It was early February and the rail was dead at Mount Pleasant Meadows.
Its remains laid stacked in a tangled heap of PVC and metal in the center aisle of Barn D, sheltered from the stinging wind of a Michigan winter storm.
The dilapidated barn did little to stop the gusts that whistled through its slats, drowning out the rumble of diesel engines and the snap of boards outside as the last few structures that offered evidence of horse racing on the property gave way.
Within a week, the oval would fully realize its future as a snowmobile track, and any hope of returning to its past life as a horse racing venue buckled with every structure that hit the frozen dirt. In a rather cruel twist, the track's old signage on the surviving grandstand was tarped over with posters advertising Triple Crown series from the new snowmobiling host.
The Caterpillar excavator had already claimed the tote board, the paddock, and the jock's room by the time I reached the grandstand that afternoon in 2016. From the reserved section, former track announcer Scott Csernyik and I watched the machine crawl over to the wooden flower boxes that backstopped the winner's circle and make short work of them.
Between the unforgiving cold and the display in front of us, nothing felt good about being out there, but we had to see it for ourselves.
“That's what they did to the tote board, they reduced it to Barney Rubble,” Csernyik said. “They put it all in the trucks and hauled it away.”
Michigan's racetracks have closed in scads over the past two decades, but losing the one in Mount Pleasant remained the most impactful for me, even years after the last ticket went through a window.
Had I been a more pious individual growing up, most of the societal boxes the track checked for me probably would have been filled by a church. It would be venturing too deep into hyperbole to claim a spiritual bond with a leaky-roofed bullring, but the energy I got from passing through its threshold on a Sunday afternoon was undeniable.
Like any good parishioner, my lessons started early, watching my family's horses run and learning to read the program from my grandpa and the other elders of the simulcast hall. Those racing programs later became comforting texts for an awkward, frazzled college student looking for solace in the good word of a Charles Town nickel claimer on a Saturday evening instead of at the bottom of a Solo cup. As my interest in the sport grew, so too did the role of the little track and its people in my life.
Even after my career path led me to Kentucky to write about racing's biggest names and events, I always felt duty-bound to the dusty oval on the Isabella County Fairgrounds for all it had done to get me there. It was still my home track, even when it wasn't anymore, and losing that kind of security left a void that's hard to fill.
When even the smallest track closes, a community gets left behind, along with some of the people in it. Five years later, finding an answer for that blank space has taken the locals at Mount Pleasant Meadows on many different paths.
Nate Funnell – Trainer
It was summer 2014, and Nate Funnell was hunched over a warped picnic table, slowly dragging from a Swisher cigar.
There was still time in the morning to grab a McDonald's breakfast, but it had already been a long day for the haggard-looking trainer. The last horse had just come off his trailer on the Mount Pleasant backstretch following a three-hour drive from Detroit-area Hazel Park Raceway that started before sunrise. Every mile could be seen on his sweat-stained baseball cap and lord-knows-how-old stubble.
Like many of the local horsemen, Funnell was still trying to find his footing after Mount Pleasant Meadows closed in February of that year.
The track's investors had abruptly pulled their funding to keep the simulcast lights on between meets, putting an end to the track after 29 years. The last three years of that run were spent as Michigan's primary Thoroughbred venue after a sleepy existence as a mixed breed oval.
A transitional final meet was scheduled at Mount Pleasant for the spring of 2014 as Hazel Park finished preparations to take over the Thoroughbred mantle, but that plan evaporated with the money. The track remained open for a few more quiet winter days after the announcement while patrons cashed their outstanding tickets.
“It hurt a lot of people's feelings when they decided to pull the plug,” Funnell said. “It ruined a lot of people's plans, that's for sure.”
This conversation occurred in the two-year span when the oval became known as the Isabella Co-Expo Training Center, changing its call letters in the program from “MPM” to “ISA.” Left with a racetrack and no events on it for 50 weeks out of the year, the Isabella County Fair board leased the stalls and surface to local trainers who didn't want to spend half their day on the road to see their horses under tack.
