Playing the ponies Western Pennsylvania style | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Playing the ponies Western Pennsylvania style

Trading mint juleps and seersuckers for French fries and Kordell Stewart jerseys

click to enlarge The Meadows Racetrack & Casino - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
The Meadows Racetrack & Casino
Saturday, May 4 is the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, which has hosted historic dignitaries like the 17th Earl of Derby in 1930, Harry S. Truman in the 1950s, and Lauren Conrad in 2013. Since I couldn’t make it to “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” I traded the mint juleps and seersuckers for French fries and Kordell Stewart jerseys to try my luck at two local venues where one can still legally gamble on horse racing: The Meadows Racetrack in Washington and The OTB (off-track betting) in Harmar Township.

The Meadows Racetrack & Casino was opened as a standardbred harness-racing track in 1963 and is responsible for the creation of Call-A-Bet and the Meadows Racing Network (1983), which allowed patrons to call in bets and watch Meadows races from home on local cable providers — impressive innovations for their day. The Meadows is home to historic trainer/driver Delvin Miller and Roger Huston, known as the “The Voice,” who has called over 167,000 races at more than 126 tracks in 17 states and seven countries, according to 2014 statistics.

The research was more scant on my second stop, the OTB in Harmar Township, which is owned by the same management as The Meadows. Online information about the OTB is virtually nonexistent. Google is of no help, unless you have a Da Vinci Code cryptex to generate the exact keywords in the proper order. Its address is hidden deep within the dark web and apparently only accessible by Pittsburgh City Paper's editor-in-chief, who I had to keep asking for the link.

The Meadows Racetrack & Casino: The Sport that Time Forgot

The Meadows hosts live horse races several days a week and offers simulcast races from around the country on a giant wall of flat screen TVs. All of the racing action takes place on the bottom floor of the casino, adjacent to the track outside, which boasts bleachers, benches, and tables to accommodate all of your sitting needs. If you’re looking for a sport with more cultural cachet, check out the bowling alley located behind the simulcast area. 

I arrived at The Meadows on a Wednesday, half an hour before the 1 p.m. post, so I hit the food court inside the casino and thought out my betting strategy. Suddenly, a voice came over loudspeaker: “Please stand for the national anthem.” Within seconds, anybody who could stand on their own pushed aside their hot roast beef lunches and MyPillow giveaways to salute our nation with quiet reverence. There was a crackle over the PA system, and REM’s “Stand” blared over the speakers and drowned out “The Star Spangled Banner,” an apt pun if intentional.

Heading down to the track, I was treated to the ultimate pump-up music: Smash Mouth’s “Then the Morning Comes,” which was preceded by k.d. lang’s “Constant Cravings,” an appropriate tune for the compulsive gambler. When I got to the track’s betting room, which is comparable in decor to a MedExpress, I was greeted by 40 or so gray-haired men wearing winter coats despite it being 70 degrees outside. While none of them were there together, everyone seemed to know one another, trading head nods and occasional handshakes. They were scattered throughout the main floor, at tables, and at rows of desks outfitted with banker’s lamps that resembled a college library. But instead of studying Proust, they were scrutinizing $2 programs and the 20 or so screens simulcasting races. It seemed to be much more business than pleasure with far more analysis than socializing.

I didn’t want to interrupt their gambling with questions that might shed some light on this demographic. So, instead, I interrupted Bob Nastanovich, a chart caller for Prairie Meadows in Des Moines, Iowa; member of Pavement; and Pittsburgh Pirates lifer. As a longtime fan of Nastanovich's irreplaceable backstage caterwauls and auxiliary cymbal rolls, I had followed him on Twitter and quickly became intrigued by his horse racing knowledge.

“It’s just not as much a priority for the sports fan who is under 40 anymore. Horse racing is not as significant in a town like Pittsburgh, it gets lost in the shuffle,” says Nastanovich. “You are going to get people where it is just part of their lives. I probably saw the exact same crowd of 40 people when I went to The Meadows about four years ago.”

click to enlarge The Meadows Racetrack & Casino - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
The Meadows Racetrack & Casino
As a lifelong fan, Nastanovich grew up with a respect for the sport and went to a middle school in Central Virginia where the principal was cousins with the owner of Secretariat and Riva Ridge, two Triple Crown winners. He has witnessed, experienced, and analyzed the ebbs and flows of the sport since the ’70s.

“There will always be hardcore fans that go to the track, but those numbers have probably dwindled from 1,500 people per race to about 300,” he says. “Really it comes down to poor racetrack management. It’s sort of gone the way of boxing. It is a sport that has not marketed itself well, it has not adapted to the times, it has not organized itself. There has never been a successful umbrella organization, and all the rules are different in every state, which is frustrating to bettors.”

