08/25/2015 11:20PM

Gisser: The rebirth of Northfield Park

Derick Giwner
Northfield Park has hosted some major stakes races in 2015.

Riff Raff and his friends in the Rocky Horror Picture Show took a jump to the left and then a step to the right. Then, with their hand on their hips, they brought their knees in tight. But this summer, I was able to enter a time warp simply by driving 15 miles south from my home to Northfield Park.

I have been pretty hard on Northfield over the past few years. Some people thought it was due to our separation in 2011, but it really had more to do with the way I had seen a once proud racetrack (and management team) that had fallen on hard times seem to give up, instead of fighting back. That has certainly changed. If you have any doubt Northfield Park is back, you are simply just not paying attention.

One thing hasn’t changed, and that’s a good thing. It’s the aggressive driver’s colony. It seems Aaron Merriman and Ronnie Wrenn battle each other for the National driving title annually, so their battle for the local pilot’s crown gets lost, but it’s good for sport.  And top long-time local drivers like Ryan Stahl, Kurt Sugg and Josh Kash (currently injured), fit well. With the slot-enhanced purses, you have the return of Northfield Wall-of-Famer Don Irvine, Jr and multiple driving champ Greg Grismore, and the addition of Jason Merriman and others. The driver colony is as competitive as any in the country.

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At least for now, the exterior of the track, including the neon sign that proclaims it as Cleveland’s Casino, remains basically unchanged, too. But when you walk inside, the differences begin. The interior has been updated and cleaned up. Lady Luck’s Restaurant, which had been closed, is now open on Fridays and special event nights offering buffets.  And the choices at the concession stands have been updated and expanded, rivaling any I have seen recently.

But the biggest difference is seen when the track holds a special event. Special events were always Northfield’s hallmark. On Battle of Lake Erie, Courageous Lady or Cleveland Classic night, the track was full of patrons. The energy was unbelievable and horsemen from across the country supported those races, despite being surpassed by other racing purses. As time went by, Northfield “downsized” its special events. The Battle was no longer a Free-For-All. The Classic and the ‘Lady got little attention. Top management even stopped wearing their tuxedos, with the theme-colored cummerbunds that consistently garnered positive feedback from across the country.

Not anymore; except for the tuxedos. This year’s Battle of Lake Erie drew a stellar field and a large crowd gathered as food trucks were parked on the apron. That apron, which used to be filled with people and had become a bit of a lonely expanse, is now filled with stylish round tables and benches. The patio area has been updated, as well, and live music is now featured on these special event nights. There are drink specials and extra concessions. The days when the track ran out of beer on a special event night are over, and the selection of adult beverages has been expanded, at least on those big nights.

The Battle of Lake Erie was amazing, with the ageless Foiled Again winning, but Northfield returned to its all-time best on Friday, August 14 when the top-ranked Wiggle It Jiggleit faced off against Wakizashi Hanover and a stellar group of 3-year-old colt pacers in the second annual Carl Millstein Memorial worth $405,000.

Arriving in plenty of time (I thought) for the third race, I had to park in the last row, facing Route 8, farther away than I ever had parked, except for the track’s very first mystery voucher night in the early nineties when I had to park on the mud, err, grass, auxiliary lot when a January thaw yielded a 70 degree day and the largest crows in many, many years.

The place was packed like it was back when Kingsbridge and So Fresh took Breeders Crown titles in 1992. There was energy. There were multiple concession stands. There were plenty of well-staffed betting windows – no shutouts that night, unless it was your own fault.There were members of top management with smiles on their faces, interacting with the huge crowd, and even tossing t-shirts from the winner’s circle if a driver was unable to do so.

Early on the card, Northfield held a legends race. While they may not have been the caliber of legends you see at Goshen’s version of the race, for any Northfield regular, it was a great tribute to the past, while still honoring the present. It seemed only fitting that Bill Popio took that race at 20-1, scoring with a longshot as he had so many times in his heyday.

Then, in the big race, Montrell Teague, who had been pilloried by the online experts (and called worse by some of the less reputable) for his drive in the Cane Pace the week before, gave Wiggle It Jiggleit a perfect trip, earning a 29 2/5 second panel rest en-route to a track record 1:49 3/5 win in a race that saw nearly $200,000 wagered. For the record, Teague is just 24. Most 24-year-olds have the occasional bad drive. Montrell’s was just a bit more high profile. But the race was not the night’s highlight.

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For me, the best part of the Milstein night came just before the big races. Former track president Myron Charna, who had retired several years earlier, was in the winner’s circle with CEO Brock Milstein (Carl’s son) and former GM Tom Aldich, now an executive with Milstein’s gaming company. They announced a $50,000 annual Open Trot for Ohio-breds in Charna’s honor, to be raced on the Milstein Memorial undercard. It was great to see that leadership group – under which I worked for many years – reunited and smiling, and to see Charna, who had been Carl Milstein’s right-hand man for so many years, back at the track. It was also a tribute to the rebirth of Ohio racing. Well done Northfield Park. Now about those tuxedos . . .

That’s it for now. Enjoy the great upcoming stakes races and go cash. I will see you next month.