After a long wait during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Erie horse track opens a 50-date meet

The long-awaited opening day of racing arrived Monday evening at Presque Isle Downs & Casino.

The track, owned by Churchill Downs, began its 50-race meet with an earlier-than-normal post time of 4:45 p.m.

The races went on without spectators outside the venue because of COVID-19 restrictions that limited the facility to 250 people. Fans were not permitted on the apron adjacent to the track. The patio was empty with exception to horse connections and media members.

Patrons were permitted to watch the races from Churchill Bourbon and Brew restaurant overlooking the track, even though the restaurant had limited capacity, too.

Patti Myers, 80, and her husband Robert Myers, 89, have sat at the same table inside the Churchill Bourbon and Brew restaurant every time they attend the races. They have attended PID since the track opened.

The Myers, who will celebrate their 50th anniversary on Oct. 31, were horse owners themselves at the former Commodore Downs in Fairview. The longtime fans fully understand that the season’s delay has presented struggles to the horse connections.

“We enjoy it, of course,” Patti Myers said. “We felt sad that the people that come here, as far as the trainers and the owners, who have to have such a short season.”

The simulcast was one of the first moments of normalcy for PID as its host, Patrick Morell, ran down the eight-race schedule with his handicapping expertise.

The second-year host is thrilled that thoroughbred racing has returned to Erie.

“I’m glad I can be part of this, especially in my home state of Pennsylvania,” he said. “It gets in your soul. (There were) a little bit of jitters when I woke up this morning. I’ve played a lot of sports. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”

Melvin Jackson, an assistant trainer, was connected to Midnight Punk, a horse that placed second in the first race. A 30-year veteran in the horse-racing game, he has been part of the PID community for five years.

Like many connections at smaller tracks around the country, Jackson counts on PID as his key source of income. He began the year working at Tampa Bay Downs before arriving in Erie on March 26.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “For a person like myself that’s not rich, in this business, there’s a lot of money going out that’s not coming in. We need this. Whatever we can get out of it is going to be a plus. It’s going to carry us through the winter and get us to next year.”

Presque Isle Downs racing director Matt Ennis was pleased that the track was running again.

“It’s a long time coming. We’ve been anticipating this day since mid-March,” said Ennis said, who hopes the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will eventually relax occupancy numbers.

While the track was closed to spectators, that did not stop some fans from showing up and trying to gain access to the track. PID officials were saddened that they had to turn away the fans.

“The biggest disappointment is no spectators,” Ennis said. “Presque Isle Downs is such a community-oriented organization. Not having the fans is maybe something we can change with governmental direction down the road.”

Contact Josh Reilly at Follow him on Twitter @ETNreilly.

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