Mount Pleasant, Mich., was an odd place for a racetrack – too far north in the state to be near a population center of any meaningful size, too far south to be in rustic tourist country, and about as far from any of the Great Lakes as geographically possible.
It's a college town that, contrary to its name, has little to offer in terms of topographic variety, lined with chain restaurants and storefronts that were busier before the Great Recession. Restless musicians have sold millions of records writing songs about leaving places like this.
It's hard to pin down the track's salad days. It was declared “struggling” by the Detroit Free Press within three years of opening in 1985, doing what it could in a town of about 26,000 without an outgoing simulcast signal.
The most damning force against the track's long-term health, though, sat five miles down the road. Mount Pleasant Meadows resides on the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Reservation, and when the tribe opened the Soaring Eagle Casino in 1998, it absorbed the bulk of the area's gambling and tourism dollars.
Soaring Eagle became the biggest of Michigan's 23 tribal casinos, which made for a deep combined war chest to curry favor from lawmakers and voters. The casinos used that influence to handcuff the state's racetracks from adding expanded gaming while racinos and purses rose throughout the rest of the Midwest.
The state's Thoroughbred horsemen were homeless in the spring of 2011 following the closure of Pinnacle Race Course in the southern Detroit suburbs, and came along at a time when Mount Pleasant Meadows needed the infusion of cash and runners to stave off going broke. It was a marriage of convenience, but it also gave the track a looming, undefined expiration date. Whenever a long-term home in a more populous area could be found, the life support would go with it.
The transition to racing at Hazel Park hadn't been easy for Funnell. He lived just a few miles from Mount Pleasant, which meant putting thousands of new miles on himself and his horses to keep racing.
The extra expenditure of time and energy showed in his results. Funnell saddled a career-best 26 Thoroughbred winners in 2013, his fifth year as a trainer of record and the last at Mount Pleasant. He'd go winless in 63 starts over the next two years.
“It's been tough,” Funnell said. “We've got three times the expenses. It's been tough as far as getting enough help to do everything in both places.”
Funnell said life at the training center wasn't much different from when it was a racetrack, aside from the taller weeds. Many of the same local faces were still in the shedrows – it was just quieter without the hustle for a looming post time.
Even at its loudest, Mount Pleasant was a good place for people who liked to hear what was going on: the sound of jockeys smooching and barking to urge their mounts, then explaining themselves to the trainers afterward; the gate crew pleading with the starter to keep his thumb off the button; and the occasional trash talk between people on horseback.
This was especially true around the paddock, where horsemen and revelers shot the breeze between races over a flimsy chain-link fence. The sternly-worded sign warning folks with racing licenses against chatter with the outside world, hung by the state's racing commission, might as well have been written in Cantonese.
The average field size for a given meet at Mount Pleasant Meadows could be determined by the thickness of the vegetation in the higher-numbered stalls of the sandlot enclosure. The tin-roofed structure formed a khaki-colored right angle around a square patch of grass, where the judge would lean a hand on the weather-beaten lawn jockey in the middle.
Funnell's routine on race day often saw him lead a runner to the paddock aboard his chestnut pony horse Bubba, hand the racehorse off to someone on the ground, and park amongst a line of other dead-broke lead ponies.
After handing Bubba's reins to a spectator on the other side of the fence – often an elementary-aged child already holding another horse or two – he'd help saddle the mount, deliver his instructions, and leg back up on Bubba to jaw with the folks on the apron until it was time to go to the track.
After the call to post, Funnell led a competitor through the post parade – sometimes his own trainee, often someone else's – dismounted from Bubba once again, and headed the runner into the starting gate. Through both necessity and preference, being involved with every step was routine for Mount Pleasant's horsemen, up to the second the races started.
“There's so much that's gained or lost right there in the gates,” Funnell said. “You get left a couple lengths, and that's usually where you finish. To be able to have my hands on the process, I enjoy the hell out of that. To be able to gallop them and tack them and head them and know exactly what they need, how they need it, I took that as a real advantage. That's always been the advantage of being here is that you can do it all, where elsewhere you tack it up, send it out, and it's in the hands of someone else. Sometimes it bites you, sometimes it don't.”
