablecloths. Certainly a match for the club/restaurant seating area at many more prestigious racetracks. One also gets the feeling that a great deal of the $32M had gone into both grandstand and club seating areas, with probably a bit more on the club side.
More inside exploring was called for, and that exploration turned up medium sized beers for $2.00, mostly Crud and Crud offshoots. A small gift shop was also discovered just inside the casino, but the only t-shirt on sale touted the casino more than the racetrack, which is highly undesirable as far as future racetrack garb goes. Thus, no Charles Town t-shirt will be seen on any future McChump stop. Just as well, as the clerk in the gift shop was so busy punching out Powerball tickets that she probably wouldn't have had time to sell a measly t-shirt anyhow. Much like the waitress at the restaurant earlier who had been too busy punching out Powerball tickets to wait tables. West Virginians seem to enjoy their PowerBall. And their slots, judging by the din in the casino, although the place wasn't entirely full, and the biggest action seemed to be in the vicinity of the nickle slots. Just for laughs, the slots were tested against four quarters. The slots won, hands down.
Back out on the apron, it was a beautiful warm night, with a decent but not huge crowd (the race book seemed quite a bit busier), cold beer, and live racing to handicap and bet.
First race was a 4-1/2f affair for mdn3500, running for a purse of $4,000. Eight runners, primarily Charles Town regulars, but with one Mountaineer and one Delaware shipper added, contested the affair. With a few minutes to post, the crowd had 2074/703/586 in the WPS pools, and $1800 in the DD. Early money was on the six. McChump money was not. The six won, and for the most part, that would be the rule of the night - favorites, favorites, favorites. Needless to say, this did not help the McChump bankroll at all.
After the 2nd, an arranged meetup with Lister Dave Chicchirichi finally came to pass, and the remainder of the evening was spent in the very plush upstairs lounge of the clubhouse side with Dave and his reprobate racetrack gang, and quite an interesting time was had by all. Plus there were many more beers to choose from, albeit at a slightly higher price, and the place smelled heavenly due to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet that was laid out, portions of which eventually made their way to the gang at the bar thanks to the very friendly and accommodating bar staff.
Watching the races from on high in the clubhouse didn't help a bit with the handicapping or betting, however. The card consisted of a total of nine races, ranging from $2500 claimers running for $4100, through $4000 and $5000 clm running for $5700/$5800, up to the feature of the night, alwN4L going for $7200. These purses are expected to grow a great deal in coming years due to slots money. Field sizes ranged from six horses to ten, with most on the larger side, featuring horses from all over the smaller Mid-Atlantic circuit. And it was all stinkin' CHALK! Which led to the dreaded stinkin' shrinkin' cash voucher, since chumps don't let chumps bet chalk, even when they're betting alone. Stupid chalk.
But it was quite a bit of fun anyhow.
Leading jock is Travis Dunkelberger, far out in front of the field. Leading trainers are William T. Goff, Jr., David Walters, and Gerald D. Bast, Jr. Suffice it to say that absolutely none of these names were familiar.
After the races, it was decided that it was time to visit the casino, and it was soon apparent why. This group has got the workings of the free drink system at the casino down to a fine art, and a good stretch of time was passed at the casino bar without ever having to shell out once. Or play the slots. Lots of good racetrack stories, too, since it seems everyone is involved in the racing there somehow, or knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone.
Thanks Dave and friends for the great hospitality, and Charles Town certainly gets a McChump thumbs up. An absolutely fantastic night. Except for the stinkin' chalk.
The whatever-it-was motel across the street was also quite a decent deal at $45 the night. Not to mention a very short drive.
Continue on to Part 2.
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