Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pittsburgh, PA

Neither of us have ever had any burning desire to visit and tour Pittsburgh. However, we decided to give it a try on this trip. I must say, we were pleasantly surprised.

Pittsburgh is where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join and form the Ohio River. This location has been of great strategic and historical importance to North America. At the point where the rivers meet, the French built Fort Duquesne in 1754 and it became a major focal point in the French and Indian War during the period 1755-58. Suffice it to say that the British fought against the French and Indians and eventually, after 7 years, the British prevailed, rebuilt the fort, (the French had burned it) and renamed it Fort Pitt. (Interesting fact – George Washington commanded British forces during the French and Indian War. ) Then in 1763 the Delaware and Shawnee Indians had had enough of the Brits and attacked Ft. Pitt in what is called Pontiac's Rebellion . The Brits won - again. Then the Brits did a brilliant thing and gave the fort to the colonists in 1772 and the colonists very willingly used it as their western base of operations during the Revolutionary War. We all know how that war turned out for the Brits - can't win 'em all I guess. After the Revolution, pioneers saw Pittsburgh as the Gateway to the West and in the mid-19th century slaves saw Pittsburgh as the Crossroads to Freedom and escaped north via river routes from the south.

Today the city features 151 highrise buildings, 446 bridges, and two inclined railways.

We were riding around trying to find the off ramp to go to Ft. Pitt (never did locate it) when we happened upon one of the inclined railways - the Duquesne Incline. It's a pretty good tourist thing to do as it was only $4 for a round trip ticket for Shelley and Monte, being aged, got to ride free. It was completed in 1877, is 800 feet long and 400 feet in height and scales the side of Mt. Washington. The view of Pittsburgh from atop Mt. Washington is spectacular.

After scaling the heights of Mt. Washington we had worked up an appetite (riding those cars really takes it out of you). So – we headed back across the rivers and found ourselves at Bettis' Grille 36. Bettis' is right across the street from Heinz field where the Steelers play and is owned by none other than the great #36, Jerome Bettis – The Bus. The menu has something for everyone including burgers made from Yak, Llama, or Kobe beef. However we opted for something a little less adventurous and a lot more artery clogging. Monte had the “Soon To Be Famous Deep Fried Cheeseburger” which is a burger dipped in tempura batter and deep fried and Shelley had the “Carolina Burger” which was a buger topped with pulled pork and cole slaw. After that meal and a stroll along the river we were done for the day. One final note about Bettis' – our server was Danny. Danny is from Hawaii, played basketball for the University of Pittsburgh, and is currently employed by Pitt as a researcher doing research on drug resistant tuberculosis. He does the waiter thing because he loves it and it gets him away from his microscope. Apparently he likes it so much that he does not need tips - when I checked my Visa Card statement online, I noticed that his tip was not included in our final bill.

We are putting Pittsburgh on our list of places that we want to return to. There is much more to see and do and probably eat. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Canton, Ohio
Since we were in Ohio and only about a 2 hour drive to Canton, we decided that this was an opportune time to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Why, you might ask, is the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio? There are 3 reasons, (1) the NFL, then known as the American Professional Football Association, was founded in Canton in 1920 (2) The now defunct Canton Bulldogs were a successful NFL team based in Canton during the first few years of the league and (3) the community of Canton successfully lobbied the NFL to have the Hall built in their city (although there is no direct connection with the NFL).

The Hall opened in 1963 with 17 charter inductees. To be eligible for the nominating process a player or coach must have been retired for at least 5 years. Team owners or executives can be voted in at any time. Fans may nominate any player, coach or contributor by simply writing to the Hall via letter or email. The Selection Committee then, through 4 votes narrows the list to 15 finalists. The selection committee then meets the day before each Super Bowl game to elect the new class. Between 4 and 7 candidates are elected each year. The selection committee is made up of 44 people – mostly sportswriters. With the 2010 class being enshrined in August, there will be 260 individuals in the Hall.

There is much more to the Hall than just the Hall of Fame Gallery where the inductees are showcased. This is a complete museum dedicated to the history of professional football. There is the Pro Football Adventure Room that examines the many other pro leagues that have challenged the NFL. The Super Bowl Room recaps the 42 Super Bowls played to date and exhibits the Super Bowl Rings (some are really really gaudy). The Teams of The NFL exhibit pays tribute to the current 32 teams. And a bunch of other stuff.