Funnell, too, spent much of his young life at Mount Pleasant Meadows, including his teens and the entirety of his 20s. In a more rambunctious time, he'd ride Bubba over from the barns to the Winner's Circle Lounge – the track's bar and simulcast area – at the end of the race day with a flake of hay and a bucket of water in tow.
Together, they'd trace the outside of the clubhouse turn, cut through the grass-and-gravel parking lot, and walk up the hill on the north side of the grandstand into “the tunnel” – the enclosed area at the top of the open-air plant that housed the mutuel windows, concessions, and racegoers looking to escape of the elements.
The patrons were cleared out by the time Funnell and Bubba clopped through the tunnel in the evening. When they reached the bar entrance at the other end, Funnell tied his steed to a post with his provisions, then went inside to throw a few back and watch the nightcap races in Indiana. No matter how many times he did it, it was always startling to walk out of the bar at the end of the night and see a horse eyeball you on the grandstand's second floor.
Funnell eventually stepped back from training – a combination of flagging results and the fair board closing the training center for other uses – but he stayed in the business as a hired hand at Hazel Park, with jobs ranging from valet to gate crew; many of the tasks he was doing for himself as a trainer. When Hazel Park shut down prior to the 2018 meet, he went to work running heavy equipment for a construction company outside of Lansing, Mich.
Lee Gates – Jockey
It was sometime around Christmas 2014, and I was at a knotty wooden kitchen table in Blanchard, Mich., catching up with Lee Gates while his kids watched television in the living room.
Adding up all the morning jogs, post parades, and races Gates had compiled since the track's inception, it's a safe guess that no one took more trips around the Mount Pleasant oval than he did on horseback. Viewed from above, the track's racing surface resembled a lowercase 'b,” with a long Quarter Horse chute feeding into a tight four-furlong oval, so he could rack up laps quickly. There aren't many pari-mutuel venues where a 4 ½-furlong race is a two-turn affair, but Mount Pleasant wasn't like many other tracks.
Racing was the family business, and Gates had a rider's build, so he handled the in-saddle duties while his father Dave and brother Brad trained. His nephew Cody manned the jock's room and the scales, while Lee's mother Shirley watched every race from the grandstands and the Gates children played under the simulcast satellite dishes near the paddock. The only way to avoid running into a member of the Gates clan on a live race day was to watch the card from the parking lot.
“I started riding probably before I should have,” Gates said. “I started riding [on the fair circuit] when I was about 14, but they didn't care. They needed riders. My mom and dad quit barrel racing, and they went full-fledged buying mares and buying horses, and we'd break them and run them.”
In a profession where jockeys are lauded for having “soft hands,” Gates sat atop his mounts like a cannonball, tucked in tight and showing his work to get what he could out of horses with illegible pedigrees, with a firm grip on the reins and a powerful shove forward with each stride. If there was a two-furlong Thoroughbred race on the card, which there often was, you felt better about your prospects with Gates' boots in the irons.
He rode like a guy who worked in a factory because he worked in a factory. For more than two decades, Gates balanced riding with his day job at Randell Unified Brands in Weidman, Mich., making refrigeration equipment.
Gates was not alone in his nine-to-five endeavors. The local jockey colony was blue-collar in every sense of the word, also including a couple mechanics (Mike Holmes and Nate Alcala) and a concrete worker (Colin Skinner).
Putting on a race day was a community effort at Mount Pleasant Meadows, and Gates was unique in his commitment to make it all work. If a trainer was short-staffed, he'd walk the runner he was booked to ride around the paddock himself, while in his silks, after saddling his mount without a valet. He'd then be seen giving a leg-up to one of his fellow riders before getting in his own saddle to compete against them.
“That's the way we used to do it at the fair, you saddled your own horse,” he said. “Today, I'd rather saddle my own horse. I know where I want my equipment. That's the way I was brought up. If this guy over here needed help and there's nobody else around, you went and helped him so we can keep on time and get the race going.”
That willingness to pitch in extended to his attention to the track's surface. Conversations in the hours leading up to first post would often be interrupted by the “tonk, tonk, tonk” sound of rocks being pitched against the aluminum siding on the outside rail of the clubhouse turn as Gates walked around the track with his eyes to the ground looking to clear the sandy loam.
