It was an obnoxiously bright Saturday afternoon I should have spent on the couch, nursing a fairly nasty hangover. Instead, I’d been convinced to spend my day in a minivan with three CityBeat staffers (Danny Cross, Jason Gargano and Maija Zummo), a cooler full of autumn ales, a sweater-clad Chinese Crested named Harry and 84 miles of suburban highway to navigate. I guess if you’ve lived in Cincinnati for 22 years, you should drive the I-275 loop in its entirety at least once.
We drove down I-75 and hopped on the loop going east toward Ohio and quickly came across our first destination: River Downs racetrack in Anderson Township. Somehow, we all had stories involving our grandfathers frequenting this place, but none of us had bet on the ponies in recent memory. It’s too cold in Cincinnati for live races in the fall, and since racing is all about keeping horses comfortable (save the whipping), River Downs offers only simulcast racing during this time of year. The indoor betting area, filled with rows upon rows of personal televisions to watch various races, was hoppin’ that afternoon with a diverse, mostly geriatric crowd.
If you’re a bright-eyed young woman in need of a confidence boost, just do a lap around the bar with a bewildered look upon your face. Within minutes, at least a half-dozen gentlemen will be fighting over who gets to teach you their betting technique or buy you a Bloody Mary. If you’re a tattooed young man who wears tight purple sweatshirts, you might get the side-eye from a few regulars and be told to move to a different television (They charge for seating at four-person tables, but not if you have said young women in your company).
For first-time betters, the environment can be pretty intimidating. Some of these dudes come equipped with notepads and laptops and research jockey biographies before placing their bets. And it smells really strongly of nacho cheese. But once you select a race in the day’s betting catalogue, find it on your television and pick a horse with the sexiest name, you’re all set!
I was surprised by the bet-taker’s patience as I stuttered through my bet on True Bliss at Lexington’s Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing & Sales. She didn’t win, but did place in second. This was all the success we needed to feel confident in our next bet — No. 8 in the next race, My Baby Baby, was going to be our hot ticket. She had great odds and a name to match.
Gearing up for the race, she appeared strong and stoic, but as soon as that gate opened, something went wrong. Within seconds, My Baby Baby had bucked off her jockey, flipping him through the air. She then proceeded to race her way, weaving in and out of the pack of her jockeyed pals. We had lost all our money, but My Baby Baby looked so free, we could only watch our tiny television in disbelief. Once the race was over, the probable thought of My Baby Baby being shipped off to the glue factory killed our gambling buzz. It was time to head back to the loop.
The drive through Amelia and Milford made me realize why Midwesterners drink a lot of beer. Without any significant stops to make, I found myself finishing a second Woodchuck Cider rather quickly. Anything to make the countless Wal-Mart parking lots seem more attractive. Even Harry decided to take a short, hairless nap at this point in the trip.
Upon reaching Sharonville, we were ready for some excitement. Just in time, we came across the 275 express lane, stretching about seven miles across the northern-most part of the loop. The cement-guarded mini-lane is perfect for people who don’t want to get stuck in traffic or are too busy to partake in the many cultural offerings of the Tri-County area. We were particularly disappointed to have missed out on Dave & Buster’s, Tri-County Mall and Target World.
With Maija a tizzy from not being able to get out of the car or shoot at some human-shaped targets with a crossbow, we decided to stop at the next available exit. Thankfully, this happened to be Forest Park, home to Cincinnati Mills. We risked losing our dutiful driver Danny by entering what will always be Forest Fair Mall (to me), as he was once banned for life from the premises by a court of law. But because the name had changed (more than once) since then, we assumed the ban was lifted, and so we trekked toward the most grand business in all the Mills: Bass Pro Shops