Thursday, May 27, 2010

The road to Harrah’s: Riverfront racing, buttered burger buns and royalty-related fainting goats

Listen carefully. When the horses round the first turn on the other side of the infield, the thundering hooves take on a slightly different tenor. That’s because this riverside racetrack is so close to the Delaware that the southeastern turn is actually over the riverbed, on a trestle of steel. It’s one of the idiosyncrasies that delight us about the horse course at Harrah’s in Chester.

We sail the ragtop through Boeing defense plant country to find it. Past what look like enormous centrifuges and helicopter gunship factories. And down along the waterfront ports and just this side of the looming towers of a state pen is the purple Harrah’s logo, big and bright as luck itself. We bang a left into the only racetrack where standard-bred railbirds are next-door neighbors with workaday shipyard river rats.

Upstairs beyond the whirl of the slots parlor we enter the world of the horseplayer. Big flat screens take us to exactas and trifectas the world over, and opposite this media Mecca is the great grandstand overlooking the river. Out in the sunshine a gravel oval and green infield spreads out beneath us. Chocolate brown horses pull sulkies as drivers get a feel for the surface pre-post time. A huge Shanghai freighter glides past the backstretch to unload its mystery cargo next door.

Nice to sip a cold one, ponder the program and watch the river flow. Hard to believe, but a horse named Riverboat Captain is going off 12-to-1 in the third race so we can’t help but plop down two bucks and hop on board. Turns out a good group of the grandstand faithful are with us, and they stand to holler him home to a thankful third.

“There’s pride in third place,” calls out one of our grandstand friends, brandishing his show ticket. In line to cash out, we hear scuttle among the victors of steamed dumplings, roast pork and applesauce, and perfect pink prime rib over on the casino buffet. Heck, we’re still feeling the onion/relish aftermath of a mushroom burger and junior malted from Jake’s, down off Route 202. The legendary grill joint sits right smack on the PA/Delaware border, and it’s an insurmountable temptation if you’re heading to the track from that direction. (Even worthy of going out of your way for the grilled buttered buns alone.) But that Harrah’s buffet calls to us. We find green Thai curry and butterscotch pudding that tucks in perfect between the fourth and fifth races.

By the time we collect the ragtop from the valet, our pockets feel deeper and our bellies a bit fuller. Glad it’s a quick ride over to Chadds Ford, where we walk off some buffet with a guided tour at the Brandywine River Museum.

Settled in nicely along the banks of the Brandywine, this may be the world’s perfect art museum. Certainly the most relaxed and comfortable. We mosey lush trails and hum along with the burble of the creek. It’s mighty quiet after the rumble of the riverfront trestle track. Inside the brick barn of a gallery, the life work of Andrew Wyeth, his family and other local painters offers an illustrated history of this neck of the woods.

Andrew’s effervescent granddaughter, Victoria, takes us on an insider’s journey through the paintings she knows so well. Through her unique perspective, we really get to know the cronies and characters that populate these canvases – and the rolling green neighborhood. (Imagine strolling around Giverny, gossiping about Monet in his garden with his grandkid.) It’s intimate, utterly fascinating and we feel like family.

A stone’s throw and we’re wandering about Chaddsford Winery, where we load the ragtop’s trunk with a new release of blushing rosé, perfect for our weekend brunch. Then north toward America’s Route One, and the back roads to Glen Mills and a gentlemen’s horse farm called Sweetwater. There’s a guest cottage the size of a small condo reserved for us there, with a queen bed and a king’s breakfast included.

Chris Le Vine runs Sweetwater Farm, and knows a thing or two about horses. His grandfather was Jack Kelly, legendary bon vivant, oarsman and horseman. (AKA brother to Grace Kelly, star of Hollywood, Princess of Monaco.) Jack was one of the founders of Atlantic City Race Course, where 35,000 fans would once convene to spend afternoons on the edge of their seats. It’s kinda cool to swap horse tales with the grand nephew of a princess about the sport of kings.

Chris’s father Don was a champion thoroughbred trainer, so he grew up along the backside rails of the greatest racing venues in the world. Today, his 18th century farm is home to horses, sheep, and some oddball fainting goats. One mean look or sharp sound and the goats simply fall over from surprise. Sweetwater’s our home, too, for 24 hours or so. But we see nary a mean look and hear nothing to make us wanna faint.

