04/27/2014 1:07PM

Atlantic City, Then and Now

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With the book of the same name, author Thomas Wolfe helped crystalize the concept that you can’t go home again. But I found out, during a day trip Saturday to Atlantic City Race Course, that you can go back. Sort of.

Atlantic City Race Course is special to me because, two years into my first stint with Daily Racing Form, I was made columnist there in one of my first writing assignments for the paper. That was 32 years ago, and until Saturday, I hadn’t been back in 31 years.

I have some great memories from my time at Atlantic City, some of which I am even able to relate, although they aren’t quite as vivid as they once were. The A. C. racing office was led by Frank Gabriel Jr., who had working under him several future racing secretaries and who, by the way, is returning to the New York Racing Association as racing secretary at Belmont and Saratoga. Bill Mott had a string there, as did Joe Orseno and Brian Mayberry, and, if memory serves, Rusty Arnold, too. Julie Krone was a bug rider, and Pete Rose, who was playing for the Phillies at the time, was a semi-regular in the dining room.

It was at Atlantic City that summer that I first met Joe Hirsch, who was down for, I believe, the Jersey Derby, one of the two big races we had that meet (the United Nations was the other), and which was won by Preakness winner Aloma’s Ruler. Joe brought someone along with him for that night, the fairly new racing writer for the New York Times. That was the first time I met Steven Crist.

Anyway, as I neared the track Saturday, constantly reminding myself precisely how long it had been, and with what I considered a healthy lack of expectation, I was still struck how much the area had changed. What was almost entirely undeveloped land around the track is now completely surrounded by malls and housing, and a lot of it. It wasn’t until I met my friend Scott Cooper, who also harbors warm Atlantic City Race Course memories, and actually walked into the track, that things began to slowly click. The paddock, the clock tower above the clubhouse, the hill you have to climb to get out to the track apron, were all like slowly recognizing old friends.

Some of what I saw was a stark reminder of exactly how many years it had been. The plant in some sections is in varying states of disrepair. The glassed in dining room looks from afar like a giant petri dish. Don’t worry, though, no one can get near it because the clubhouse is closed. But I guess this is to be expected for a track that, while always open for simulcasting, races only six days a year.

It might sound weird, but it was strange for me that the Atlantic City races were in daylight. My association with “Aaa Cee by the Sea Sea” was as a night track. And perhaps because this turf only meet is so short and in daylight hours, the crowd is different than what I was used to there. I was surprised at the sheer number of people, and at how many were young, and women. Per capita handle might only be $10 a head (just kidding, maybe), but it was nice to see an on-track crowd of this make up. Management was hoping for an attendance Saturday of 9,000 to 10,000. Admission is free, but they have staff with hand counters at the gate, and I would think they came pretty close.

I immediately fell for a horse in Saturday’s opener, a filly named Hot Bride. In a race with sketchy form, Hot Bride had won big two weeks ago at Parx. She was moving up and never raced on turf before, but she won on Polytrack at the start of her career, and being by Unusual Heat out of a Gone West mare, she was bred to love grass. I went to the paddock to check and see if she had a turf foot, and saw that she had pancakes. I was completely smitten now, and was getting a juicy 5-1, to boot.

Hot Bride pressed the pace, took the lead in upper stretch, and I thought for an instant that she would go on and win by daylight. Then, in the next instant, she began to weaken abruptly and drift out, as though she blew a tire. And I must admit as I, ever the wise guy, watched Hot Bride stagger home out of the money, an ironic feeling came over me.

I felt at home.