Gates did his best work riding Quarter Horses, but when he was assigned to go all the way around the oval, his riding style was often similar: Get to the front by the first turn and try to stay clean for the win picture. Closing moves were uncommon at Mount Pleasant, and Calvin Borel-style rail ambushes were even less so.
“The track's deep, cuppy, and you better have some nuts to ride it, but it's fun,” Gates said, not mincing a word. “Any other track, you don't see the turns as tight as that one. If you go out there and gallop every day, you know that track. You figure it out.”
Gates quickly felt the effects when Mount Pleasant Meadows was promoted from a mixed-breed meet to the state's main Thoroughbred venue following the closure of Pinnacle Race Course in 2010.
Age and injuries were already starting to catch up. A new influx of riders that followed trainers from previous outposts made competition for live mounts tougher than ever, and he tumbled down the jockey standings. The likes of Angel Stanley, Ricardo Barrios, and Freddie Mata had been fixtures at the top of Michigan's platoon for years, and that didn't change when they became more than moving pictures on a far-off simulcast feed.
Gates was a Quarter Horse jockey first, and the game had changed. Still, he climbed aboard because he wanted to help and he was too crazy to say no.
“I had people say, 'You ain't never gonna get light enough to ride Thoroughbreds,' but you know what? I proved them wrong and I did it,” he said, leaning in and picking up the intensity of his voice. “I didn't like it. I like going 220 to 440 yards. I like to go fast. You can go around there a half a mile, a mile, and most of the stuff I pick up…These other Thoroughbred guys that are there have agents. It wouldn't matter if I had an agent or what. I rode a bunch of hogs.
“I go through more goggles than I do anything else and I still end up dead last by 30 lengths, and I'm not having fun,” he continued. “I'm just helping the guy who hauled his horse 200 miles and wanted him to go around there. Nobody will ride it and I'll ride it. They might not like it and I might run dead last, but I just told them the thing's slow. You be honest with them and they get mad at you.”
Gates was ready to take a step back when the Mount Pleasant closed, but the decision to fully retire from race riding was made for him by circumstance and negotiation.
He was set to ride at Hazel Park and Indiana Grand during the 2014 season, and he'd been galloping at Mount Pleasant as the track transitioned into a training center. A week before the start of the racing season, a spill left him in intensive care with a damaged spleen.
It wasn't the first time he'd been told he'd never ride again, but it was the first time he started to listen.
Ever a jockey, Gates got back on a horse several months ahead of schedule, but he has yet to take a competitive mount since the accident. To hear him tell it, it was all part of the deal he made with his parents.
“I got hurt, and my mom says, 'Why don't you just quit?' I looked at her and said, 'I would have quit 10 years ago if you guys would have quit. I do it for you and dad,'” he said. “The more we talked about it, I said, 'Alright, you guys want me to quit? This is what I want: get rid of some horses. You've got broodmares you're breeding in Indiana, breed your babies and when they're yearlings, sell them at the Indiana sale.
“But I said, 'Don't ask me to break one, because if I break one and I like it, I'm gonna go ride it,” he continued. “I think they're going to do that. I might not ride again. If I do, it's going to be my own decision. I'm damn near 50, my kids are getting older and they're wanting me to settle down and spend time with them.”
Gates joined Funnell on the gate crew at Hazel Park during that track's short run, and he assists with the family's racing stable now that it's fully shifted to Indiana. His residence remains 20 minutes away from the Isabella County Fairgrounds, the same as the rest of his clan.
“I miss the Meadows,” he said. “Everybody does around here. I've ridden at a lot of tracks and I'd still ride at that one tomorrow. It wouldn't bother me at all. To me it's home.”
Scott Csernyik – A Little Bit Of Everything
It was February 2016, and Scott Csernyik and I headed to the nearby Coney Island restaurant after witnessing the track's dismantling to unpack what we saw.