After about 20 minutes of looking confused and watching senior citizens bowl, delaying the inevitable shame I was about to face by trying to place a bet with a live, capable human, I bought a program rife with information I did not understand. I had placed exactly two bets on a horse race in 2005, in the days of peak The O.C., and only had slight recall on terms like “exacta,” “trifecta,” and “box.”

The program listed each race, the horses’ names (definitely the most fun part), odds, betting specials, etc. Then there was this mess of numbers and hieroglyphic-like symbols jumbled together like the clippings on John Nash’s garage walls. Something that complicated can’t be of any value to me.

I asked the mutuel clerks if I had the definition of a trifecta bet right. She explained it to me and asked if I understood. I did not but nodded and sat back down. After about 20 minutes of internet phone research, I cobbled together enough correct terminology to place three bets, which I think cost me one dollar each. My betting system is a split between picking the best odds and most hilarious horse names. I won two of my three bets and made $16. There were maybe 10 other people outside, two of which were under heat lamps in the 70-degree weather. While the wins were exciting, the overall desolation of the track cast a somber feel on the overall experience. Perhaps a more prime time event would be more fun.

OTB Harmar: Smoke ’em if you got ’em. Secondhand smoke ’em if you don’t

I walked into the OTB on a Thursday afternoon and immediately got lost in a labyrinth of seemingly unrelated rooms. There were probably 10 or so of the same type of older man I saw at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino scattered throughout the different enclaves. This place was like the brother of The Meadows, the brother that despite having all the same advantages as his sibling, fell on some hard times, lives in a Microbus, and speaks proudly at holiday dinners of being a freegan. The bar was in the middle of an elevated area that was under heavy repair with no one operating it. Several men smoked cigars. I sat down at a table and tried to figure out how I was going to last the necessary time it would take to place a bet and collect some interesting anecdotes.

My table was in a nonsmoking section, which was adjacent to a smoking section with almost no delineation between the two. The patrons appeared simultaneously downtrodden and hopeful. Each room had about 24 tube televisions broadcasting different races, none of which were the same size, brand, or hue, like a discount table at Trader Jack’s. There were betting machines scattered indiscriminately on the walls, which looked more like surveillance devices to be avoided than anything you’d want to give money and touch. It was like Blade Runner for horse gamblers.

click to enlarge The OTB in Harmar - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
The OTB in Harmar

There was no indication that anybody worked there. I went to the bathroom, which offered mounted ashtrays above each urinal — a timely feature for 2019. I saw a room called the "Adios Lounge." I had no intention of finding what was behind those frosted, glass doors. Probably more fuzzy, tube TVs, but maybe a body? (I later learned that “Adios” was Delvin Miller’s renowned sire and is now enshrined as a statue at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, but I stand by my dead-body theory.)

After downing an Iron City from the bar that was hidden in another corner of the building, which has to be shaped like an octagon because there’s a new, smokey catacomb at every turn, I lost my concern for general cleanliness and hit the betting machine. First, I had to buy a $5 program from a woman hidden in another corner watching Days of Our Lives. She was very nice. I popped a $20 bill in the machine and found the race I wanted, selected the bet amount, and input my picks. While that sounds like it went smoothly, the machine alerted me at least five times that I had done something wrong and would have to start over. Thankfully, I foresaw this and chose to use the most remote machine.

click to enlarge The OTB in Harmar - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
The OTB in Harmar

I returned to the bar to watch my races and track my bets. There were about ten men in there and a woman bartending. Some of the patrons had food from a restaurant I could not locate. Only two men sat next to one another, but like I suspected at The Meadows, they all knew one another. I overheard spirited cries, such as “She’s got dirt speed, but not turf speed.” “Get up, eight, you piece of shit!” There were friendly arguments over whether Aiello’s was better than Mineo’s. Someone was asking “Who’s got the smokes?” and another was decrying the dangers of using heroin. This was more fun than The Meadows, but still clung to the dated ambiance obligatory to modern horse racing.

I had a couple more Irons and watched my $3 trifecta box hit in the first race. None of my other bets produced a winner. Calculating my first-race winner, the $5 program, and the 20 bucks I used to bet, I came out $1 in the black! It was also a net positive for overheard conversations. As I got up to leave, the guy who had been there since before I arrived, just grabbed a Miller Lite, and said his job was killing him besides being recently promoted, asked the bartender one last question: “Do you like Blues Traveler?” I walked out as he treated her and the rest of the bar to his rendition of “Run-Around.”

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