WEST WYOMING – The chatter among the crowd in the filled West Wyoming Hose Company No. 1 grew louder, punctuated by the booming, amplified voice of emcee Carl Zielinski.
Place your bets, place your bets, Zielinski urged into the microphone, warning the gathered masses that the betting windows, staffed by volunteer ticket-sellers, would close in just a few minutes.
Then, post time. The first of 10 races was beamed to the crowd via a large video screen, and quickly enough, numbered thoroughbreds gave fierce chase around some unnamed track while the spectators went wild.
Horse number 8 is looking good, looking good, Zielinski's voice blared as the jockeys steered their animals toward the finish line, and the crowd hooted and hollered as if watching live.
And it's horse number 8! Zielinski announced as the race concluded and the looker prevailed. That's not always the case, though, seasoned race-goers will tell you.
Just because the horse you want to win does not show well initially, and its accompanying number doesn't appear on the screen to mark it as an early contender, don't fret. Many a horse has come from behind, or out of nowhere, to win a race, even the last one out of the gate.
And that's just one of the little things you learn by becoming a race-night regular, partaking in what's become a bona-fide rite of winter in the Wyoming Valley.
The race night put on Saturday by the Wyoming Area High School Drama Parents Association was one of a handful that took place last weekend, setting the stage for a February filled with multiple similar events almost every weekend. Some 180 people sat at long tables in the fire hall and enjoyed a buffet of pasta, meatballs, hot dogs, soda and draft beer provided by association members as well as the contents of their own bottles or beverage totes. Jell-O shots often make appearances, too.
The food – typically casual fare and included in a $5 or so admission fee – is a big draw for these events and is often prepared by volunteer chefs but sometimes catered, and individual groups of attendees have been known to outdo each other with platters of hors d'oeuvres brought to share in smaller groups.
St. Andre Bessette Parish in Wilkes-Barre and Wyoming Area Catholic School in Exeter also chose Saturday for their Night at the Races fundraisers.
The drama club's parents association and the church, like so many others, depend on the races for operating income. This is only the third year for the drama-club event, but St. Andre, made up of three church communities in East and North Wilkes-Barre, has had similar events for years at its individual sites, which are now merged.
This helps to pay for the spring musical productions, Jen Pennington, the drama parents association's assistant treasurer, said before the races got under way.
Drama productions, she said, cost about $15,000 due to such expenses as the elaborate sets, costume rentals, the rights for the play and advertising.
Jim Stoss, association president, said the group also has a pasta dinner and a poinsettia sale, and the students do fundraising as well.
We get a lot of support from the parents, added Stoss, who also helps build sets for the productions.
But Night at the Races? Well, that's a biggie.
Never been to such an event? Here's a primer:
Before the night of the event, the organization in question sells ownership of horses for $10 apiece, typically for 10 to 12 races. Often, ownership of a horse for an 11th or 12th race is raffled off throughout the evening, however, in a game called Pick A Pony. Those who win a pony hang onto it until they are called to the front of the room for the final race, in which they can win even bigger money if the horse matching their numbered pony prevails.
Though there are 10 numbers for horses in each regular race, multiple horses might be assigned to each number, meaning several people might cheer for the same number to win but a different horse, one for whom they've thoughtfully or humorously chosen a name. Bacon Boy, Hot Mess Missy and Hoof Hearted, for example, were among the contenders in West Wyoming. Other race-night programs reveal choices that honor loved ones, signify strength or speed or display sports allegiances.
Owners whose horses finish first in a given race typically win $50 and bragging rights.
But wait. You don't have to own a horse to win money. A key part of these fundraisers is the money wagered by others who bet on which horse they believe will win. Payouts are based on the odds. The more people who bet on a horse, the lower the payout. The fewer people who bet, the bigger the pot. That's just one way to really get a crowd worked up.
In West Wyoming, bettors plunked down $2 on each horse for possible payouts of $8 or more. An $18 payout on a single race is not unheard of.
Zielinski also urged the audience to bet on daily doubles – pick the winners in back-to-back races – and buy 50-50 raffle tickets for a special prize drawing.
All those extra elements, organizers say, only add to the appeal of a Night at the Races and persuade people to dig deeper into purses and pockets for the cause.
Fifteen gift baskets containing such items as coupons for massages and comic books also were awarded via drawing in West Wyoming, Pennington said.