Csernyik was a college senior when the track opened, also picking up assignments for the local paper. He was pegged for a story about the Isabella County Fairgrounds becoming a full-time racing venue, but a routine local sports item turned into a career path.
“I'd been doing this for about a year, full-time student, full-time reporter, I'm burned out,” he said. “I quit my job as a reporter and went to work as a security guard. That's how I started. I sat back in the shack and checked in horses, checked out horses.”
For nearly three decades, working at Mount Pleasant Meadows would be both the only full-time job he'd have, but also one of many. Hardly anybody did just one thing at the track, owing to the kind of budget that made shoestrings look frivolous.
In the track's final gasps, Csernyik's myriad hats included those of announcer, marketing director, bar manager and bartender, assistant racing secretary, program coordinator and vendor, janitor, ticket-puncher, and backup mutuel manager. He'd also spent time as the track photographer.
Race programs were usually purchased at the bar for both live races and drowsy simulcast-only days, leaving Csernyik hustling to appease both the inebriated revelers and the gritty handicappers in need of information.
The Winner's Circle Lounge was the track's hub of activity. The walls fit the track's tan and green color scheme, with the paint showing wear from years of abuse before the state instituted an indoor smoking ban. Long rows of wobbly tables filled out the rest of the room, positioned under televisions broadcasting races from whoever had affordable simulcast fees at the time.
Horsemen often occupied the bar's five stools – repaired with generations of black electrical tape – and watched their runners at other tracks on a quartet of televisions with screens comparable in size to a mid-level laptop and comparable in picture quality to having sand thrown in your eyes.
It was there that I was first introduced to Csernyik, and where we found common interests in racing, journalism, the well-being of the track, and disjointed humor.
When things got overwhelming at the bar, Csernyik would cope by adopting a mantra of whatever phrase popped up in his head. On a hectic day, his voice could be heard over the chatter singsonging refrains from nursery rhymes or bellowing the horseplayer's stretch-drive plea, “just ONE TIME,” in situations far removed from the final furlong.
Csernyik brought that sense of humor upstairs when he was named track announcer, one of the few jobs he'd never had up to that point. His ad-libs irked some, but Csernyik took the duties more seriously than his sometimes-goofy microphone persona let on.
Csernyik was, in many ways, the public face of the track, especially near the end when you'd see him at the bar and hear him in the announcer's booth over the course of the same day. Outside of the stewards, he'd be the only guy on the property wearing a sport coat. He wore the long days in his eyes and the slump of his shoulders, but the booth gave him the energy to make it through the rest of the day.
“It was an awesome opportunity to express yourself, to guide patrons through a race day – the ones that were well-traveled, as well as the ones that maybe are just checking things out to see if they like it,” he said. “This opportunity gave you the outlet to be creative, to have fun with it, to make a race day interesting. It's a tremendous amount of responsibility, where the mind and the mouth have to be in sync, and one's going to be ahead of the other a little bit just to keep things going.”
We visited the announcer's booth on that winter day when we watched the winner's circle get torn down. All that was left in the crow's nest beyond the wood paneling were a few wires and a fleet of dead flies near the windows that collected over the course of years.
Csernyik looked out the window as the dismantling continued and let out a sigh. Of all the places we visited at the track that day, it was clear this was the one that affected him the most. The announcer's booth was Csernyik's sanctuary from the ground floor, one he wished he'd found years earlier.
“It was a quiet place where it was just you, your thoughts,” Csernyik said. “You were focused on a sport you love, and you were representing what was going on through your duties. It was your own little world where whatever you made it, that's what it was.”
When a racetrack closes, the “help wanted” sign for horsemen is often wherever the next track is taking entries. That was not the case for Csernyik, who inquired for work at Hazel Park when the races moved south, but he never found a spot.
His time in the racing business came to a sudden end, but Csernyik remained a fixture on the property, selling at the fairgrounds' weekly flea market during the first summer without live racing. He did it to make some money, sure, but he also did it to keep an eye on the place, and to see if others cared about it as much as he did.
“The first year the track was closed on Derby day, I went up and sat in my vehicle to see what was going on,” he said. “I watched cars. I watched people get out and they went up that way, and they came back down shaking their heads, because this was the first they had found out. They were just showing up for Derby day, going to make some bets, and the doors were closed. You still weren't letting go. You wanted to see what was going to happen.”
