Plastered With the Ponies

Thistledown reopens as a racino. Don't worry, there's still booze

At 24-ounces, the frothy, frozen concoctions at Slush Bar are the best deals in the house, promises our bubbly female bartender. Crammed into a dark corner of the newly re-opened Thistledown Racino, Slush is sadly depressing despite the fact that nearly a dozen giant blenders filled with brightly colored booze serves as backdrop. We were still feeling our way around the cavernous space and, desperate for a drink, landed here.

But here's the catch about that big drink, which at $13 is hardly a steal – especially when you factor in the brain freeze: It is served in one of those unbearably humiliating neon-colored plastic yard glasses with the three-foot straws. In the end, I opted for the 16-ouncer – flavor: margarita – which while costing the same as the douchey one, more than makes up for it in dignity.

On Tuesday, April 9, the dog-eared thoroughbred track in Warrensville Heights reopened following an $88 million renovation that saw the arrival of 1,100 video lottery terminals – or VLTs. Though they look and sound a lot like slot machines, they aren't, but I'm still not sure why as not a single gambler could capably describe the difference.

After a quick stop at the new Center Bar for a round of drinks – this time 16-ounce Dortmunders for just $4 a pop – we surveyed the rest of the building. It didn't take long to notice that there were zero table games – no Blackjack, no Craps, no Pai Gow, whatever the hell that is. Just row upon row of blinking, clinking machines. Why would anybody choose Thistledown over Horseshoe Casino, we wondered.

"We were about to go down to Horseshoe, but this is closer to home," says Stacy Poolof, who was grabbing a smoke out front. She lives in Cuyahoga Falls and says the trade-off is worth it to save herself the drive downtown. "It does kind of suck that we can't play Blackjack or Craps. Believe me, I'd love to be playing Texas Hold'em right now."

Most of the folks I asked sang the same tune: It's closer than downtown; I don't have deal with traffic; I don't have to pay to park; Where's Cleveland?

Ask for a double Maker's Mark at the Center Bar and you'll get precisely two ounces of bourbon in a highball glass with ice. The cost is $12 – exactly double that of a single. To my math, that places the cocktail just above the frozen slushy as the best deal in the house, especially because that 24-ounce frosty also contains two ounces of booze.

Sitting next to me at the bar was Judy Patay of Garfield Heights. She was smiling and chatty, and not just because she was halfway into her second Manhattan. She just pried $110 out of one of those VLTs, and she was celebrating the American way – with booze.

"I think the pay here is better than downtown," she said, despite the fact that she admitted to losing $400 a few days prior. "I used to come here all the time to bet the horses. It's nice what they did to it; it's changed a lot."

It has changed a lot, I thought. It's been years since my last visit, but I can still remember the dingy bus terminal décor filled with ne'er-do-wells holed up in dank cubbies clutching inked-up copies of the Daily Racing Form. Now, it's wall-to-wall carpet, flashy new bars and restaurants, and crowds of people in outfits other than sweats and work clothes.

"It looked like a track down here: It was dirty, with losing tickets all over the ground," says Paul Harris of Streetsboro, confirming my often-questionable memory.

And then we go upstairs, where apparently nothing has changed. Standing atop a carpet of losing tickets and staring into banks of 15-year-old televisions is the same-old pool of luckless gamblers. Though Thistledown was still a week away from live racing, there was still plenty of wagering thanks to simulcasting, which lets gamblers pick losers wherever they race.

When I asked Paul Harris, who also is a thoroughbred owner, if having the glitzy new racino downstairs ultimately will kill the action upstairs, he laughs it off.

"They'll still do both," he said. "Gamblers gamble."

We walked by machines with names like Aladdin, Quick Hit and Pawn Stars, past the new retro-themed Diner and the American Burger Bar, and settled back into our cushy stools at the Center Bar. It was only spot in the entire place, we quickly learned, where you always win.

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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