It Pays To Ask!! The entry fee for the Hall is $20. The price for seniors is $15. I figured that I would ask if they had a discount for retired military members. The answer was not only a yes, and a thank-you for your service but, the entry fee is waived. We got in free. Free is always good!
Speaking of cost - check out the price of an NFL franchise.
And since we saved a few bucks – that night we went to Northfield Park between Akron and Cleveland and blew the savings on the harness races. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

Attending Driving School

Delaware County Fairgrounds, Delaware, Ohio

Driving School – this has nothing to do with cars or RVs or for that matter any type of motorized vehicle. However, it has everything to do with horsepower.

Harness racing: a sport where a special breed of horses called “Standardbreds” race around a track while pulling a driver in a two-wheeled cart, called a sulky. There are 2 Standardbred gaits – they either “pace” where the legs on one side of their body move together, right front & right rear, left front & left rear or they “trot” where opposite legs, left front & right rear and right front & left rear move together.

Harness Racing in the USA is governed by the US Trotting Association (USTA). Each year the USTA hosts the “Standardbred Driving School” which we attended this year.

The class had 41 students from 16 states and 1 from Canada. Among the students were 2 veterinarians, a US Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer, a zoo keeper from the Los Angeles Zoo, a retired municipal bonds trader, and Charles - a 16 year old African-American youth from the inner city of Detroit who had attended harness races and decided that this is what he wants to do as a profession and he had the guts to make calls and contact people who have now sponsored him and are ensuring that he get the best entry into the sport possible.

Our goal in attending the school was to learn more about the sport and to have fun. However, most of the attendees had the goal of becoming licensed drivers and trainers. In the 12 years since the inception of the school, school graduates have accumulated more than 2,500 wins as trainers and drivers.

Topics covered care and conditioning, stable management, driving and racing strategy, amateur driving, veterinary care, shoeing, and equipment. All of the classes were taught by true professionals and the top names in the business. The the highlight for many of us – we each were allowed (with a licensed driver) to jog a horse around the famed half-mile oval at the fairgrounds that is home to The Little Brown Jug. The Little Brown Jug is the second leg of the pacing Triple Crown, the premier pacing classic for three-year-old standardbreds and carries a purse in excess of $600,000.

We found out that this is very much a family sport. The majority of owners/drivers/trainers all have family involved in the sport and for many of them the involvement goes back several generations. One of our classmates, Garrett Mosher from Maine, is the son of Gary Mosher and nephew of Yannick Gingras – two of the nation's top drivers – between the two they have almost 10,000 thousand wins (yes that says ten thousand). And Garrett is just one example of family involvement.

As I said, jogging the horses was supposed to be the highlight of the school, however, for us it got much better than that. The last night of the school we all attended the harness races at Scioto Downs in Columbus. Earlier that day both Monte and Shelley had had our names drawn for getting to ride in the starting gate during the races. Monte rode for races 1&2 and Shelley was in the gate for races 5&6. Words cannot describe how totally amazing the experience was. We agreed that is is in the top 10 fun things we have done in our lifetimes. The sounds of the pounding hooves, the looks on the horses faces which are literally inches from yours, the looks of intense concentration on the faces of the drivers, these are things you just cannot see & hear from the grandstands. I know how over-used the word “awesome” is but this truly was AWESOME! The starting gate is going between 38 & 40 miles per hour when they let the horses go, the average speed of the horse during the race is around 30 mph. These guys are flying! The driver of the car only steers, the speed of the gate is controlled by the starter who is in this little cubical (we were crammed in with him) looking backwards. The starter calls the drivers to the gate, and as speed is picked up he gets to just the right spot, announces a simple “GO” and swings the gate out of the way and they're off. The race is one mile and about 1 minute and 55 secconds later, it's all over. The starter was a real interesting guy who used to be a driver and said that he had not only raced against some of the current drivers but their fathers, grandfathers and in one case the current driver's great-grandfather (the Starter could not have been much older than Shelley).