Csernyik eventually landed a job with a moving company, making estimates. The gig played to some of his strengths – his personable nature and ability to quickly process information in front of him to name a few – but the routine of the thing was what required the biggest adjustment. Even on the frontside, racetrack time runs at a different pace from the rest of the world.
“You're always used to doing certain tasks on the weekend, or during the week in preparation for the weekend, and that whole part of that is discombobulated, where you're doing something different – at 52, you're doing something you didn't think you'd be doing, but you're keeping a job,” he said.
The track was on the same road as Csernyik's new job, meaning he saw the old property twice a day as he drove to and from work. The demands of making a living forced him to keep moving forward, but the mind can fill in a lot of blanks when it comes to a quick turn of the head at 55 miles per hour.
“I still see the paddock,” he said. “I still see all that stuff. It's not gone. It's in stealth mode, but it's still there.”
Michigan Sire Stakes – 2013
My last visit to Mount Pleasant Meadows as an active racetrack came on Sept. 22, 2013, that year's Michigan Sire Stakes card and arguably the strongest top-to-bottom day of racing in the track's history.
All nine races were stakes, highlighted by a sextet of $50,000 races for Michigan-sired Thoroughbreds. Three years earlier, the average Thoroughbred purse at Mount Pleasant floated around $3,000.
I came back from Kentucky for the weekend to cover the card for the Daily Racing Form as its self-proclaimed Michigan correspondent. As someone who scavenged through countless racing publications for a passing mention of Michigan racing, being able to produce the content that would have made the day of my adolescent self was a big deal, even if it wasn't in the bigger picture.
The track was its most vibrant in years, both visually and in ambient buzz. The pots of pink and white store-bought flowers placed in the winner's circle gave a lively contrast to oncoming fall colors of the nearby trees and the faded jackets worn by the pony riders. Horsemen and their charges who typically steered clear of central Michigan came in to chase the purses, meaning the stands were fuller than usual. I'd happily skipped homecoming football games in college to go to the races, but the crisp air and familiar faces after an eight-hour drive made me get a sense for their appeal.
The card lived up to the potential set up by its unusually high-quality entries, assuming you cared about the career paths of horses sired by the likes of Equality, Secret Romeo, and The Deputy – which I did, very much.
When the crowd dispersed after the final race, I found a table in the reserved section overlooking the finish line and set up my laptop to file the recap.
Csernyik brought me a can of Coca-Cola before he locked up the simulcast area and left for the evening. After that, I was all by myself.
The track was perfect, untouched since the tractors made their final rounds, and the infield grass waved in the fall breeze. The only break from the stillness came from the distant rumble of a truck firing up to leave with a trailer full of horses.
All I'd ever wanted to do for a living was write about Michigan horse racing. It didn't take long to realize a living couldn't be made pursuing that career in that particular state, so I moved somewhere that a turf writer could live comfortably plying his trade. It was the right decision on every conceivable front, but it meant sacrificing one part of the dream to ensure a bigger part could be realized.
For one afternoon, though, I had exactly what I wanted. I was getting paid a living wage to file the Sire Stakes recap for one of the racing industry's most distinguished publications at the track that had been a part of my family's life as long as I had; a track that was at peace before me.
At this point, it would be completely fair to accuse this writer of viewing his time at a bottom-scraping fair track in the middle of nowhere with rose-colored glasses.
Failed racetracks rarely go down without plenty of good reasons, and Mount Pleasant Meadows was no different. The small crowds, small fields, and small betting pools were charming, but they also meant there wasn't a lot of money going around, especially through the windows. If horses are going uncovered in the win pool, that's a problem.
A 2005 hearing by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce singled out the track for not providing on-track accident coverage for its jockeys, and requiring riders to waive all rights as a condition of competing.
The racing surface faced complaints of being rocky, filled with holes, and holding water like an overtaxed sponge, while the quality of the inside rail was a step above “decorative.”
