Presque Isle Downs Named Best Racino
--News item, Thoroughbred Times

In the mid-1970s, when I was flacking for Presque Isle Downs' forerunner in Erie, I would have taken the short money that the lakeside Western Pennsylvania city would ever click with a horse track. Commodore Downs, where I did time for a couple of years, was an outright failure. It died, and then a reincarnation, called Erie Downs, also died, in 1987. Nobody attended either funeral.

Horse-wise, Erie was surrounded by Thistledown in Cleveland, a harness track in Buffalo, another thoroughbred track, Waterford Park, in West Virginia, and The Meadows, Del Miller's well-run harness facility in suburban Pittsburgh. The thoroughbreds, in the form of an underfunded outfit called Pitt Park, lost about $600,000 in two years in Pittsburgh and turned turtle. Inexplicably, the commonwealth refused to give a racing license to Art Rooney, the avuncular owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and an intrepid handicapper who had bought the franchise with money that came from a killing at Saratoga. Rooney, who bred and raced horses, made his fortune in pro football, but his heart was really shaped like a stopwatch. "The thing I like about you, kid," he once said to me, flicking ashes from his big cigar, "is that we can talk horses. There aren't many guys in this town that I can say that about."

Patti Barton, the first female jockey to win 1,000 races, passed through Commodore Downs, having married a professor at a nearby university, and a 13-year-old gelding named Stonehenge won a race and got us in Sports Illustrated, but star power and quality horses were non-existent. Which isn't to say that Commodore was devoid of charm. Rodney Creed, a member of the jockey colony, was picked up by his girlfriend Wanda at the jocks' room door at the end of the card every night. She drove a motorcycle, and they formed a sidesplitting tableau, putt-putting away under a summer Pennsylvania moon. "Honda Wanda," she came to be known.

By 1977, Commodore Downs was thisclose to the poorhouse. We had borrowed from every bank in Erie but one. Tom Schuchert, a Pittsburgh attorney who was one of Commodore's owners, invited the president of that lone bank to the races on a Friday night. "Afterwards, I'll take him and his wife out for a drink or two," said Schuchert, and I gave him the name and the password of one of the after-hours clubs that were renown in Erie.

The races were run in a terrible storm, and before the card was over a thunderbolt struck the roof of the clubhouse. Water began pouring down on the table where the banker, his wife and Schuchert were sitting. They were moved to a dry spot, or at least a table where several buckets could be strategically placed.

Near midnight, the four of us rolled into the all-night club, and Schuchert had gauged the banker correctly: He was at home with a glass. At 3 a.m., I excused myself and went home. I had things to do at the office in only a few hours.

At noon, a bleary-eyed Schuchert toddled into the track offices. We all waited eagerly to hear whether he'd secured the last-ditch loan. Being open another week was at stake.

"The banker's wife was wearing a wig," Schuchert said. "About 4:30, I leaned over, put my hand on her knee and whispered something in her ear. She found my suggestion repugnant and pushed me away. I reached over, yanked off her wig, and threw it to the floor."

I had visions of cleaning out my desk.

"But whaddyaknow," Schuchert said. "We got the loan. Maybe her old man didn't like that wig, either."

Presque Isle Downs, which has 2,000 slot machines in its casino, appears to have a license to print its own money. Tom Amoss, Steve Asmussen and Scott Lake, heavyweight trainers all, raced their horses there during the inaugural 25-day meet, and this year they'll race 100 days, May into September. A belated downbeat, maestro: Hip, hip, hooray for Erie, PA.