One Last Peek

They call it Blue Mountain, the southern ridge of the Appalachian Mountain range in Pennsylvania. Most of it is green, of course, but at certain times--such as on hazy, summer days--the many evergreens strike a bluish appearance from a distance.

Blue Mountain was home for about three years to a newlywed couple that rented an apartment on the third floor of a large, brick house in a small town at the foot of the mountain in the northeastern reaches of the Lehigh Valley. The porch looked out on Blue Mountain and offered breathtaking views.

From the porch, it seemed Blue Mountain was ever-changing. On partly cloudy days, the shadows would dance across it for miles. In the fall, it would explode with color. Approaching storm clouds from the west in the spring and summer would give it an eerie appearance. And one sunny winter morning after an ice storm, Blue Mountain was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

On Sundays, Karen and I would sometimes make the 90-minute drive west to Penn National Race Course, using a route along which you never lost sight of Old Blue. The track is located at the foot of the mountain, and the view from the grandstand or apron, particularly in the fall, alone was worth the trip.

I'd go so far as to say Blue Mountain made it easier to tear up losing tickets on all those $2,500 condition claiming races.

Racetracks, like mountains, have an aura--almost a personality--for those who take the time to experience them. It is the horses, the people, the smells, the view, and, of course, the memories.

On April Fools' Day of this year, Fred Lipkin, the publicity director at Penn National, stood in his soon-to-be demolished office at the Grantville track and asked, "What am I going to do with all this stuff?"

Lipkin, who began his career at Penn calling races in 1973, a year after the track opened, produced old manila folders packed with black-and-white photos of the people that called it home or visited over the course of more than 30 years. In the back of a desk drawer, he found a program for July 29, 1979, the day eventual two-time Horse of the Year John Henry checked in fourth in the off-the-turf Capital City Handicap.

Lipkin proudly displayed a large photograph of Da Hoss winning the 1996 Pennsylvania Governor's Cup Handicap on the turf two starts before his first of two wins in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT). He talked of his favorite horse, a freaky-fast and classy filly named Dainty Dotsie, who in 1977 won a six-furlong allowance race in 1:08.80, a record she still shares with five other horses.

"As God is my witness, the rider pulled her up at the eighth pole," Lipkin said. "I think she could have gone in 1:07 that day."

The massive, aging Penn grandstand/ clubhouse, with its odd mix of interior colors, will be leveled when owner Penn National Gaming is finally licensed to install slot machines. Live racing will continue with an on-site OTB-style facility during the 12-to-14 months it takes to build the Hollywood Casino at Grantville, a flashy racino that will offer horseplayers a much nicer environment, according to the specs.

Gone will be the cavern that housed the World Series of Handicapping, which some players still believe was the finest handicapping contest ever. Lipkin recalled when Roy White of the New York Yankees tried to work in a trip between home stands for a qualifying round, did so, and made the final.

"I still get e-mails about it," Lipkin said of the contest held from 1974-2000. "It put us on the map. For a small track, we never got cheated out of big thrills."

As Lipkin prepared to pack up boxes and move into temporary quarters, he admitted there was a "sense of melancholy in the air" even though Penn wasn't really going away.

"If you stay at one place long enough, you've got to love it," he said. "The good thing is the racetrack is still here, the racing is still here, and the mountain is still here."

Penn is moving on, yet another track to be reinvented by a gaming company that says it will build an integrated facility that won't shortchange racing or racing fans. We'll give it the benefit of the doubt, knowing full well what really drives the financial bottom line.

Old Blue will be watching. Thank God they can't move mountains.