PLAINS TWP. — After months of planning, endless meetings and tedious preparation to make everything perfect for the 30th running of the Breeders Crown this weekend, fate found a way to throw Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs a curveball.
Mike Schmidt isn’t coming.
Just days before the Super Bowl of harness racing, the former Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Fame hero pulled out of his planned autograph session scheduled for Saturday’s Breeders Crown Finals at Pocono Downs while citing a personal conflict.
So Dale Rapson, the vice president of racing operations at Pocono Downs, was forced to call an audible.
He scrambled to insert Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame running back and four-time Super Bowl runner-up Thurman Thomas into Schmidt’s slot in the lineup for a two-hour autograph session from 3 to 5 p.m. on Breeders Crown Day Saturday at Mohegan Sun Casino’s Sky Bridge. And Schmidt has re-scheduled his autograph session from 4 to 6 p.m. on Pocono Downs’ new closing night of Nov. 23.
This is why Rapson stirs in his sleep some nights.
“You don’t take anything for granted,” Rapson said.
Pocono Downs never did.
That’s why the Plains Township track, once considered a laughingstock in the harness racing industry, will host the sport’s biggest event for the second time in four years.
“I remember Pocono Downs in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said Tom Charters, the president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society that decides where the Breeders Crown Series will be run each season. “It was pretty much a backwater track.”
“When I first came here,” said Rapson, who has been running the Pocono Downs track for 35 years, “this was the bottom of the barrel in racing. The big joke was, if you can’t run anywhere go to Pocono.
“Now, it’s the track to be at.”
It didn’t get that way overnight.
Even as Pocono Downs worked hard to attract better drivers and higher-quality racing for more than two decades, the place couldn’t even consider applying to host a Breeders Crown event before 2010.
“We weren’t ready for it,” Rapson said. “I would have never brought it in.”
A whole cart-full of improvements changed that thinking.
The Pocono Downs infield was remodeled into a blossoming beauty. Seating capacity was increased when the track and its clubhouse were renovated eight years ago. The track received an economic boost when Mohegan Sun Casino arrived on the premises in 2006.
But maybe most importantly, the decision to replace the track surface some 15 years ago put Pocono Downs over the top on the list of harness racing tracks.
“Pocono Downs is the best track surface in America,” Hall of Fame driver John Campbell said. “It’s so forgiving for the horses. They’re just a little more consistent throughout the ride on this track. They can still go fast. But the track doesn’t hurt them like harder surfaces.
“It’s just a good surface.”
Rapson isn’t sure who manufactured the track or what materials were used in the mix, but does know it’s made of a similar substance used to make repairs on the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
“It’s a local surface,” Rapson said. “It has a reddish color to it. It’s a fast surface, but it’s not a hard surface. When you start seeing the (racing) times - we’re setting world records - it was good to the horses.
“We were just lucky to find this surface.”
Good fortune had little to do with Pocono Downs landing its first Breeders Crown run in 2010.
Despite warnings of caution by critics who didn’t believe Pocono Downs could handle an event as big as the Breeders Crown, the Hambletonian Society brought that event to the facility in 2010.
“We knew the commitment of the horsemen,” Charters said. “They’ve got one of the larger clubhouses in harness racing now. Most tracks have downsized, especially when they rebuilt. And especially at small tracks, the enthusiasm’s there. Because they see it as a real opportunity.”
Rapson doesn’t disagree.
“We want to make everybody feel important,” Rapson said. “You’re trying to impress everybody.”
The numbers from the first Breeders Crown were impressive enough.
The track set attendance records and recorded $2.4 million in wagering - a number Pocono Downs hasn’t seen before or since.
“We’ve got a target of $2.3 million (for Saturday’s wagering),” Charters said. “I hope to exceed that.”
Most of all, Rapson plans to exceed even his own expectations.
Although he’s pleased everything ran smoothly during the last Breeders Crown Finals at Pocono Downs, he’s planning to make Saturday’s event even better.
“We took from 2010 because it was so smooth,” Rapson said of the event’s preparation. “But there were a couple of things we feel we could do better - a couple changes in the clubhouse to get a faster service, parking, we’re going to try to do a better job. There were a couple things we knew we had to improve upon.”
To try to remove any glitches, the Pocono Downs staff began readying for its routines from almost the day the Breeders Crown announced it was coming back to the track.
“It’s a lot of work,” Rapson said. “We probably started over a year ago on preparation to get this ready. The big part is getting all the outlets around the country, and the world, to take the (simulcast) signal. A couple of months out, we’re meeting once a week. When it gets close, three, four times a week - talking about TV, seating, where you’re going to park everybody.
“To us,” Rapson continued, “it’s like a city hosting the Super Bowl. You might have it once or twice. You’d like to have it back, you just don’t know when.
“You never know if you’re going to get it again.”
Because of the attention to detail at Pocono Downs, another Breeders Crown return just may be in the track’s future.
“I’d like to see a track like Mohegan Sun, every third year, be in the mix for this,” said Charters, noting that Toronto and the Meadowlands have been the main hosts to the Breeders Crown through the last two decades. “It’d be nice to have a third (option). There are very few tracks that can fund the rights for these. Ideally, I think people here would like to get it back. Mohegan Sun, all year long, since their opening day press conference, they’ve been pointing at this event. The enthusiasm is really gratifying, and the excitement they’ve generated.”
That ambition never seems to die, even as Pocono Downs is substituting one Hall of Fame player for another in the event’s promotion.
“It’s a tremendous event,” Rapson said. “You’re going to see one of the greatest events in this area on Saturday.”