04/18/2011 4:34PM

Weekend at Finger Lakes

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Where is the most expensive residential lakefront property in the United States? Lake Tahoe, Nevada would be a good guess, and that was the right answer until last year, when average property values were supassed by those where I spent this past weekend: Canadaigua Lake, the westernmost of the four Finger Lakes in western New York state, and the home of Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack.

My overdue maiden trip to The Finger began with a flight last Friday to Rochester, the state's third most populous city (210,565) behind NYC and Buffalo. It's about 30 miles southeast from there to Canandaigua, which sits on the northern shore of the lake. There are plenty of budget motels in the area but I went the high-end route and stayed at the Inn on the Lake. For $169 a night, the rooms are nothing special until you open your back door and realize you're right on the lake, with dozens of Adirondack chairs lined up to watch the sunset. You can grab some local wine and cheese next door at the Finger Lakes Culinary Institute. I shared some cheese with the ducks and gulls who walked right up to the patio. It was a serene scene that made it easy to see why the 15-mile long lake is surrounded with million-dollar homes.

By Saturday morning, however, conditions were Arctic: Dark skies, freezing temperatures, and the kind of howling winds that dump houses on wicked witches. Not what anyone had in mind for Opening Day at Finger Lakes, but the show went on: Nine races, all at 4 1/2 furlongs (times ranged from 53.19 to 54.74), with horses being blown sideways on a sloppy and speed-favoring track. Not exactly an aesthetic success, but after a four-month break in the racing the diehards still turned out in force and inside the place was bustling and cheerful.

I sat in the cozy Paddock Bar with my host, Pete Borelli and his Western New York Horse Racing Club (@wnyhorseracing on Twitter), a group of friends who began organizing track and OTB outings last year. Track management had only known them from emails and phone calls until Saturday, and had assumed they were a group of local retirees, but it turned out that they were mostly new fans in their 20's. They all slipped on their new WNYHRC t-shirts, emblazoned with the club's motto, which was particularly appropriate for this particular afternoon: "We don't care if it's fast and firm, or if it's sloppy and yielding...We love the action!"

In the middle of the card, we went to see the focal point of this visit, the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Center. I had been hearing good things about this group, which began in 2006, and they were all confirmed in person.

The FLTAP is the only horse-adoption facility actually on the grounds of a racetrack. Sitting a short walk from the track entrance on two acres of land donated by Delaware North, Finger Lakes' parent company, it was built with $60,000 in state funding and numerous private donations including generous ones from local horse owner Wanda Polisseni's Our Purple Haze Stables, for which the 16-stall barn is named. Brian Moore, the track's director of marketing, is the president of FLTAP, and its board includes local horsemen such as Mrs. Pollesini (whose family founded Paychex, Inc.) and trainer Mike LeCesse.

In addition to the 16 current residents, who are available for adoption fees ranging from $800 to $2500, the facility has an impeccable indoor ring, four paddocks and two round pens where the horses are retrained for second careers as riding or show horses (or just pasture ornaments). Horses stay for as little as two weeks or as long as a year, and the program has placed over 450 horses in five years. The current equine ambassador for the program is a gentle 5-year-old gelding named Vibrance (left), who began his career at Belmont in July of 2009 and was winless in 14 career starts. He thoroughly tolerated 15 minutes of posing for pictures with a group of charmed racing fans.

Handicapping the FL races reminded me of playing the opening weeks of Emerald Downs (which also opened last weekend) -- most of the horses have been laid up since the end of the last meeting in December. There used to be a stronger circuit between FInger Lakes and Tampa Bay Downs, but now only a few local trainers winter there and everyone else is coming back off 120-day or longer layoffs. There are also a couple of new outfits at The Finger this year including a string that had been racing at Pinnacle near Detroit for owner-trainer Robert Gorham, who won two of the day's first three races.

The Finger Lakes locals are of course particularly proud of their horses who have made a mark elsewhere. Tin Cup Chalice, the winner of the 2008 Big Apple Triple Crown before dying in a freak accident, kept coming up in conversations and older fans mentioned Fio Rito, the 1981 Whitney winner. Time and again, fans who introduced themselves said some variation of "You should have been here the day Funny Cide ran." The 2003 Derby winner made his final career start there on July 4, 2007, winning the Wadsworth Memorial Handicap by three lengths over Johnnie By Night, drawing a record crowd estimated at over 11,000.

"He vanned over from Saratoga early that morning," recalled local trainer Danny Poliziani, "and got to the stable area around 7:30. He was all class. The way he acted, the way he conducted himself, seeing a horse like that here just did your heart good."

Saturday's last live race went off at 4:58 pm but plenty of fans stuck around for the Blue Grass and, much later, the Arkansas Derby. By then we were on to the main event, a fundraising dinner for the FLTAP in a private room at the back of the casino buffet down on the gaming floor. (Management arranged to get the Arkansas Derby piped into the dinner, where everyone stopped eating just long enough to watch the race.) There are no table games, and technically no slot machines but there are 1200 video-lottery terminals (VLT's) on the gaming floor that are indistinguishable from the one-armed bandits. The VLT floor looks roughly 50 years more modern than the racetrack areas, which is also what you see at almost any racino.

A Q&A session with fans and horsemen figured to run for about an hour but went more than double that, so I think everyone got his money's worth for the $25 dinner ticket (a mere $5.05 over the usual price for the buffet.) We raised a little money for the FLTAP and a good time was had by all.

By Sunday morning the weather had cleared up and moved south. For some reason all the flights to Newark were cancelled or delayed but my JetBlue flight from Rochester to JFK went off like clockwork. There was no live racing on Sunday at Finger Lakes -- there couldn't have been thanks to the idiotic ban on Palm Sunday racing in New York (though the VLT's were open for business), but Finger Lakes stopped running on Sundays last year: With simulcasting accounting for over 90 percent of the handle, the track has found it more profitable to run on Mondays and Tuesdays than on Sunday because there is a less crowded simulcasting menu.

It took me over 30 years around New York racing to make it up to Finger Lakes; it won't be as long until I come back.