Making Claims - May 2011

One of my favorite things about horse racing is its vast array of venues – from the massive palace built to honor equine competition to the modest bullring at the local fairgrounds.

My travels have taken me to racetracks across the country, and each offered a different take on a day at the races. Each track also offered different flavors and philosophies on concession stand service.

Many of my racetrack meals are hastily scarfed down between races, but when something strikes me as particularly good, I take note of it. Over time, I have compiled a list of the best concession stand meals that have crossed my path.

This list does not include meals enjoyed in clubhouses and press boxes. If it’s served above the track’s second floor, the food is supposed to be good. Also, there are some tracks where I just didn’t get around to eating, so there will be some unfortunate snubs.

But now is not the time to think about what didn’t make the cut. It’s time to dig in!

The Ellis Park Cheeseburger

Over the years, I have received plenty of touts on horses. Excited owners proudly announce that their champion is primed for a big effort, followers of a particular circuit may laud a horse shipping in as noteworthy, and sometimes someone just has a good feeling and needs to share it.

However, the only tout that ever yielded life-changing results was not for a horse, but a sandwich. Throughout my internship at Thoroughbred Times, one of my fellow editors, Jeff Apel, repeatedly praised the Ellis Park cheeseburger. Near the end of my stay, we made the three-hour trek to Henderson, Ky. to try it out. It absolutely lived up to the hype.

The burger stand is nestled away from the action, behind the grandstand and pole barns. A mid-summer day is usually sweltering at Ellis Park, so standing over the grill is surely an unenviable task, but great art often comes from great struggle.

It is hard to explain what makes the Ellis Park burger racing’s greatest concession stand meal. Whatever the fellow behind the grill does to the beef patties borders on magic; and like most magic tricks, some things are best enjoyed without worrying too much about the “hows” and “whys”. Simply put, the Ellis Park burger is so good that I eat it with nothing but cheese between the burger and the bun, and I normally put ketchup on everything.

Ellis Park is now a staple of my western Kentucky itinerary because of its burgers. Few can say that a tout on a sandwich had a significant impact on their lives. Do yourself a favor and become one of those people.

The Turfway Park Grilled Cheese Sandwich

It’s hard to screw up a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s even harder to make one worth an eight-hour drive.

Located on the Florence, Ky. track’s ground floor, straight inside from the finish line, the concession stand offers a well-rounded selection of short-order options, but none impress like the grilled cheese.

The sandwich itself is nothing outstanding – just cheese on buttered bread. Where this particular grilled cheese shines is in its ratios.

The bread is the perfect thickness – not so big that it’s hard to eat, but not flimsy – and buttered just right. The cheese appears to be straight from the standard issue “64 slices of American cheese”, but in that sandwich, it becomes plump without turning gooey.

Back home, I have had family and short order cooks attempt to re-create the Turfway Park grilled cheese, and all have come up short. Truly gifted are those who can make the ordinary become exceptional.

The Arlington Park Loaded Mac ‘n’ Cheese

Positioned in the center of the Chicago grandstand’s ground floor is a mall-style food court. As I perused the circular arrangement of food stands, I stumbled across this gem on the menu of the barbecue station.

On the surface the concept of loaded mac ‘n’ cheese seemed like a gamble. Macaroni and cheese is awesome, and BBQ pulled pork is equally awesome. Dumping one on top of the other could have gone either way.

My concern was unwarranted. The two flavors transitioned well into each other, especially near the bottom of the bowl when the two parts had time to settle and blend together.

The only drawback was its piping hot serving temperature, which meant fighting through a burnt tongue to eat the whole thing before the next race. Those who dine with more patience, however, will surely enjoy what they have before them.

The Prairie Meadows Pulled Pork Sandwich

While browsing the internet, I came across a map of the United States displaying each state’s alleged “specialty dish”. As I scanned the flyover states, I couldn’t help but nod approvingly when I saw Iowa’s contribution was the pulled pork sandwich.

The Altoona, Ia. racetrack offers quick dining options in the grandstand and on the apron, but the barbecue shack within shouting distance of the winner’s circle is the place to go.

Like any good BBQ establishment, the portions were generous. The meat was good enough on its own that the barbecue sauce was almost unnecessary. Clearly, the Iowans knew what they were doing.

The sights and sounds of the racetrack are what make the sport great, but it can get even better when the smells and tastes fall into place behind them.