McChump's Atlantic Rim Tour - Penn National

Final nail in the MapQuest coffin: A 95 mile drive takes 2-1/2 hours following this chump program's directions. Never cheat on old faithful Rand-McNally!

--- Penn National Race Course, Grantville, PA, Sun., Sept. 27 ---

No problem finding this track. Just a mile or so north of I-81, a few miles to the east of Harrisburg. Parking: Free. Admission: There was one, but someone forgot to write it down. Track program: $1.50.

Penn National is situated in the middle of open country, just south of a fairly impressive ridge of mountains. Impressive by east Coast standards, anyhow. Most of Grantville is on the other side of the interstate, so the track location qualifies as "pastoral".

The basic construction style is "generic", in an architectural style that would be best desribed as big square tan box. It's somewhat more aesthetic than the other track in Pennsylvania, primarily because it's not quite as objectionable and does not look like a prison. Pretty plain, though. A medium sized facility at best.

Inside ground floor is pretty much generic as well. It features concrete floors, some TV's hanging from the ceilings for simulcasts, some old blue wooden benches dragged in off the apron to serve as simulcast seating, a couple of beer stands and a concession stand along the front, and mutuel windows along the back. The overall impression is of a place that is dark and low and plain and dingy.

(Since the crummy directions had dragged out the trip so long, the first few races on the card that had started at 5:00 pm had been missed, which automatically elevates the grumpiness level on McChump Tours. So take some of this with a grain of salt.)

The second floor was just about the same. The gift shop was on this floor, though unfortunately the gift shop proprietor had apparently decided that no one would want to buy anything on that specific evening and had failed to open that particular portion of the racetrack for business. Third floor was nicer and actually had linoleum on the floors. Executive offices were located on that floor.

The apron also met the test of genericness, consisting of flat asphalt with a few of the blue benches and some picnic tables scattered about for effect. There's not nearly enough seating on the apron if a crowd of any decent size were to appear - which wasn't a problem the track had to contend with on this nice warm Sunday evening.

The crowd that had showed up to the races was mighty small, but consisted of all sorts of folks, from hardcore track types to groups of young people to families with multiple kids in tow. Lots and lots of kids, in fact, in relation to the size of the crowd. There wasn't enough of a critical mass of people to make it much of a fun crowd, but there was a decent bunch in hanging around one of the beer stands, where small beers were on special for $1, which included generic Spud and some local brand. Multiple $1 brews will get even a small crowd limbered up. Those who were eating could enjoy $3.00 burgers and $3.25 cheeseburgers, but the quality of these food offerings was not tested by this reporter.

The track itself is a one mile dirt oval, with an okay turf course. Infield? Generic. Just grass. Pretty cool water tower on the hill behind the track, though. The barn area seemed to be out behind the track, too, although by that time the sun had disappeared, and there wasn't too much to be seen past the lights of the track. Small hedged Winner's Circle down at trackside.

The stands have two seating levels above that first floor concourse. The whole affair is enclosed in glass. No report to offer on the seating arrangements or amenities offered in these upper seating areas. From outside looking in, they appeared quite underutilized on this particular evening.

Surprisingly, as a counterpoint to the rest of the bare bones plant, there's quite an attractive little paddock off the grandstand end of the building, with nice bushes and pretty flowerbeds. And decent lighting. Unfortunately the overall presentation of the paddock is marred by a semicircular cover jutting out over the saddling stalls which is painted in alternating stripes of dark green and dark purple, and looks like it is a refugee from some Disneyland "Tomorrowland" attraction that had been retired in the late 1950's.

The decent lighting aspect of the paddock was noticeable simply due to the odd fluctuations in lighting throughout the plant during the evening. Just before the races would go off, the lights inside the plant would dim and those out on the track come up a bit. Okay, normal enough for a night racing facility. However, almost immediately after each race, the lights out on the apron would go down by about a factor of three, as though Penn National was trying to save on electricity bills between races. Made reading the program quite a task, and was very irritating. At least over by the paddock, bright lights were the norm throughout the night.

