Name change kicks off anniversary season

March 19th, 2015 5:33 pm - updated: 8:42 pm.

Horses round the rebranded “The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono” race track Wednesday morning prior to a season-opening press conference celebrating the track’s 50th year of racing.
A man watches as horses round the track at the newly-rebranded The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono racetrack before Wednesday’s season-opening press conference.

PLAINS TWP. — The return of a world record-holder to the scene where history was made.

Another new name for a track now a half-century old.

Appearances at a place of wagering gambling by a Major League Baseball icon banned from his beloved sport for, well, gambling and a cancer-surviving Hall of Fame quarterback revered for repeatedly getting to the big game despite never winning it.

Pocono Downs sure has some splashy celebrations in store for its 50th anniversary season.

Er, make that The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, the new name announced during Wednesday’s season-opening press conference for the 5/8-mile harness racing track in Plains Twp., which started as Pocono Downs on July 15, 1965 and more recently was called Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.

“This year’s going to be a big year for us,” said Dale Rapson, the vice president of racing operations at “The Downs.”

Is it ever.

The track promises to create fireworks when trotter Sebastian K comes back to run there twice this season after breaking the world record by running a time of 1:49 at The Downs on June 28 last year.

“Sebastian is a special horse for us,” said his owner, Sweden native Tristan Sjoberg, who now lives in Singapore. “He will be racing one more season. He will be going to Pocono Downs on July 21 and for the anniversary on the 22 of August.”

A couple big names from other sports will be coming, too.

Former Philadelphia Phillies star Pete Rose, who recently appealed his lifetime ban from baseball for placing bets on the game while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds, will make an autograph appearance on the official anniversary night on Aug. 22, which will be Super Stakes Saturday.

“If you took a poll, I think the people are on Pete Rose’s side,” Rapson said. “The agent said he’s great with the fans. He has committed to come. We’re glad to have him.”

The Downs will also get a visit during this year’s racing season from former Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly, who has twice fought off serious battles with cancer while drawing as many cheers after his football days as he did while leading the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances from 1990 through 93. His July 4 visit is sure to produce fireworks on Sun Stakes Saturday.

It all starts with this Saturday’s season-opening card.

“The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono is the best track in the world,” Sjoberg said. “Without a good track, it doesn’t mean anything if you have high purses. I will not race Sebastian at certain tracks because they’re not good enough. You’ve got to invest in the track. Mohegan Sun does that.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Rapson remembers the harness track’s early years, when the saying was, “If you couldn’t race anywhere else, you raced at Pocono Downs,” Rapson said.

The press conference Wednesday served as a trip down memory lane, from when the Pocono Downs track served as an evacuation center during the devastating 1972 Agnes Flood through the 21 world records set at the track, right up to last year’s run by Sebastian K S that set the record for any run on a half-mile, 5/8 of a mile or 1-mile track.

“I could remember distinctly, as a young man, coming up with my buddies on a warm Friday night and wagering $2 on a race,” said Pennsylvania state senator John Yudichak, D-Nanticoke, who signed a citation along with fellow state senator Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Twp. and presented it to The Downs on Wednesday. “I knew nothing about horse racing, but I was enthralled watching those horses run around the red clay. But I knew nothing about horse racing, so I lost virtually every race I wagered.

“Who would have thought the $6 I lost on those Friday nights would sustain Pocono Downs for 50 years?”

That the harness track has lasted this long is no joke.

According to The Downs racing marketing manager Jennifer Starr, 80 race tracks that were in operation when Pocono Downs opened in 1965 are now closed. That The Downs has not only survived for 50 years, but thrived through the last decade while hosting two Breeders Crown season-ending harness racing championships during the last five years is almost astounding.

“You have to remember, our area has struggled with economy over the years,” Rapson said. “We had the flood. To survive all that and still be open is a tribute. I think the number one reason is the employees. Without them, we would have never stayed open.”

The addition of the Mohegan Sun Casino to the Pocono Downs track sight, and the influx of purse money and improvements it brought to area harness racing, didn’t hurt either.

“I voted for the (state) Gaming Act that changed everything,” Yudichak said. “The promise was billions of dollars would be invested in Pennsylvania, thousands of jobs would be created and the harness racing industry would be revitalized.

“In Pennsylvania, that promise has been kept by the casino industry.”

But the upkeep, Rapson insisted, is a credit to the hundreds of workers at The Downs who make the place a yearly attraction.

“It’s the way they treat the customers, that’s the big thing,” Rapson said. “The customers love our employees. Plus, their dependability - you can always count on them, and I think, their knowledge. I learn from them as well as they learn from me.

“There’s so much competition,” Rapson continued. “Why would you want to come to Pocono Downs? Well, ‘The last time I was there, they treated me nice. Let’s go there.’

“The way you’re treated makes a difference.”