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Pony Kegs 

Northfield Park

Like backwash at the bottom of a beer mug, winter's waning days linger listlessly. Spring's game of hide-and-seek fails to amuse. Creative remedies for cabin fever pose a daunting challenge -- how to shake off winter's dust when we can't entirely count on Mother Nature?

Here's a safe bet: Make tracks for Northfield Park and belly up to the only on-site, horse-racing-track microbrewery in the United States. Since June 1998, Brewmaster David Gunn has been blending barley, mixing malt, and heaping on the hops in concocting a stableful of palate pleasers -- Winner's Wheat Lager, Silk's Cream Ale, Crimson Colt Ale, 40-to-1 Stout -- as well as seasonal brewskis.

"I brewed one recently, but I haven't named it yet," says Gunn with a laugh. "It's a Scottish ale, a really malty beer, very low on hops. It's going to have a big finish, a lot of body. I put some peated malt in to give it some smoky flavor."

As finished products, the new brews draw rave reviews. As "works in progress," the reaction is rather flat. "I'm outta there at noon every day, so they can get the smell out," says Gunn, who arrives at 5 a.m. to begin cooking malted barley at 150 degrees. "I like the smell, but it's pretty sweet for a lot of people. When you add the hops, you get more of the floral, grassy smell. I think it's just the strength [of the aroma], and people aren't familiar with that."

The micro-beer biz is but one of many additions and upgrades at the track, which underwent a thorough $10 million renovation in 1996. The hallmarks of horse-racing venues of yore -- cigar butts littering the floor, disheveled souls in tacky-colored jackets and mismatched plaid pants -- have yielded to a new age. This is not your father's racetrack.

The beer helps attract the younger customer, but old-timers are typically unfazed. "Some of the older regulars are set in their ways and aren't quite as adventurous as the younger ones," Gunn explains. "They think they've tried everything and are just content with Miller, Bud, Coors, or whatever."

"I can't tell you we've won 14,000 gold medals [for the beer]," admits track publicist Keith Gisser. "But, speaking as a beer drinker, I like the product."

But whether or not gamblers experience the fancy brews, the sounds and suds of the racetrack are still a favorite. Odds are, it'll put some spring into your step as chilly days head down the homestretch.

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