Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ride a horse, wolf a dumpling.

Take a gander at a map of the Commonwealth and you can’t help but notice that Bucks County, like Italy, is shaped like a boot. (Looks like it’s about to kick Philadelphia into Delaware County.)

Today we’re right above the densely populated toe, riding an asphalt ribbon defined by the usual suspects of suburban sprawl. Fast fooderies, muffler and quick-lube parlors, strip centers and filling stations. And drive-thrus of every stripe. This is Street Road, its redundant moniker suggesting an overeager PennDOT employee. Or a byway so pleasant and essential it had to be named twice. Today, in this case, it leads to truly greener pastures.

Up ahead is Philadelphia Park, the verdant racetrack home to the annual $1 million Pennsylvania Derby. Also to the great Smarty Jones, who before running away with two thirds of the Triple Crown, ran away with the hearts of the Philly Park track pack by winning every race here, including his first by 7 ½ lengths and his second by 15.

We like the sign that points to free valet parking. The valet likes the ‘76 Caddie ragtop and is happy to take her off our hands for the afternoon. Inside, the casino floor whirrs and jangles. We navigate aisles of slots temptation and find our way to the track outside. Before us lies a great oval raceway, its infield graced by lush, green grass and two big ponds. Ducks are in the ponds and opportunity is in the air.

We grab cold ones and appetizer hot-dogs to go with our programs, and then join the curious at the paddock. Here, jockeys consult with their mounts on the upcoming race card, and a few fans call out to their favorites. We chew the fat with one of the regulars and he offers an odd observation, quiet and out the side of his mouth.

“The number-six horse has been coming in a lot lately.”

That’s all we need to hear. The number six is a good-looking chestnut named Diamonds No More, and sure enough, our dumb-luck bet comes in. We pocket enough to head upstairs to the clubhouse restaurant. (“Upstairs, with the aristocrats,” our tipster says.) Nothing like eating on the house. Or is that on the horse?

On the menu, aristocratic crab cakes, “mile-high” fries and luscious roast pork. From our table, sweeping vistas of the track interrupted only by a 12” hi-def TV so we never miss a race while chowing down.

Second race on the card is billed “Mrs. H’s Kindergarten Classic.” Seems a whole tot class is there for the day, enjoying the green expanse of picnic grounds that run along the home stretch rail. The kids holler for their horses and join the triumphant jockey for a winner’s circle photo op. Get ‘em started early.

We end the day with a close call. A horse named Gotta Cadillac Car is running in the 10th, and with the El Dorado waiting outside for us, we just have to pick that Cadillac to win. Hopes high, he runs a solid second for about ¾ mile, and then runs outta gas on the final turn. C’est la guerre.

Time to head north, to a more bucolic Bucks County, where horses spend more time lazing around meadows than running round in circles. We’re off to Perkasie, with reservations at a B&B called Stone Ridge Farm. We cruise US 611 through Doylestown to Route 313, which laces up the Bucks County boot. In the village of Dublin we find the tiny factory where they put up the legendary Kelchner’s Horseradish. On a horse-powered roadtrip, we pull over for a no-brainer of a pit stop.

A red wood-framed building is home to Kelchner’s, where the Slaymaker family maintains the family recipes that have put this premium jerknose in a bottle since 1938. They’re a little surprised when we walk in and ask for a tour. “Oh there’s not much to see here,” says a shy employee at the counter. “But you can buy some really fresh horseradish!”

We canter back to the ragtop with a bag full of $2-bottles: classic horseradish, tartar sauce, cocktail sauce and rosy-red horseradish with beets. We can’t help but smile. Two bucks a horse at the track, two bucks for horseradish in a bottle.

Stone Ridge Farm was the dairy of Pearl S. Buck, author of novels like “The Good Earth.” What a fitting inspiration for what has become a beautiful 10-acre horse farm and B&B. Innkeeper Jackie Watson makes us welcome with amazing homemade brownies. Death by chocolate; this is living. Jackie’s a pretty well known painter, and her work – vivid impressionist oils and water colors – hang throughout the restored barn that has been transformed into a unique artistic inn.

Our room opens on a boardwalk porch rising above grazing horses gathered in the meadow below. When called to supper by a ranch hand, they stroll single file past our rocking chair perch. Not a bad place to sit with paints and a canvas.

We wake up to the smell of freshly mown grass and the sound of a few happy whinnies. (Not to mention some freshly baked scones.) Today we ride. Haycock Stables is a stone’s throw away from Stone Ridge and Lake Nockamixon State Park. This is where Joanne Moore carries on a 70-year family tradition of raising and riding beautiful Pennsylvania horses.

