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Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Mighty M Not Very Mighty

- Last week was a whirlwind between my trip upstate and the midweek holiday; I can't believe it's been almost a week already since I drove back last Monday. It was a trip which I wanted to mention. Whereas we took major highways from Vermont to Oneonta, mostly the picturesque Route 88, driving back to New York is more complicated, though in a happy way. The directions I printed out from Map Quest was a maze of two-lane country roads, and there are few things I enjoy more than following complex directions, consulting road maps and weaving my way through scenic back roads on a gorgeous day. Unlike handicapping, it's a puzzle that I can figure successfully 100% of the time. (The Head Chef may disagree with that figure.)

It was an insanely beautiful drive. The goal was to get to Route 17, which would then take me back to the city in a virtual straight line. The northern end of that highway is beautiful as well, but it starts to go downhill once the billboards, illegal in Vermont, start up once you get to Liberty.

Route 17 was once referred to as the Quickway, a characterization that those who used to try to make their way from the once-thriving Catskills resorts back to the city on Sunday nights would dispute. Years ago, I traveled on that road many times, mostly on trips to and from Monticello. So I well knew that I would be passing right by Monticello Raceway....The Mighty M, now officially known as Monticello Gaming and Raceway. I thought about stopping by just to pay a visit to a track which I haven't been to in a good 15-20 years, and checking out the racino.

It was always a special thrill to turn into the parking lot years ago and see the neon harness horse pacing away on the side of the building. Monticello, or Monti as it was affectionately known, was a little like Saratoga to the downstate harness racing. Yes, the season ran for months, and concurrently with the meets at Roosevelt and Yonkers. But the air was clear, the green hills rose in the background, and you could see many of your favorite downstate drivers there, including Herve Filion and Benny "the Whip" Webster, on Sunday afternoons. 2:30 post time, it was the only racing in the state on Sunday. And the weekend nights buzzed with excitement, crowded with people vacationing at now-closed resorts such as the Concord and Grossinger's.

As I approached Monticello, I realized that there was actually a chance that there was live racing there on Monday afternoons. So I made the turnoff, swung around on Route 17B, and entered the still familiar parking lot. The old neon harness horse is covered up by a sign. But indeed, there was live racing underway - what a delightful and unexpected treat! I experienced a wave of euphoria.

But it didn't last all that long. It was all an all-too-familiar experience after having visited Yonkers and Saratoga Harness. You go through a familiar-looking entrance, but once inside, you're greeted by the sterile, numbing world of slots. It was virtually indistinguishable from the other racinos, except that they play bad music over the din of the machines. I actually had to endure Eric Clapton's hideous rendition of Layla from the repulsive MTV Unplugged series. But there is actually a small area on the slots floor with a couple of betting machines and the live and simulcast racing on TV's.

Up on the racing floor, like at the other tracks, it was as if it was frozen in time. Not a thing had changed up on the second floor, not the the mutuel windows, the refreshment stand, nor the big overhead signs with the letters that designated seating sections that used to be full, but on this day accommodated perhaps 50 diehards. Maybe.

Worst of all, it was clear that the racing was not at all thriving from slots money. The purses had never gotten that big there to start with; the fact that horsemen were so happy showed just how low the racing had fallen. Whatsmore, looking at the past performances, it was clear that purses were on the way down; there clearly had been two purse cuts in the last couple of months as slots revenues have stalled. It all added up to create a pretty dreary feeling. Not much sign of a revival of the sport here. A couple of small bets later, I was more than ready to resume my trip home. No, I didn't have any winners. But I did take some photos.

The grandstand apron apparently has an alternate use.

Track owner Empire Resorts wishes to partner with the St Regis tribe to build a full-fledged casino on the site. Racing would then presumably not be legally required to remain in place.


Anonymous said...

As bad as your experience was at the Big M I have to take issue with your comments about Claptons slow version of Layla. I know the original version was played by Cream, but I believe Clapton wrote, played and sang while he was a member of that band. If anybody gets to slow down a song I think it should be the origianl artist. And contrary to your opinion, I think both version are great.

Anonymous said...

Well, actually the song was originally recorded by Derek & the Dominoes, a band formed by Clapton after he left Cream (and Blind Faith, and Delaney & Bonnie).

Clapton did indeed write the song, inspired by his infatuation with Patti Boyd Harrison, who was at the time married to George Harrison.

Anonymous said...

While anonymous vs. anonymous go at it over Eric Clapton, let me say that this here is a fantastic post about racing. Photos, history, perspective, descriptions... really nice.

Alan Mann said...

Despite my feelings toward the acoustic version of Layla, I just wanted to add that the Derek and the Dominoes album, which was entitled Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and which included the brilliance of Duane Allman, is one of the true enduring classics from the era (it was released in 1970), and still a regular listen. That helps to make the wimpy MTV Unplugged version of Layla so hard for me to take.

Blind Faith was another one-shot deal, and was considered to be the first rock "supergroup," combining Clapton and Ginger Baker from Cream with Traffic's Steve Winwood. You may remember the original cover art, which was banned in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Delighted I found your blog linked on equidaily. Funny I should find it after making overnight from Saratoga Springs to NYC to see Willie Nile at the Cutting Room. In my not-so-humble opinion, he's the second best act in Rock N Roll. If any of you get a chance to see him with the "Prisoners of Second Avenue," sprint to the venue. Slide player Jimmy Livino is awesome; fast, clean and unafraid. First saw Willie open for Levon Helm at Woodstock last summer. Also thought (don't buy much product) his "Streets of New York" was the CD of the year 2006. I'm old enough to have seen The Who do "Tommy" at the Fillmore (my ears hurt for two days and couldn't hear very well for three) and Billy Preston steal Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh"[cq] with "That's the Way God Planned It." I think that's the title. (Lots of legal meds when you're 63).
Anyway, great blog Alan.

P.S. You guys ever check out Might be worth your time.

Anonymous said...

i lived there in 90s -worked there in offices in 80s.
grew up loving monti sunday racing and drivers like walter case - george brennan, luc oulette and jackie mo all had short stints there. was a great track and i went back too for the casino in 2005 -- i was depressed as heck with the old parts of the track so sad looking upstairs. same guy still sells programs that did when they opened in 58 lol
i loved the old nightclub bar on the 2nd floor too, comfy cold room with 100s of tvs. its a shell of its best days and very sad, i remember silk stockings in the otb classic on channel 9 -- i was 17 then.