Click the link below to:
                              Check out the video Shelley took in "View from the Starting Gate"

So, that was our trip to Delaware, Ohio. We hope to come back in September some year to watch the Little Brown Jug.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lexington, Kentucky – It's all about The Horses

Our first real stop on the trip was one of our favorite places – Lexington, Kentucky. This area is amazingly beautiful. Mile after mile of rolling green hills covered with horse farms. This time of year the fields are full of mares and their foals and the little ones are just so darn cute.
We were only here for 2 nights – one full day - and rather than spend the day at the Kentucky Horse Park as we have in the past, this time we opted for a tour of area horse farms. And we picked a winner!

The tour group consisted of us, a couple from upstate New York and a couple from Connecticut. Our tour guide picked us up at 9:15 at the Horse Park and off we went. The tour guide was great. He is a native of Lexington and has been around the thoroughbred world his entire life. He knew more about the horses than Monte does and that is saying something! Did you know that it costs $18,000 per mile to paint a white horse fence and only $6,000 per mile for black fences? Just one of the many interesting facts imparted to us by Shaun, the tour guide.

Our stops were at WinStar Farm and Shadwell Farm, two of the biggest names in thoroughbred racing. 1,400 acre WinStar is the home of this year's Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. But we were not there to see horses in training, we were there to see the stallions.

The only real money to be made in the Thoroughbred world is through having the best sires standing at stud at your farm. The stud industry allows you to make enough money to be able to afford a stable of horses that are currently in training to race and are racing. The stud horses have a rough rough life. They are retired race horses who now spend their lives having sex. Lots and lots of sex.

Because every thoroughbred, born in the Norther Hemisphere shares the same birthday of January 1, horse owners want their foals born as close to that date as possible (close to but after, if born on Dec 31, you are considered 1 year old the next day.) There is an 11 month gestation period so mares are bred between February and July. To get all the mares bred in this period of time, the sires “cover” (have sex with) 3 mares per day, 7 days per week.

Initially, stud fees are based on how well a horse did while running races, as time goes on their stud fees are based on how well the horses they sire do at the track. Two of the 8 or 9 studs at WinStar are Distorted Humor and Tiznow.

Distorted Humor is the sire of 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide. Every time Distorted Humor covers a mare his fee is $150,000. Seriously - $150,000 – 3x per day.

Tiznow is a two time winner of the Breeder's Cup Classic (considered the premier thoroughbred race of the year). Tiznow gets a measly $75,000 for each mare he covers.

Remember how I said that the breeding season is from February until July? Well, that is only for the Norther Hemisphere. Horses born in the Southern Hemisphere share a birthday of August 1. So after the breeding season here, many of these big name sires ship to Australia where they continue at the 3x per day pace. This goes on from say age 4 until age 20. After 20 they might slow down to 2x per day. There is no Artificial Insemination allowed for thoroughbreds.

Shadwell Farm was an interesting stop in that it is the most amazing, state of the art facility, and is owned by Sheikh Hamdan, the Crown Prince of Dubai. As a member of the Dubai ruling Maktoum family, he is not in this for the money but for the bragging rights. For all of the Sheikh's money and for all of his success in horse racing in both the US and England, having topped the owners list in Great Britian for 21 of the last 23 years, he has yet to be able to breed or buy a Kentucky Derby winner. The most interesting thing about this farm is how the employees are taken care of. Besides being paid very well apparently, everyone, from managers to grooms, gets full health insurance, and extra $250 per month paid on their mortgages, $200 per month for gas to get to work, and bunches of other perks. Needless to say – those jobs are very very hard to come by – no one quits.

Our last stop was at Keenland Racecourse to get a look at the “back side” where horses in training are stabled. We got to meet trainers, exercise riders, and most importantly a few race horses. All I can say is watch out for Lady McQueen on the turf at Churchill Downs and Weekend Wildcat who will probably run next at Woodbine in Canada. These 2 horses are part of the Larry Demeritte training stable. (don't go bet the kids' college funds on these 2).

We are really looking forward to our next stop – the Delaware, Ohio Fairgrounds. Now, if that doesn't sound exciting I don't know what does. You will just have to wait and see what is in store.