MAYS LANDING - Handicapping horses must run in Frank Toner's family.
Saturday's second race at Atlantic City Race Course was named the Frank "Bootem" Toner Classic in honor of the late Longport native, who passed away suddenly last August. One of Frank's passions was ACRC, where he used to handicap races for The Press of Atlantic City under the nickname "Fat Cat."
Saturday's announced crowd of 9,563 included several members of the Toner family, including daughter Carolyn Polistina and her husband, Vince, who brought their sons, Vinny, 8, and 6-year-old twins Dominic and Cole.
"My father used to bring me here when I was little, and I've been doing the same thing with my kids," Carolyn Polistina said. "I think we took Vinny to his first race when he was two months old."
Before the race, Vinny scanned the list of horses running in his grandfather's race and pointed to the No. 8 horse, Really Snowing, as his choice to win because he likes snow. A few minutes later, Carolyn and Vince were cashing a winning ticket.
Prior to the next race, Dominic and Cole selected S.S. Skittles.
"They picked him because 'Skittles' is one of their safe foods," Carolyn said. "They both have allergy problems and can only eat certain foods."
Again, they picked a winner.
Most of all, they had fun, which seemed to be the theme throughout the complex on a warm, sunny afternoon.
Once one of the country's top race courses, ACRC - like most tracks in the country - has seen better days. But when it holds its once-a-year live meet, it is brimming with excitement.
Children with their faces painted in pink and green pressed against the rail outside to watch the horses parade around before heading to the track. Adults sampled the offerings from the renovated beer garden before heading inside to place their bets. Others just sat at one of the new picnic tables or relaxed in a deck chair.
"We try to make it here every year," said Egg Harbor City resident Cathy Dalton, who brought her grandsons Jason, 7, Jacob, 5, and Chase, 3, Eisenhart. "This place has always been special to me because I was a hot walker (a groomer who would walk the horses after a race) here when I was 17. Obviously, it's not the same as it was back then, but it's still a nice way to spend an afternoon."
They definitely weren't alone. Thousands of cars kicked up dust as they pulled into the dirt parking lot. Most of them contained families who were coming mostly for the experience.
That group included Galloway Township residents Genna and Scott Price, who brought daughters Darla, 2, and Penelope, 10 months. Darla peeked out from behind her sunglasses and urged her parents to bet on Lady's Princess in the fourth race.
"It's a nice day, it's free and Darla wanted to go see the horses," Genna said. "As soon as she heard someone say 'Princess' she knew that was going to be her favorite horse."
The children also got a kick out of hearing Galloway Township resident Richard Garrick call the horses to the starting gate with his shiny, gold bugel.
Garrick has been performing the ritual at ACRC since 1986, when he took over for the late Tom Langly, and is one year away from tying Langly's record for longevity.
"I moved to the area in 1978 (from North Jersey) to perform in the casinos and since I've started playing here, I can't stop," Garrick said. "I play at other races like opening day at Suffolk Downs in Boston and the Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park, but this will always be my home track. It's just so amazing to see all the same people come back year after year."
Jockeys love to come here because of the turf course.
Although most of ACRC is past its prime, the one-mile stretch of green grass is so lush, jockeys insist that the horses enjoy running on it.
"This grass is absolutely the best, without question," said jockey Frankie Pennington, a 25-year-old native of Big Spring, Texas.
"When your horse is running on it, you can actually hear their feet going through the grass because it's so smooth. It's tremendous."
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