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Muskets and Movies


Mark Patterson


Thu, Jun 2, 2016

A half-decade before Paul Revere made every pole a winner, George Washington himself sailed past these 1,500 acres with a team of surveyors. While it's a longshot that the father of our country-in truth engaged in a somewhat unstatesmanlike land grab-looked a furlong east from the Ohio River and envisioned the father of racinos, the general's influence is felt here even today. Because of him, after all, we do fly Old Glory above the oddsboard, and don't pay tribute to the crown on trifecta scores.

What George did spy where the mountain now sits was an apple orchard, which must have given a deceptively tranquil appearance to a place primed for revolution. Nearly two centuries before the call to post first sounded here in 1951, the call to muskets was met. For instance; in a pivotal 1781 skirmish that broke out ten minutes (as the eagle flies, of course) from the grounds, brothers Andrew and Adam Poe overcame two Indians who were coupled as an entry with the redcoats.

Darker legend has also seasoned this land. In 1774, disreputable settlers used the promise of food and sport to lure peaceable Mingos to a riverbank very near Mountaineer. The brutal ambush that transpired there is said to curse that spot forever.

On a much lighter note; silent film icon Gloria Swanson once made a movie right where the oval is laid out. Descriptively dubbed 'Apple Blossom Time,' it was slated several years ago to run as the nightcap on some cable station. Despite my best efforts to stay awake, eyes bleery from reading the Racing Form betrayed me. I suppose that's for the best, since I get enough of the silent treatment from Nancy McMichael, my cohost on Mountaineer's handicapping show. (Our program, by the way, is a 'talkie.') And besides, what cynical horseplayer would want to experience the sort of deja vu those film sets could spark? "HEY! Look! Where Gloria just swooned. My jockey dropped his whip there once and cost me the entire pick-three pool." Come to think of it, I'll take a pass on future airings.

One thing happened here, however, that no script writer would likely imagine. Back in the 1960's, some citizens of questionable sobriety (apparently taking the track's roots in colonial history WAY too seriously) managed to stir up a Salem-like witch trial. A local horseman, it was alleged, had trained corpses to rise from a nearby boneyard. While it's not known whether the stiffs lurched here for the next night's daily double, the 'warlock' was acquitted and went right back to running losers. Which establishes, I suppose, that there is no spell for animating equine stiffs. (Potions have been proven an ENTIRELY different matter).

During that decade, a legendary trailblazer set up encampment here. I never saw a powdered wig sticking out from under Dale Baird's ballcap, but the world's all- time winningest trainer was indeed the forefather of high-volume horsemen. Some even credit his example with inspiring Mountaineer's 'militia' to fight on during the dark times after our surrounding steel-industry faltered just past the bicentennial pole. Then again, maybe an outpost that had pioneered night racing and campaigned through winters as bitter as Valley Forge was simply destined to hammer out that historic slots treaty. You can bet our first president would see it that way. After all, isn't it his countenance gracing those coins that enrich our (racing) colony?


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