Mountaineer a worthy destination

Mountaineer racetrack is tough to get to, but it's worth the task.

Most folks on their way to "The Mountain," fly into Pittsburgh. Not a bad airport, since you can get to almost any city in North America directly from there.

And if your plane is delayed on your way home, there are 65 shops and eating establishments scattered among the departure gates.

If you leave on a Sunday morning, you can also attend church services on the level between the ticket desks and baggage claim. If you do, pray for luck next time you make the scenic drive down highways 18 and 30 to what has become a true resort destination for many thoroughbred fans, and just plain working people who like to gamble.

Soon you are out of Pennsylvania and onto the country roads of West Virginia that John Denver told us about so long ago. Even longer ago, back in the mid 1960's, I made my first trip to this oasis, which was then called Waterford Park. At the time I was the track announcer at Fairmount Park just across the Mississippi river from St. Louis.

Fairmount Park was one of a string of tracks owned by Jim and Joan Edwards -- Scarboro Downs in Maine, Wheeling Downs in West Virginia, and Waterford Park were all part of their empire. Jim also campaigned the Audley Farm stable of runners. I always associate ex-jockey and great friend Garth Patterson with that stable, where he had considerable success early in his career. Garth is now retired and living in Jolley, Iowa. But there is even more action today at what once was a sleepy valley in the heart of Chester, West Virginia.

As you approach Chester, it is apparent that life lives close to the two lane highway. Many residents in this part of the country run their business from home. Beauty shops, dentists, auto supply shops, even a few pizza parlors have been tucked into the front parts of homes on the way to Mountaineer.

It is a beautiful and soothing drive, especially if you are not doing the driving. Dick, the van driver from Mountaineer, is a longtime resident and fascinating employee of the resort. In his 60's, he remembers 50 years ago when he and his friends walked hots for 50 cents each on summer mornings at Waterford.

Dick said it was difficult to get to the track then too, especially that last dusty mile. But for Dick and his friends, a young jockey with a beat up car not only gave the guys a ride to the track, but even treated them to soda.

That was 1952, the same year that generous young jockey rode the first winner of his long and brilliant Hall of Fame career. The jockey was Bill Hartack. The scene of this initial triumph was none other than Waterford Park. The horse was Nickleby, who carried young Hartack to his first winners circle on October 14, 1952.

Dick said that Hartack was not popular with the local riders, because he stole several girlfriends away during his stay here!

The drive is hard by the Ohio River, the road framed by tall pines. Each worthy to be the one at Rockefeller Center in New York each Christmas.

Hundreds of flags and faded banners, reflective globes and homemade signs lead the way. Through Newell, past the volunteer fire department that's alongside the Fiesta factory, finally rounding the bend to see not Brigadoon, but Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort

My return this time was to call the 29th edition of the West Virginia Derby for the track and ESPN. With the slots doing record business, the purse for this year's race jumped to $500,000!

And what a field that loot attracted. Thunder Blitz, Buckle Down Ben, Marciano, Outofthebox, Lukas, Bailey, Day, Stevens, Orseno, Dutrow, Flint, Ritchey, Johnston, Pino, and a grandstand full of fans.

But I hope the above human celebrity visitors enjoyed the drive to and the drive from the track, because they didn't get the money.

A 3-year-old by the name of Western Pride jumped to the front at 21-1, and never looked back. Local leading rider Dana Whitney won his third race of the night, which he said was the highlight of his young career. He also set a track record of 1:47 1/5. That clipped a tick off a mark that had stood since Park Guard won the big race in 1974.

Over the years the ownership and the management has changed, but not the hospitality. When I first visited over 35 years ago, I was entertained by an outstanding racing executive of that time, Harry Bell. Bell was general manager for Jim Edwards.

This time, my contact was Rose Mary Williams, the dynamo assistant to president and CEO Ted Arneault. Why am I not surprised to find out that the talented Mrs. Williams is Harry Bell's granddaughter?

It is a great team, led by the energetic and visionary Mr. Arneault.

If you are in the area, take that lovely, leafy drive to Mountaineer. Enjoy the racing or perhaps you'll catch a boxing match or a great live show, like Tony Bennett in the big amphitheater. Or sooth away those pains after a day at the slots, or a night at the ponies with a visit to the spa and fitness center.

Mountaineer is now starting its second fifty years, and it is truly worth the visit.