PLAINS TWP. - They came walking down the steps leading straight the simulcasting room, heads buried in programs like they were studying straight to the last minute for final exams.
Only these were not high school seniors or college kids.
They were students of a different kind of game, hardcore horse racing fans carrying cheat sheets who made their classroom from the kiosks inside Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.
They started their schooling bright and early Saturday.
“You learn from experience,” one Pocono Downs regular said. “You don’t wait until five minutes before the Derby to go and bet the Derby. You bet it at noon.”
He got to the simulcast room before 10:30 a.m.
The hats and hoopla would all arrive later, filling the afternoon at Pocono Downs with such bright enthusiasm and spirit.
The soul of the sport, though, was scattered through the simulcast room from the early hours of Saturday morning.
They weren’t just there to watch the Kentucky Derby.
There was plenty of wagering on the races going on outside at the Pocono Downs track.
The early card there began at 11 a.m., the first of two sets of races sandwiched around the showing of the nation’s most celebrated horse race that kicks off Triple Crown Series.
So serious racing guys got ready for a long day.
One man went to the snack bar and loaded up on chicken and fries, scurrying quickly back to his desk to continue figuring out his favorites on a paper that resembled NCAA college basketball brackets by the time he was done.
Another bettor turned the simulcast room into his favorite corner bar, polishing off a late-morning beer as a horse named Beers Away staggered through the fifth race of the first card. Maybe that last-place finish sent a bad omen to the guy because he quickly switched to drinking soda.
But the serious horse bettors drink all of this up.
Strewn about the desks in room were an array of tools for the tried and true horse gamblers, with spread sheets, racing forums, horse magazines, newspaper clippings and programs dominating the scenery.
This was their office, with a bastion of business going on.
It looked like bad business for one guy, who angrily spun around and swung his program in disgust at the conclusion of one race.
“There is a science to it,” said John Wills, a long-time horse wagerer at Pocono Downs. “A horse that’s 2-1 (odds) will win more often than horses that are 3-1. When you place a bet, there’s definitely a basis for it. But there are a lot of factors involved, too. Horses can get shuffled, horses can get trapped. Sometimes you lose with a horse that should have won and sometimes you win with a horse that should have lost. You roll with it.”
Pretty soon, the pomp and circumstance started to roll into the place.
Women wearing flower-filled sun bonnets and elegant ankle-length dresses showed up, accompanied by gentleman decked out in Panama hats, Packer hats, Driving hats, Newsboy hats and baseball caps - all staples of Kentucky Derby day.
Many of those fans caught up in the frills of the day won’t be back at a track more than a handful of times in a year.
Amateur hour, one hardcore horse player I know calls it.
“We were joking before,” Wills laughed, “it’s like the people who go to church on Christmas and Easter. A couple of my friends came in to make their bets, and they left.”
Odds are, though, that all that activity around Pocono Downs was a welcome sight for people who play the ponies with great passion.
“On the other hand,” Wills continued, “big crowds are good for people who are serious bettors. That tends to drive up the odds on horses. You get better odds and higher draws when crowds are bigger. You get a little bit of an edge.”
Which, as any intense bettor will attest, is always a good thing.