Sometimes, a basket of cheer is another draw. At St. Andre Bessette, more than 250 tickets were sold for a Super Bowl-themed Trunk of Temptation, which came stocked with wine, liquor, soda, beer and a host of snacks and game-day accessories.
So, horses racing indoors in winter. Really?
Yes. Easy enough. The organization rents the DVDs of previously filmed live racing, and the recordings are sealed until race time, keeping the integrity of an event intact.
Sure, that means the outcome is predetermined, but nobody, not even the organizers, knows who is going to win.
The races are a good chance to support a local non-profit but also offer a just-plain-fun night out with friends or strangers.
Chuck and Melissa Yarmey of Wyoming attended their first Night at the Races at the West Wyoming Hose Company last weekend.
Our daughter's in the drama club, Melissa Yarmey explained.
Did they win anything?
Nothing, Chuck said. Not a dime.
Amanda Ambrose, 25, of Pittston, however, won a few bucks in the fifth race.
And Samantha Conway, 44, Exeter, said she won last year.
It's definitely a night out, Conway said. All the food you can eat, beer you can drink.
Night at the Races events technically are not yet legal under the state's Small Games of Chance law. State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, said a bill is in the works to change that.
It's not a concern, but we're fully aware these races are run all the time, said Jen Pennington, assistant treasurer of the Wyoming Area Drama Parents Association. We're not aware any were shut down.
Association president Jim Stoss said the parents group obtains a small-games-of-chance permit from the Luzerne County Treasurer's Office.
Although a state Department of Revenue spokeswoman, Maia Warren, said Night at the Races events are not authorized by the state's Small Games of Chance law, Mundy said Act 2 of 2011, which increased enforcement and paperwork related to small games of chance for nonprofits, put up some roadblocks.
She said state Rep. Michele Brooks, R-Mercer, plans to introduce House Bill 290, which would specifically make Night at the Races legal.
Want to support a local cause while having a fun night out? Take your pick of Nights at the Races, the seemingly ubiquitous form of local entertainment this time of year. Upcoming choices include race nights sponsored by:
• The Mountain Top Welcome Club. With 50/50 and basket raffles. Wright Township Fire Hall, 477 S. Main Road, Mountain Top. Tonight with doors at 6:30 and post time at 7. $5 admission includes food and beer; $10 per horse. 868-6467 or 905-4098.
• St. Monica Parish, 363 W. Eighth St., West Wyoming. Feb. 8 with doors at 5:45 p.m. and post time at 7. $10 admission includes food and beverages. With emcee Frankie Warren of Magic 93 radio. $10 per horse. 237-2188.
• Corpus Christi Parish, Feb. 9 at Immaculate Conception Church Hall. Post time is 7 p.m. with doors open at 6. Admission is $5, which includes food and refreshments.
• Our Lady of the Eucharist Parish, 535 N. Main St., Pittston. Feb. 9 with doors at 5:30 p.m. and post time at 6:30. $10 per horse. Dinner and beer. 654-0263.
St. Ignatius Church, 339 N. Maple St., Kingston. Feb. 9 with doors at 6 p.m. and post time at 7. $10 per horse. 288-6446.
St. John the Evangelist Parish at Seton Catholic High School, Church Street, Pittston. With food and beverages. Feb. 9 with doors at 6 p.m. and post time at 7. Adults only. $10 per horse. 654-0053.
• The Wyoming Area class of 2013. Feb. 16 at St. Barbara's Center. Parent volunteers are needed. Phone calls will be made for gift-basket donations, food donations, etc. More info: Mary at 885-2472 or Gina at 332-7817.
• The Ancient Order of Hibernians. With door prizes, food and beverages. St. Andrew Parish Hall, 318 Parrish St., Wilkes-Barre. Feb. 16 with doors at 6:15 p.m. and post time at 7:15. $5 admission. 824-7645.
• Queen of the Apostles Parish. St. Mary's School, 742 Spring St., Avoca. Feb. 23 with doors at 5:30 p.m. and post time at 7. BYOB. $5 admission includes food and drink; $10 per horse. 457-3412.
• Candy's Place: The Center for Cancer Wellness, with wine, beer, food, Big Wheel game, basket raffles, silent auction and music. Independent Fire Hall, 166 S. Sprague Ave., Kingston. 6 to 10:30 p.m. March 9. $25 includes a horse. 714-8800.