Monday, October 27, 2008

A Road Trip With Happy Horsepower

From Hanover to Hollywood (Casino) @ Penn National

The southern stretch of Pennsylvania Dutch Country actually lies beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. So we whistle Dixie as we head southwest toward the Susquehanna on a blacktop byway that goes by the name of Route 372.

We’re heading into horse country, to Hanover Shoe Farms, where the finest standard horses in the world are born and bred. These are the great Pennsylvania harness racers that pull sulkies better than most and win big bucks on tracks around the world.

But first, other kinds of buggies remind us that we’re still riding through Amish farmland. Endless rows of corn and farmhouses slide by surrounded by flying flags of fresh-hung laundry, all below the Mason-Dixon.

Hand-painted signs advertise brown eggs and assorted produce. And here’s the one we can’t resist: “Homemade root beer, turn right.” A few surprise stops are always mandatory on a roadtrip, including spontaneous barbecue shacks and homemade root beer.

We bang the recommended ralph and find ourselves pulling into one of those idyllic farms. Tall corn on one side of the road and a white-fenced driveway on the other lead us to a smiling young girl in full Amish regalia. She gives us a shy grin and a half-gallon of root beer. We buy smaller 12-ounce bottles too, and take happy pulls as we wave goodbye and get back on the road to horse country.

The Susquehanna is huge and wide where we cross. We leave the shore that was once protected by the Union Army, and at once coveted by General Lee’s advancing forces. If the Susquehanna had been any narrower, or saddled by a few more bridges, rebel troops would have headed east instead of being turned back toward Gettysburg. It’s a lot to think about with root beer in the ragtop, and it’s a beautiful day for a roadtrip.

Hanover’s up ahead and we’re eager to park the car and stretch our legs. This old burg makes for a good stroll. Big trees shade sidewalks and redbrick storefronts take us back a ways. Hanover’s a machine-shop town. Cigars and gloves and furniture were once all made here by Hanover hands. And of course famous Hanover Shoes, worn by the hoity-toity the world over. Today Hanover’s machinery makes pretzels and potato chips and all manner of munchies. As one sign says, “Welcome to the snack food capital of the world.”

But right now we’re hankering for horses, so we head south outta town on Highway 194. Just a few clicks and we find Hanover Shoe Farms. Pull down the lane and head toward row after row of beautiful horse barns. We tie up the ragtop and stroll through stables that smell like hay and, dare we say it, victory. Just last year Hanover horses won more than 2,100 races and pocketed nearly $25 million. See a Hanover horse running in the next race, you best think twice before betting against him.

Hanover Shoe Farms sprawls over 3,000 acres, with 40 barns and 1,200 horses at peak season. The best time to get up close and personal with the mares and foals is springtime, but the barns are open for self-guided tours year round, every day of the week. We’re amazed that we can just walk right in and stroll through this harness racing legend. It feels old-world and all right.

This horse-breeding kingdom was the brainchild of local businessman Lawrence Sheppard, who was also running the Hanover Shoe Company back in the ‘20s and ‘30s. (Hence the name, Hanover Shoe Farms.) The old family mansion still lords over the town, and has been meticulously reborn into a posh inn with a grand kitchen jockeyed by Chef Andy Little. He’s nuts (and knowledgeable) about turning local food into great cuisine. The guy loves to cook. Which works out well for us, cause we love to eat. Book a “tasting menu” and he pairs great wines with course after course of the best-of-the-fresh from what he calls the local “rock star” farms.

Maybe best of all, there’s a big old clawfoot tub with our name on it upstairs. Oh yeah.

Next morning, after some local free-range eggs and homemade wheat toast, we’re at the Utz Potato Chip factory. It’s another self-guided tour that strolls a catwalk hallway high above thousands of pounds of rolling potatoes. Now they’re taters, now they’re peeled. And zip zap, they’re sliced and fried and salted and bagged before our eyes. Men prod the produce and women bag ‘em up. Forklifts pile boxes of bags as high as they can go, and trucks pack ‘em up and hit the road to satisfy America’s hungry snackers.

We gawk and gander and can’t help but smack our lips. Lucky there’s a factory outlet a couple doors down where fresh chips go for peanuts. We load up the back seat with a couple cans of kettle-cooked and we’re off.

From Utz’s we zoom north on194, en route to Penn National, the venerable Central PA racetrack that’s now a part of the bawdy Hollywood Casino in tiny Grantville. Not too long out of Hanover and we find East Berlin, a wonder of a little crossroads with great restaurants (BBQ!) and inns and boutiques. And just the thing for a horseback road trip.

Tackroom Treasures is on the south end of town, an equine oasis full of halters, bridles, saddles, boots, bits and brushes and whatever it takes to keep a horse and rider happy. The tack shop smells like rich leather, and the hand-tooled saddles stop us in our tracks. These are high-end fashionables with real horse sense.

Just when we feel the need for a souvenir we spy the shampoo and conditioner. Sure, it’s meant for manes, but a sign above the display lures us: “For man and beast.” We go with the EQyss Avocado Mist Conditioner and Detangler, for “mane, tail and body.” Our hair’s curly and this stuff turns out to be the perfect leave-in conditioner. We whinny in delight and hit the road.