“Say howdy to Sam,” Joanne introduces us to our morning steed. Jeekers, he’s a big fella; we need a set of wooden steps to get up in the saddle. Sam seems happy enough to carry us for a good walk along the lakeshore, but the tastier leaves on the tree-lined trail compete for his attention.

“Just yank the reins back,” Joanne yells. “Otherwise Sam’ll eat trees all day.”

She asks if our little mounted group wants to trot, and most of us nod in wary assent. Whoa! No one warned our more delicate parts about how hard we hit the saddle on the down stroke. OK, the slow poke is fine enough for a rookie jockey.

Turns out a morning trail ride along the Nockamixon shore is the perfect lunch inspiration. And we’re oh-so close to a local favorite called Emil’s. “Don’t go to Perkasie without eating Emil’s oyster pie,” we hear more than once. So here’s a tip from experience: Emil bakes his legendary oyster pie in months that have an “r,” which we miss by 23 days. But what do we spy in a glass case on the counter but golden apple dumplings big as softballs and just out of the oven. Flaky homemade piecrust enveloping baked Bucks County apples. We take ours swimming in warm milk.

“That’s Dutchy style,” says our happy waitress. “That’s all you need.” Lesson learned: If the month has no “r,” an Emil’s apple dumpling is the next best thing. Maybe better.

So with dumplings in our bellies and horseradish in the cooler, a few saddle sores remind us of how much fun we’re having. The ragtop pulls us along US 313. We’re heading for the great Quakertown Swamp and we pass a cross street called Elephant Road. Makes us wonder what a pachyderm ride might be like, and whether Bucks County has any hidden elephant racetracks.

Maybe we’ll have a look-see next time. Until then, we’ll see you along the bends and back roads.

Ok, get out your map and scout these joints, then let us know what you've seen, where you've been, what you've eaten.

Philadelphia Park
Great horses run the Bensalem Oval. Fun people gather in the Circle Bar and chow down in the Clubhouse Restaurant. And the Picnic Grove draws families for cookouts and horse watching. Oh yeah, there’s a mighty big casino there, too. G’luck!
3001 Street Road in Bensalem, PA 19020 (

Bucks County Visitors Center
Right next door to the track is the gateway to your Bucks County roadtrip. Especially cool are the interactive exhibits inspired by creative geniuses who have resided here, such as Dorothy Parker, Henry Mercer and James Michener.

Kelchner’s Horseradish
Since 1938 this premium jerknose has been the bomb on roast beef, shrimp and, of course, in our spicy Bloody Mary. They don’t do tours, but you can meet the folks who put this genie in the bottle and buy a few right where they do. Stop by and say hello at
161 South Main Street in the village of Dublin. Call ahead if you want: 800.424.1952 or stop in virtually at

Stone Ridge Farm Country Inn
Jackie Watson will make you comfy on her fabulous, relaxing and very romantic horse farm. Ask for a tour of her studio and check out her impressionist oils and watercolors. Then sit on the boardwalk porch outside your room and watch the horses graze below. (Jackie’s breakfast is delicious, too.) 956 Bypass Road, Dublin. 215.249.9186.

The Country Place
This is roadhouse tavern offers terrific food, warm and happy welcomes and incredible value. Our steamed clams were buttery and fresh and our top-shelf martini was just $4.50! Check out the ribs and steak combo for less than $10. It’s hard to spend much money here, and impossible to leave hungry. 1007 Route 313 in Perkasie. Call for directions: 215.257.5994 or check ‘em out online at

Emil’s Restaurant
A great country diner in big old white house. Emil makes oyster pies only when the oysters are truly fresh. We fell hard for the homemade apple dumplings served “Dutchy style” with warm milk. Perfect for lunch after a trotting trail ride. 1710 N, Ridge Road in Perkasie. 215.257.9552.

Haycock Stables
Abe and Joanne Moore bought this farm in 1961. It’s now a popular stable for boarding and riding horses. Ideal for novices and experts alike. We love the trail along Lake Nockamixon. Western saddles make us feel like Hop-along. 1035 Old Bethlehem Road in Perkasie. Call ahead for a horse: 215.257.6271.

Nova Thrift Shop
We’re incurable thrift-shop scavengers. This one on the road from Doylestown to Perkasie is a dandy, and supports a great charitable cause. We found a big old oak rocker for $15 that just fit in the back of the ragtop. 1628 Swamp Road, Fountainville. 215.249.8000.

Send us a note, won't you? Here's to the road ahead.