(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Near the gate, a horse is spooked. It rears, so the jockey and groom back off. The horse turns and runs in the other direction. A pony horse and rider follow the galloping thoroughbred as it escapes. It makes it around one turn of the track before the escaping horse seems confused, turns, evades the pony horse, and runs more. Confusion again sets in for the horse. An owner and trainer walk onto the track, approaching slowly and cautiously. Their presence seemingly corrals the nervous horse long enough for the pony horse rider to grab onto the reins.
The horse is guided back to the starting gate, loaded into a stall, and within moments, the race begins. In less than two minutes, the horses are nearing the final stretch to the finish line. Along the patio, some 75 onlookers — maybe all gamblers, maybe just people who came to watch a race — call out to the horses: “C’mon” or “Let’s go” or some variation of those phrases. They call out to them by name.
Racehorses have odd names. Race horse owner and trainer Tim Girten has a horse in the third race named Serene Warrior (that horse will finish second in its race). Girten said sometimes horses are named by combining the names of its parents. The names also have to be to unique to be approved by the Jockey Club (the horse version of the American Kennel Club for dogs). Though Girten has owned and/or trained quite a few horses — he’s been a licensed racer since 1994 and he’s raced horses in more than 3,000 races — his horse Little Aladdin Rib quickly comes to mind as a standout. Girten claimed the horse for about $15,000, and when he retired the horse it had earned about $375,000.
“I was racing in Ohio at the time, and he was the Ohio Handicap Horse of the Year in 1996,” Girten said. “I’ve had quite a few stake horses.”
On a damp May 18 afternoon — a weekday — about 100 people were watching the first four races. It doesn’t matter if it’s damp. The staff say the horses run faster when it’s wet. A small handful of horses ran in each race. Each race lasted about 2 minutes. There are typically 27 or so minutes between races. And Presque Isle Downs has eight races each day that they race in the season. Meanwhile, races from all over the world are simulcast on TV screens inside so gamblers can keep the action going between each local race, placing bets on faraway races through the local establishment, or betting online.
Two minutes is all each race gets, but it’s made possible through the efforts of dozens of people. A typical horse track features grooms (who leads the horse), groups of jockeys dressed in colorful uniforms (they ride the horses), valets who assist the jockeys, trainers, a paddock judge (who looks over the horses and equipment to ensure it meets all the necessary standards), a horse identifier, a pony horse and rider (an experienced horse that leads the race horses to the gate), an exercise rider, and a hotwalker (who walks with the horse after the race to cool it down). There’s also medical staff, both for the jockeys and the animals. An ambulance follows each race around the track. At Presque Isle Downs, a veterinarian drives a Kia sedan behind the ambulance.
As a licensed racer, an owner and a trainer, Girten is one of the many people beside the track making sure everything is set. He comes from a family of horse racers. His mother, Shirley Girten-Drake, was a trainer and is a well-known name in racing circles. Tim Girten says pedigree is the beginning of a successful racehorse, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
“Pedigree helps, but each horse is an individual. Perfect example is Rich Strike (the 2022 Kentucky Derby winner) — he didn’t have the best pedigree in the world and he just went and beat the horses that were $2 million, and he was claimed for $30,000,” Girten said. “So every horse is an individual athlete, and they can come from anywhere. But pedigree and confirmation is the start.”
That said, “natural ability” is what makes a horse a great racehorse, he added.
Girten spends most of his time in Erie, he said. His official residence is in Ohio. He spends a good amount of time in Florida where he works horses in the off-season. He travels to Louisiana sometimes for racing, as well. He’s passionate about horse racing and his work with the horses (he also lights up when talking about fishing, both in saltwater in Florida and on Lake Erie).
“It’s not a job. You can call it a career, but it’s more of a lifestyle,” he said. “Seven days a week, 365 days a year, they always have to be taken care of.”
While waiting for his horses to run, he’s watching the other races. The owners can claim other horses. Essentially, it’s an offer to buy a horse. Like much of the sport, it’s both simple and complicated. On May 18, Girten had a claim in an envelope in his pocket, ready for a claiming race.
