It’s early autumn, and my friend Mason and I strike out on a glorious afternoon for an old-fashioned roadtrip. We’re en route to the little burg of Grantville, smack dab in the middle of the rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania, eager to check out an historic and beautiful landmark of our newfound love of horse racing, Penn National Race Course. We’ve never visited this part of the Keystone State before, and we’re ready for whatever comes around the next bend.
We had looked online for a different kind of place to stay and found a great room at the lovely Red Umbrella Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by a really neat lady named Anna Goss. She’s been at it here since October 2010, and has a great way of making us feel welcome. Anna’s B&B is close to the intersection of Jonestown and Firehouse Roads, which used to be the heart of the old town square of Grantville. According to Anna, during hunting season, people would hang deer hides in the square to dry in the sun. Safe to say we don’t see any sign of such activity this time.
Anna and her family also own Old Grantville General Store Antiques, which sells a cacophony of vintage household oddities, décor, jewelry, and other fun finds that can quickly fill the back seat of your car. (Gotta be really careful here; do I truly need that cameo brooch and the antique orange juicer?)
Like most B&B people (I think they’re a little bit crazy, in a very good way), Anna’s great about chatting with her guests. She’s pretty engaging. “My favorite part of running the Red Umbrella is meeting so many different kinds of people,” said Anna. “I don’t consider this work so I think I’m in the right business. I really enjoy the people contact. And this is such a beautiful part of the country.” Anna gets excited when we tell her we’re off to the races.
“I think a lot of people should go check out the old race course,” Anna tells us. “It’s a really different experience for folks, especially if you don’t know a whole lot about horses. What a great way to get to know ‘em!”
She gets Mason and I all comfy in our room and after a quick freshen-up, we head out for adventure. (Mason’s always ready before I am, but I think it’s important to keep him waiting just a wee bit.) We wanna wander around the back roads of the old town before heading over to the track. It’s pretty peaceful around these parts. We stop and look at a classic 1953 Chevy the exact color of Mason’s shirt and we have a short fantasy about hopping in and heading west to whatever comes next. But we don’t, and keep strolling, past a lazy dog sleeping on top of his dog house, as if he’s keeping an eye on things even while he’s napping.
We find a local farmer’s market, and grab some tasty snacks. There’s all sorts of great produce here and veggies and pretzels. We don’t wanna fill up too much, because we’re hoping for a big dinner after cashing in on a couple of winners.
We arrive at Penn National and the excitement builds. The track is part of the Hollywood Casino, a crazy place unlike any we’ve visited or even seen before. As soon as we walk in it’s like the back lot of a classic Hollywood movie stuido and includes large buildings, a docked ship and a forest. That’s right, a ship and a forest.
There’s also a pretty cool little Hollywood museum, and we wander past clothes worn by Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and there’s even the motorcycle that Harrison Ford rode in the Indiana Jones trilogy. Which is one of Mason’s favorites, so he pretends he’s cool Mr. Jones for a couple minutes and makes cute vroom-vroom noises with his lips. Funny guy.
Luckily, we’re hooked up with Jeffrey Cassel, the manager of the racecourse and he offers to take us on an extensive tour of the track and stables. There’s nothing cooler than getting behind the scenes. As we walk and gawk, Jeff tells us about some of the pretty cool modern features happening at historic Penn National.
“We’ve taken advantage of new handheld technology,” Jeff tells us. “We’ve gotten some of our pari-mutuel clerks out from behind the counter and into the crowd. We call ‘em Walk Abouts,” Cause they walk about the crowd carrying remote laptops on which you can make a wager. This way, you don’t even have to leave your table or your bar stool to pick your favorite horse.”
And if you wanna just sit and cool your jets, Penn National also has what Jeff calls a “simulcast theatre,” where you can watch and bet on races all over the world 24/7. After Jeff shows us around the track, he takes us out to the stables to meet some of the horses up close and personal. At any given moment, about 1,000 beautiful horses live at Penn National in 28 different barns. We walk into one, and stroll along the stable aisle and head after pretty head pops out of a line of stalls and greets us with perked ears and curious stares. Along the way, a barn cat falls in love with Mason’s sneakers and tries his best to tangle himself up in the laces during the whole time we’re there.
Everything’s warm and clean and bright, and the horses look really happy. No doubt some of them are getting ready to run for the winner’s circle. And with any luck, that’s where we’ll meet ‘em next.
We say our goodbyes and share our thanks with Jeff, and Mason and I head back to the track to watch a few races and pick a few winners. That’s where we find our favorite place at Penn Nat, the Mountain View Terrace and Dining Restaurant. Here before us is an elegant, enclosed, high-rise view of the beautiful oval racecourse, with the green, green infield glowing beneath the bright lights below. At the Mountain View there is luxury box seating that folks take for their own and design to fit their tastes, no matter how wild they might be. In my mind, I’m already decking out my luxury seats with a couple of Lay-Z-Boys and a big old bearskin rug.
We’ve had enough tourism for one day, and now it’s our happy hour. We grab a couple of excellent cocktails and contemplate our first bets. It’s been raining off and on for a good bit and the track’s a sloppy mess. The races go on, of course, and the sloppy conditions coat both the horses and jockeys in a thick film of mud.
Mason picks himself a pretty good mudder and winds up a winner. I take a little more time to peruse the program and try my best to remember some of the handicapping lessons I’ve been learning lately. Something clicks right and in the next race I make well informed decision and bring home $10 on a $2 bet. Not too shabby.
We’re having a pretty time rooting for each other, but in the last race of the night, we bet on different horses. We give each other the hairy eyeball as the horses file into the starting gate. We jockey for position near the glass and elbow each other as the horses fly down the backstretch. Our two ponies are racing neck and neck, as if they know they’re racing just for us. They storm toward the finish and we both start screaming along with the rest of the crowd.
“Go five! Go five! Go!” Mason yells. I fist-pump the air, willing my number seven horse to dig into the mud just a little bit harder.
And bang, the long shot comes out of nowhere and passes both our horses to our disappointment. We call it a night, actually a great success filled with real fun, good food, great cocktails and more goose bumps than we deserve. We mosey on back to the Red Umbrella and sack out with visions of magnificent horses racing in our heads. Next morning, we rise and shine to a home cooked breakfast prepared by our new
friend Anna. She lays out amazing French toast, crisp country bacon and muffins stillwarm from the oven. We say our goodbyes and head down to Memorial Lake Park, a beautiful park Anna tells us we just have to see. So we find it not far away, park the car and hike a two mile trail around the lake. It’s early fall with just a hint of the color yet to come. The trees around this lake will be aflame with autumn colors in a week or two.
A crazy goose startles me and I slip into a creek while trying to make my way across a makeshift log bridge. I have a deep seated fear of geese stemming back to my childhood which is a whole other story better saved for another time, no doubt, so I make peace with my wet shoes as Mason and I head look around one last time before getting back into the car.
On the way home, we see a quaint little country ice-cream shop that boasts of tasty homemade pies. We pull off the highway and treat ourselves to a couple of slices and hand-scooped a la mode. It’s a delicious way to invest our winnings from the night before.
As we pull out of the parking lot, we notice a couple of odd looks from other drivers, which weren’t the last ones we get on the way home. Turns out Mason bought a life-sized Judy Garland statue from the Hollywood Casino gift-shop yesterday and we drive home with her sticking out of the trunk car, which is awkward, to say the least.
Wet shoes, Judy Garland in the trunk and bellies full of homemade French toast and good country pie. Oh yeah, and horses. And a whole bunch of bends and back roads yet to come before we get home. Now that’s a roadtrip.
Stephanie Weaver, Had-Me.com