In fact we fall asleep to a gentle rain tapping our cottage roof and a happy little blaze dancing in our fireplace. We have visions of the coming breakfast feast: ham scones, cranberry muffins, fruit parfaits, home fries and eggs-anyway conjured up by Sweetwater cook Farrell Leo, whose morning smile is pure sunny-side-up.

We can’t stay as long as we’d like, as there are horses to saddle up for ourselves just down the two-lane at Ridley Creek State Park. And then a proper English lunch at The Whip Tavern, way out in Chester County’s horse country. But not too far out to keep us from some more afternoon harness action back at Harrah’s. As the old honky-tonk song reminds us, “Ew whee, we feel lucky today!”

Until post time, we’ll look for you around the bends and back roads.


Here's where to stay, what to eat, what to see. (Hit us with your own ideas, won't you?)

Harrah’s Chester Casino and Racetrack
The cool industrial architecture reflects the working heritage of the riverfront, and the racetrack runs so close to the river, part of the backstretch was built right over the water. The harness racing features some of the best drivers in the country, and the family atmosphere welcomes horse lovers of all ages. And the valet parking is free!

Jake’s Hamburgers
Does it taste so good because they grill the buns and hand pack the patties? Or because the grill jockeys still wear paper hats. One thing’s for certain: the burger of the month is a must, no matter what it is. And grab a shake that tastes as good as your 7th birthday. It’s right on the border, so you might eat your burger with one foot in Delaware and the other in PA. 16 West Chester/Wilmington Pike, Chadds Ford. 610.358.5810.

Mickey Vernon Sports Museum
This little oddity is a baseball lover’s treasure. Mickey Vernon grew up in these parts and became a legend with the Boston Red Sox. Wait till you see the horsehide on which Mickey collected the autograph of every ALer who played at Fenway in ‘57. Hidden inside the Brandywine Visitors Bureau, this little hall of fame honors local stars from baseball, football – even the Olympics. It’s a fun freebie, but a donation is always ‘preciated.
One Beaver Valley Road, Chadds Ford. 800.343.3983

Brandywine River Museum
Spend time with Andrew Wyeth’s portraits and landscapes and NC Wyeth’s timeless paintings for Treasure Island, Kidnapped and other classic adventure tales. Visit NC’s house and studio. And by all means ask about granddaughter Victoria’s effervescent guided tours. 1 Hoffmans Mill Road, Chadds Ford

Chaddsford Winery
A tour of this successful winery whips up a fine thirst for a delicious wine tasting. Enjoy a picnic lunch, smell the grapes ripening on the vines and take home a case or two of the good stuff. 632 Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford. 610.388.6221.

Sweetwater Farm
A gentleman’s farm owned by the grand nephew of Princess Grace Kelly is a romantic retreat for a night, a weekend, a wedding. Innkeeper Meghan Feeney welcomes you in a house full of Kelly family memorabilia, and the 18th century barn has been restored with marble slabs originally part of Independence Hall. Wait till you get your hands on Farrell Leo’s home-baked scones. 50 Sweetwater Road, Glen Mills. 610.459.4711.

Ridley Creek State Park
Inside one of the most beautiful state parks is Hidden Valley Farms. Saddle up on a trail ride through the woods for a morning horseback experience before the afternoon post time at Harrah’s. No matter how much a newbie you are, there’s a horse to carry you at Hidden Valley. 610.892.7260., or

The Whip Tavern
The décor is pure horse country. The menu is English pub fare and the taproom pours local brews and UK ales. Don’t miss the Scotch egg; the most sophisticated bar food you’ve ever put in your mouth. 1383 North Chatham Road, West Marlborough. 610.383.0600.

The Blue Pear Bistro
Small plates, big flavor. This is the casual wing of the amazing Dilworthtown Inn “gourmet compound.” Sit at the bar and chow down with the locals on smoked salmon ravioli and curry crusted lamb. And by all means have your way with the value-priced wine list. 275 Brintons Bridge Road, West Chester. 610.399.9812.

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