Even the Star-Spangled Banner was fifty-fifty to make all the way through without the speakers cutting out before the rockets' red glare.
Nobody's vision of an ideal work environment looked like Mount Pleasant Meadows, but for most of the people there, it was all they had – and all they were going to get – when it came to local access to horse racing. Being a part of it, for better or worse, built a sense of camaraderie among the people who came back every summer to endure another meet, or who drove through the snow every winter to play the simulcast.
If going somewhere else isn't a viable option, you learn to appreciate seeing a five-horse field because it means you can finally play the exacta.
The Last Time
It was May 2018, and once again, I found myself alone in the grandstand at Mount Pleasant Meadows. Two weeks earlier, I was informed that my position with the Daily Racing Form had been eliminated.
The news came about a month after Hazel Park abruptly announced its closure, sale, and impending demolition – the fourth Michigan Thoroughbred track to go down in 11 years. I'd spent years hearing and telling the stories of the state's racing industry as its members tried to roll with each knockout punch, and suddenly I was right there beside them, scrambling.
Two of the biggest things that forged my identity – my job and the local industry that helped get me there – had been blindsided into oblivion, and I needed to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be in short order.
Because nothing solves a problem like running away from it, I decided to take advantage of my suddenly open schedule to return home to Michigan for a while. In a desperate search for that divine racetrack inspiration that propelled me up to that point, I made visiting Mount Pleasant Meadows – or what was left of it – a priority.
Every time I came back to the track in the years since its shuttering, it looked different from the time before. The property adapted to each new purpose it was employed to host, but even after the major landmarks tied to horse racing were removed, it always felt like there was something I could point to and attach a memory. This time around, the pickings were slim.
The grandstand looked about the same, save for some weeds and weathering. The snowmobile poster on the road-facing side of the building had long since been taken down, leaving the sign behind it advertising Mount Pleasant Meadows' year-round simulcast and live racing – the lone true reminder of the oval's original purpose. If you drive by, don't bother calling the phone number on the sign. It's been out of date since Isabella County changed area codes in 2001.
Bad fortune struck the snowmobile racing series that drove much of the property's change in 2017 when one of its riders overturned his snowmobile at the top of the stretch and was hit by two competitors. He didn't survive, and the series hasn't come back. Various other motorsports and rodeos have used the dirt and bleachers, but the property usually sat empty outside of fair season.
The Quarter Horse chute connecting at the top of the stretch had long since been taken over by vegetation, and the rails were replaced by dirt mounds and hay bales slowly losing their fight against the elements.
This was the first time the place didn't have that unique smell I'd long associated with it, even years after the horses left for good – an odd mix of vinyl seat cushions baked by the sun, cigarettes in the open breeze, and the stuff you'd find under a trainer's boot. It sounds appalling, but I knew exactly where I was when it was in the air, and that was comforting.
One by one, in our own ways, we all had to move on from that place – first physically, then emotionally. The former was done out of necessity. For some, it's the latter that's tricky. For the first time in my life, I knelt at an altar that had provided so much inner guidance and I heard nothing back. Perhaps that was the point.
I could look to my left at the top of the stretch and remember Lee Gates muscling his mount into the straightaway, but all I really saw before me was a curved pile of weedy dirt that led into a mud puddle.
I could look to my right and imagine Nate Funnell cracking jokes with a jockey as he grabbed hold to lead a horse out of the paddock, but what remained was an expanse of grass split by an aluminum siding fence.
I could close my eyes and hear Scott Csernyik growling at patrons to “wager early, wager often” from upstairs as the jockeys' wives gossiped behind me at the reserved tables, but as soon as I lifted my lids, they'd all vanish, and they'd never be there again, no matter how hard I clung to the notion that it wasn't true.
Those scenes that looped in my imagination and in my dreams will endure as long as I have a working brain to recall them, but whatever piece of myself I left on the property that gave me a sense of home when I came back to visit wasn't there anymore. For the first time, I didn't feel like I needed to come back.
The sun was setting over Mount Pleasant, Mich., and the shadow of the grandstand's awning started creeping over what used to be the finish line.
It was time for me to move on.
So I did.
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