“I liked his racing form,” Girten said. “He looks like he’d be a useful horse that should like this surface. So, we’ll see what happens after the race.”
Simple but also complicated — that also describes betting. A simple bet would be one that picks a certain horse to win the race. But then there are exotic wagers with terms like exacta, quinella, trifecta, and superfecta, and don’t forget about boxed exotic wagers and horizontal wagers. They’re all pari-mutuel wagers, meaning players are betting against each other and not against the racetrack (by contrast, in blackjack, players bet against the dealer/casino, not against each other).
Tammy Harman understands all of the types of bets at the track. She’s the mutuel manager at Presque Isle Downs, and she’s been taking bets on horse racing for nearly 20 years. (A little bit of recent Erie horse racing history: Before there was Presque Isle Downs and Casino, there was “The Downs.” The Downs was an off-track betting facility. There, players would bet on races from around the world that were simulcast into The Downs. The bets would happen through The Downs, but there was no physical horse racing there. Harman said that in order for Presque Isle Downs to open, the former off-track betting venue had to close. Harman and the rest of the staff at The Downs was hired on by Presque Isle Downs and Casino.) Harman started as a teller at The Downs in 2005. She came to Presque Isle Downs and Casino in 2007, and she’s been here since.
After a race she watches the board along the track and explains the odds and payouts.
“It’s exciting just to watch to begin with, plus if you know how to wager… and that’s where we (the tellers) come in. We teach people how to bet and make wagers,” Harman said.
She said she’s pretty good at picking out a winning horse, and she has a system, but she also said everyone has their own system. Harman said she watches the horses work out and picks from there. She has a teller that works at the Downs who bets based on their birthday. Presque Isle Downs and Casino marketing coordinator Erin Wienczkowski said she bets based on color.
“Those pots can get big, and it’s fun,” Harman said. “It’s fun when a longshot comes in — You’ve got the favorites and then the longshots when they come in… It’s just like the Derby (Kentucky Derby). He (Rich Strike) was an 80:1 shot, and that is where you make your money.”
As the mutuel manager, she’s essentially responsible for every bet that’s placed. She’s also responsible for making sure everybody is on the same page. The results on the board have to match what the announcer is saying. Those results also have to match whatever is being reported where people are watching a simulcast.
“The tellers, they do their job. They’re good at it. I count on them more than anything because they make my job easy,” she said. “They’re so good at what they do that unless something really big comes up, they take care of it themselves.”
Many of those tellers have been with her a long time. Two of the tellers at Presque Isle Downs first started as tellers at The Downs back in 1991.
“This job. I love this job. It’s just fun. I like my employees. They’re great,” Harman said. “I have two that started over there at The Downs on day-one, and they’re both still here working, for 32 years. All of my employees have been doing this a long time.”
They and their regular customers have to come know each other as more than coworkers and customers.
“Not only us, but our regulars that are here all the time, are like family. We’ve known those guys a long time,” she said. “Like, they grow old, and they die, and we go to funerals because we’ve know them for so long.”
SEE THEM RUN
The most exciting moment of the fourth race was when the anxious horse was loose on the track. Some people along the Presque Isle Downs patio had lightly applauded the horse as it evaded the pony horse and rider, like baseball fans cheering on a cat that’s loose in the outfield and evading umpires. Then the gates opened. The horses made their way around the far corner, then turned into the final stretch. It wasn’t even close. There was a clear winner. But that didn’t stop the crowd from shouting at their respective picks. Their excited shouts didn’t change the outcome. The race was run.
At 62 years old, Harman said retirement is on her mind.
“I keep thinking about it year after year. It’s just going to be, like when I know, I know, and I’ll be done,” she said.
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Girten, however, isn’t sure when he’ll elect to hang it up. When asked how long he’ll keep racing and training horses he said, “Probably until I die. I’m in my early 50s now, and I’m sure I’ll still be doing it at 70.”