Racing on the night consisted of 10 races, three on the turf and seven on the dirt. Unfortunately the turf races were all carded up at the front, so those took place while MapQuest was busy showing the traveller the wonders of small Pennsylvania towns with lots of stoplights and 30 mph speed limits.

Field sizes ranged from six horses in some of the dirt sprints up to twelve in the turf routes, tending toward the smallish size as a norm. Features of the night, if one may call them that, were three $10k claimers, and the quality of horse went down from there, with a couple of $3500 claimers and two $3000 claimers on the bottom end. Not too many horses from anywhere else but Pen, with a couple that had competed poorly at Monmouth making their first starts at Pen on the night. The $10k claimers ran for a purse of $8500, while the $3k horses contested a pot of $3600. These are some skinny damn horses, too. The central Pennsylvania hay must be lacking in vital nutrients.

Jockeys Jose Flores and Clinton Potts were far and away the winningest jocks, and trainers Karen Kunes and Bruce Kravets topped those standings. No names among jocks and trainers that were familiar from other circuits.

Definitely not top of the line racing, but most were very competitive, with lots of horses finishing strongly from the middle and back of the pack to catch the leaders and make the dash to the wire close.

Round about the 9th a light rain began to fall that increased in intensity throughout the 9th and into the 10th, and this finally woke the crowd up a little bit and added some excitement to the evening as they scrambled to get in off the apron. Hadn't been a whole lot of excitement since the ugly breakdown in the 6th, right out in front of the stands just before the finish line. Watching people scramble in from the rain was a lot more enjoyable than that.

Betting on the night wasn't too spectacular. Loser here, loser there, loser everywhere. Loser, that is, until the 10th, when the remainder of the cash voucher was laid out in an all-or-nothing flourish, and resulted in a $28.80 exacta and a $9.20/$3.80 WP horse hit for multiples. Overall result for the night: A whopping $0.40 profit. The perfect generic night at the windows.

Shoulder shrug for Penn National. Nothing too objectionable, but it has about as much character as chicken broth. Sad statement for a track that pretty much qualifies for podunkivity. Though probably a Sunday night in late September isn't a fair test. Okay little track out in the hinterlands offering live racing to the folks thereabouts, but hardly one of the great vacation destinations for racing fans. Hard to imagine it as the flagship of the mighty Penn National gaming empire, too.

The Holiday Inn just up the street from the track gets good marks for having rooms available late on a Sunday night, plus being very nice, but low marks for outrageous room rates. In their favor, though, was the hotel bar, called the Finish Line or something like that, where the deejay was spinning country and western tunes and every genuine cowpoke and cowgal from that part of Pennsylvania was out on the dance floor in their boots and hats doing perfectly choreographed line dances, even when the deejay would pop on something like INXS' "Suicide Blonde", a country tune if ever there was one. And one guy, who was apparently that bar's version of Ronny Woo Woo, would whoop out a big old "Woot! Woot!" from time to time at crucial points in the music. Top flight entertainment. A little expensive on the drink prices, though.

--- Grantville, PA, Mon., Sept 28, 9:34 am ---

We're on a mission from Alamo. We got half a tank of gas, a full pack of cigarettes, and less than 2-1/2 hours to do 140 miles and get the gutless rent-a-Toyota back to the Newark airport by noon or something real bad is going to happen. What bad, The Alamo girl never quite made clear, mainly because she could hardly speak English, but it was clear it was gonna be bad. And we're wearing sunglasses.

11:54 am. Check in at Alamo. Thank you, MapQuest, for zero getting lost incidents and a decent route selection, this one time.

McChump Travel Tip #2: Don't be hangin' around the Newark airport for an entire afternoon if you can possibly avoid it. Might even be worth incurring the wratch of the Alamo girl to get there later.

Fly across the Atlantic and continue with Part 5.


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