Always on the lookout for a fun day trip with the parents, the Significant Other and I tried our luck with a Sunday outing to Presque Isle Downs & Casino.
With horse racing firmly – if briefly – in the public consciousness thanks to the Triple Crown-winning American Pharoah, it seemed like a great idea. And with its proximity to Presque Isle State Park (presqueisle.org) and Waldameer (waldameer.com) amusement park, it would also make a great summer overnighter.
Opened in 2007 by Eldorado Resorts, the complex is classy, clean and easy to navigate. There are smoking and nonsmoking areas, but we didn’t notice the smoking much.
The casino is larger that we imagined, with slots and gaming tables, including craps, roulette, blackjack and pai gow on the main level. The gaming floor has more than 1,700 slots (around 800 penny games). There also are high-limit slots. A helpful touchscreen map near the clubhouse entrance shows where slots are located.
The casino opens into the clubhouse/track area. Poker is played upstairs in a private glassed-in room in the clubhouse.
After turning the parents loose, we went on our way to entertain ourselves.
Not big slot players, we did find one game we liked and had played in Vegas – an electronic roulette wheel. But with a minimum bet of $3, we only spent a short time playing. We also watched an exciting craps game. Like most casinos, Presque Isle has its own guest loyalty program “INClub” that visitors can sign up for to earn points and win free plays.
Live horse racing
The lower level clubhouse is large and includes the buffet area. Visitors can watch and bet simulcast races from top tracks around the country. TVs were tuned to these tracks, and we watched horses running in a complete downpour at Churchill Downs.
The second floor holds the spiffy, glassed-in Downs Clubhouse & Lounge with lots of tables and chairs that overlook the track, a huge bar, TVs and betting windows.
Since the weather was gorgeous, we stayed on the lower level that opens to a large patio with seating. A huge concourse is right beside the track. Some folks set up their own lawn chairs here. Children are allowed at the racetrack (not in the casino) and we saw many, as it was Family Night at the Races. Prerace stalls are at one end so visitors can check out the horses before each race.
The track itself is unique. Despite the warm weather, the track looked dark and wet. My father said, “I think it’s artificial.” I didn’t think so, but he was right. The one-mile oval is paved with Tapeta Footings, a wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber and other materials. Turns out it’s the first synthetic racetrack that is longer than 1 mile in the Northeast and the first paved with Tapeta in the United States.
We bought a racing program ($1.50) and snagged a free handicapper sheet (“Andrew’s Picks”) for each of the eight races.
Presque Isle makes it easy to bet, even for novices. Despite consulting the “Your How To Guide to Betting Made Easy” and a chatting with bet taker Angel, we still managed to flub it at the window. But no worries, the workers were helpful. There also are electronic betting terminals. (Someday we’ll figure out how to bet “keys” and “partial wheels.”) Regardless, we love betting and watching live races. And when only spending a few bucks, who cares if you screw up?
Live racing runs now through October, Sunday-Thursday, 5:25 p.m. post time. Children are permitted entry at north or south areas of the track apron. Here are some highlights of the upcoming season:
• Family Night at the Races, 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays, $1 hot dogs, $2 cheeseburgers, live music.
• Wednesday Night at the Races, $2 cheeseburgers, $2 for 2 hot dogs, $1 fries.
• Major races include Sept. 6-7, Presque Isle Mile Stakes and Presque Isle Downs Master Stakes; Oct. 1, Fitz Dixon Jr. Memorial Stakes.
Food and entertainment
Guests have several options from a grabbing a quick bite at the INCafe, the Backstretch Buffet that overlooks the track, or there’s the high-end La Bonne Vie Steakhouse.
We wanted to try the Downs Clubhouse & Lounge that overlooks the track on the second floor, but seats were all reserved (it was opening day). So it was the Sunday $18.99 champagne buffet (11 a.m. to 9 p.m.). Choices ranged from Asian and Italian to American and included a mimosa. Prices vary depending on lunch or dinner, and day. The high end ($26.99) is Friday nights for Gregg’s Seafood Fest (4 to 11 p.m.) Concessions are available outdoors at the track every race night.
Free live entertainment in the Downs Clubhouse & Lounge on Saturday nights begins at 9. Happy Hour from 5 to 7 p.m. Fridays and 4 to 6 p.m. Saturdays with 50 percent off drink specials and $5 appetizers. The Outdoor Summer Concert Series runs now through September. Visit online for acts, prices and times.
If you go
Take the I-90 to exit 27 in Erie, Pa., follow the signs. The new Baymont Inn & Suites across the way is within walking distance, but a shuttle also runs 24/7 to the casino.