Post time is still a few hours out so we stop to claim our reservations at The Inn at Westwynd Farm. Its 30-some acres of horse farm is a little bit in the middle of nowhere, yet it’s right on the way to the racetrack.

Carolyn Troxell makes us feel like bonanza in her stylish ranch house. She points us to our own fridge stocked with cold beer, wine and sodas, and a dining room table that’s loaded with cookies and brownies she’s just pulled from the oven. “Help yourself,” she says. “I’ll make more.”

Outside, rolling fields and a big red barn are home to a couple dozen horses, an alpaca or two and at least one stubborn mule. We poke around the barn and say hello to all of them. We’re in the mood to play the ponies.

Just a short gallop later and we stride into Penn National at the Hollywood Casino. It’s a cinematic slot parlor, a warren of cavernous rooms with colossal statues and movie icons from every golden era. Gable and Monroe, DeNiro and Pacino loom over the chattering slot machines from murals and jumbo-trons.

We skip the slots and make beelines to The Mountainview, Penn National’s trackside restaurant. Yup, it has a view of the mountains, and a view of the track. And a buffet that makes us wish we had skipped Carolyn’s brownies. (Almost.)

Our table has a video screen that posts the lineups and latest odds. With two-dollar bills burning holes in our pockets, we rush to place our first bets. We’re not "track touts" by any means, but we try our best to negotiate the day’s Racing Form. We look at past performance and track conditions and jockey records. But we end up picking the horse whose name we like. We bet on Smokey Rose and Rubbernecker and Whistle Pig and yell our lungs out as they come down the stretch.

For the last race of the night we head outside, and squeeze right up by the finish line. Our last two-dollar bill rides on More Cowbell and for once we’ve picked the odds-on favorite. So naturally More Cowbell comes out the gate dead last and stays there until the far turn when he hears us screaming his name and suddenly decides to get his giddy up.

Here comes More Cowbell on the outside! We holler like crazy. (This horse is making us hoarse.) He blasts past every thoroughbred except the winner and loses by a neck. We toss our tickets in the air and shrug and grin. So close, but so much fun.

The valet brings up the ragtop and we mount up back to our king-size bed and the promise of apple pancakes in the morning. We hope for riding lessons tomorrow, but we’ll leave the racing to the pros. Until then, we’ll look for you along the bends and back roads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. For a complete map and photos of everything, stop in at

J& E Homemade Root Beer
Look for the signs and follow your nose to a pristine farmhouse and root beer brewery. Here’s a tip: add a little half-and-half and make yourself a “poor man’s float.” Stop by 100 Haiti Road in Quarryville. (No Sunday sales.)

The Texas Hot Weiner Lunch 38 Carlisle Street, Hanover; 717.637.7075.
The Famous Hot Weiner 101 Broadway, Hanover; 717.637.1282.
These two chilidog parlors are just blocks apart. The Texas Hot Weiner may have a finer chopped onion; the Famous Hot Weiner ladles out a kicking chili. But don’t take our word for it. Conduct your own taste test.

Hanover Shoe Farms
The best harness racers in the world start their careers on 3,000 beautiful rolling acres. You’re welcome to tour the horse barns at your leisure. Look for the sign just south of town on Route 194. 717.637.8931. Details at

Sheppard Mansion
Wine, dine and make a night of it in one of 9 sumptuous guest rooms. Live like a horse breeding baron in the heart of Hanover. Kathryn Sheppard Hoar will welcome you home at 117 Frederick Street in Hanover. Call 717.633.8075 or reserve online at

Utz Potato Chips
William and Sallie Utz started cooking potato chips in their summer kitchen back in 1921. See how they do it today and grab a bag of free samples while you’re there. 900 High Street in Hanover. For tour information visit

Tackroom Treasures
Everything you need to horse around from head to tail. In beautiful East Berlin at 424 Abbottstown Rd. (Rt. 194) (717) 259-0571.

Hog Wild BBQ
It’s a converted garage with a wood-burning BBQ smoker out back. Tuck into Rick and Tina Gulan’s pit beef, pulled pork and hand-cooked fries. Grab extra napkins and laugh along with Rick’s jokes and Tina’s comebacks. Where there’s smoke, there’s flavor. 507 W King St. in East Berlin; 717.259.6203. Check out the review at

Mummert Sign Company
Know those cool “antique” signs in your neighborhood bar and grill? They probably come from here. Custom made retro, with a fun showroom. Worth a looksee at 1665 Rt. 194 in East Berlin. 717.259.8055.

The Inn at Westwynd Farm
32 acres of horses and happiness. Wake up to a great country breakfast and take a walk around the barn. Not far from Penn National at 1620 Sand Beach Road in Hummelstown. Tell Frank and Carolyn Troxell that we sent you. 877.937.8996.

Hollywood Casino at Penn National
They say it’s the most exciting two minutes in sports. And it’s still just two bucks to bet on a thoroughbred. Penn National’s a beautiful track and it’s now part of one huge casino. Dine, dance and try your luck in 10 thundering races a night. Ten minutes north of Hershey in Grantville. 717.469.2211. Get your giddy up at

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