The paddock is a popular place at old Atlantic City
In walks Tom DeMartini with a s**t-eating grin on his face after a traffic jam on the Schuylkill Expressway turned a 90-minute trip into a three-hour journey.
Never mind that. It's good to be back, isn't it, my friend?
This is New Jersey racing as we remember it, and it doesn't really matter it's not what it was. But any other place might be long gone. They did right by us when they built the old joint with concrete and steel, and hardly any wood.
Yes, Atlantic City Race Course is still open. And we're happily scratching our heads, because we just can't figure it out. It's like that old horror flick The Brain That Wouldn't Die.
Opening day 2009. Sunny but cool. By the time the fourth of six races went off at about 5 p.m., the crowd count appeared to be more than 3,000. Not bad for a Thursday afternoon at a racetrack located 15 miles from the South Jersey casino strip.
The racing? Five races drew full field of 12, and the other race a field of 11, thanks to turf racing and an interesting condition book. When the final race is run May 1, field size for the little meet might be higher than 11 per race.
The crowd? Perfect. A few old faces from the 1970s, 40-somethings like us, younger guys with beers in both hands, and couples with kids that ran back and forth on the apron. Hello!
So what's the deal? We know there's interest from the locals and horsemen. On-track handle was in the $140,000 range, which ain't too bad these days at 75% of the tracks in the country. It's a shame more betting outlets didn't take the signal. Why wouldn't you offer wagering on 12-horse fields on the grass?
Maureen Bugdon, who runs Atlantic City, calls it "the wave"--when the crowd, like clockwork, moves from the paddock behind the grandstand inside to make bets and then heads to the apron to watch the races. "Ride the Wave" might make a good slogan and logo should the shore-area track ever decide to market its product again. Wouldn't that be great?
We call ourselves degenerates, but not because we're desperate to put our money through the windows every race. It's because we love racing, handicapping, and the social aspects of a day at the track. Other people, do, too.
We can have as much fun watching cheap OH-breds in the 90-degree soup from the paddock tiki bar at River Downs as we do at the Breeders' Cup. And there's nothing quite like hanging out on the apron at The Meadowlands on a winter night as a few sore losers charge the fence yelling obscenities at drivers.
Well, maybe that's not for everybody. That's a Northeast harness thing. But you get the picture. It's about atmosphere.
DeMartini and Joe DeVivo of Daily Racing Form visited nearby Delaware Park on its opening day, a Saturday, and both said the joint was packed. This is good. There are few places as nice as Delaware Park to take in the races, but often the crowds haven't been there.
Maybe this horrible economy isn't without positives. Handle is down, but is interest in racing down? At a couple of tracks in the Mid-Atlantic, apparently not. Something to build on, perhaps?
It's always nice to go home, even as things change. Next year? How about 10 days at Atlantic City? The following year, why not May and September meets? How about an industry plan for the future of New Jersey racing that takes into account all the stakeholders?
On the second day of the Atlantic City meet, the crowd was more than 4,000. We soaked it in, glad to be there but wondering how much better it could be with a little more effort.
We've got the starting point.
Not a bad crowd for a Thursday afternoon