PLAINS TWP. — The first sign that something seemed different about the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs racetrack was a packed parking lot, where only overflow spaces could be found within an hour of the big race.
The second signal was the sea of women wearing oversized sun bonnets.
And for good measure, a mustacioed man walked by wearing a white suit and a fedora.
Where in the world did these people think they were going Saturday, to Kentucky?
Once again, the Kentucky Derby came to Pocono Downs, where live feeds of horse racing’s most popular event held at Churchill Downs played not only in the lounge and betting areas but on a jumbo television on the infield of the track. Meanwhile, area fans walked through a vibe of excitement - some watching intently, others talking casually, making the place feel like a holiday picnic.
The only thing missing was Kentucky bluegrass.
“It’s great to emulate Churchill Downs,” said Holy Redeemer volleyball coach Jack Kablick, caught up by the mystique and enthusiasm of the day. “We come up here once a year - for the Derby. It’s like the World Series of horse racing, the Super Bowl of horse racing.
“I think it’s fantastic.”
Danielle Yedloski thought it would be a good time.
The Hanover Township woman came to her first Derby Day at Pocono Downs wearing an oversized sun hat - and trying to win a prize Pocono Downs was awarding for the wildest one.
“I like it. It’s fun,” Yedloski said. “The interaction is great. A lot of great people, a lot of great hats. Everybody comes in with their own kind of funky hat - or you can buy them - to see if you can win a prize. We’re kind of trying to be like we’re at the Kentucky Derby.”
For many, it didn’t really matter whether or not their favorite horse won.
It was more the atmosphere - both inside and outside Pocono Downs - that made the day special.
“I think it’s the weather, the end of winter,” said race fan Jim Kealy said moments before the start of a Kentucky Derby captured by a horse named Orb. “Everyone’s feeling good. Everyone will bet a horse. There’s a lot of anticipation, you could feel it going out of the room.”
That combination of gambling action and interaction makes the Kentucky Derby a super-special event at off-track betting venues across the country.
“Everybody knows about the Kentucky Derby, whether you’re a racing fan or not,” said Dale Rapson, the vice president of racing at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. “Plus, you have the ‘Hat Event.’ It’s like a social event, where everybody really gets involved. The women know the horses before they even get here. Last year, we set a record (for attendance). I think we’re at at least that much, maybe even ahead of last year.”
Of course, Pocono Downs punctuated the day with a full day-and-night card of racing, including the Van Rose Memorial Race - named for the late Times Leader horse racing writer and handicapper - held Saturday night.
But to even the most grizzled race fans, the day was less about hitting it big at the wagering stations and more about having a good time.
“We come every year to the Kentucky Derby (Day), we don’t miss it,” said Patricia DiGennari, a regular at the Pocono Downs track. “Don’t forget, it’s (known) world-wide. It’s on TV. And it draws everybody.”