Place Your Bets

Red & Jerry's is a cozy little nook containing fourteen full-sized pool tables (two of them cloaked in black light and featuring iridescent billiard balls), several acres of flashing, bell-ringing video games (including a roller-coaster "simulator" as stomach-churning as the real thing), enough dining tables to seat the U.S. Marine Corps, and off-track betting windows sufficient to relieve every horse player in three states of his paycheck. The two bars are so lengthy that you practically have to send your drink order via the Internet; instead of PCs, though, the place boasts 200 -- count 'em -- television sets. There's also a gift shop, an automated cash machine and a snack bar where you can grab a quick slice of pizza and a soft drink at one in the morning. The only thing missing -- and the management is probably working on it -- is a 10,000-seat show room stocked with three dozen showgirls and the second coming of Elvis Presley.

This is one full-service playpen.

Located just west of seedy South Santa Fe Drive in Sheridan, Red & Jerry's (named for the owners' grandparents) bills itself as an "EATertainment & event complex" and invites patrons to "eat, drink, play (and) have more fun than you're used to!"

Depends on what you're used to, I guess.

In any event, it's a monument to sensory overload and instant gratification -- a collision of synthetic Vegas glitz and amusement-park fantasy that manages to contain itself (just barely) within four huge, windowless walls. The joint is bigger than most Wal-Marts -- but at Wal-Mart, you can't bet the fifth race at Santa Anita, strap yourself into the driver's seat of a stock-car simulator or have at a huge mountain of nachos that looks like a multi-car smashup on the Interstate.

Reduced to its essence (for grownups, at least), Red & Jerry's is the best place in town to play dogs and horses -- and that includes the dog or horse track -- simply because it's the only place with edible food and drinkable drinks. (It's a particularly festive place to watch and play the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup with friends. But call early: Reservations for those special racing days fill up fast each year.) If you're one of those who pays no attention to his environment while gambling -- one of those who, for example, doesn't worry much about nuclear annihilation because President Eisenhower will take care of everything -- then any old bare-bones, no-service OTB will do. There are two or three of those around. The dog track, which now calls itself Wembley Park, will also suit you just fine. The track's idea of dining has always been a boiled hot dog or a plastic bowl slopped full of chili; even the clubhouse food is awful.

On the other hand, if you can remove your head from the greyhound program or the Daily Racing Form long enough to notice, say, a tall, good-looking Reuben sandwich walking by on the arm of a waitress, along with a pint of foaming Fat Tire in a real glass, then Red & Jerry's is probably the place for your parimutuel adventures. Not only does four bucks buy you a closed-circuit TV set right there on your table, but you won't have to shell out much more for high-quality saloon food -- big burgers, fish and chips, a very nice Philly steak sandwich, just for a start -- that arrives in heroic proportions. So even if your nine-to-one shot gives it up at the sixteenth pole at Gulfstream, at least you'll still have before you the comforts of a decent meal. In fact, handicapping the menu is a snap: Almost everything, from the luscious pesto chicken sandwich to the enormous guacamole bacon burger, goes for about eight bucks and comes with a mountain of French fries. We particularly like the "members only" club sandwich -- a real triple-decker Dagwood, replete with rotisserie chicken, ham, peppered bacon, cheddar, swiss, lettuce and tomato. It is, hands-down, the best club we've had in these parts, and its sheer bulk challenges the biggest appetite. So, too, the full rack of tender baby-back ribs (the highest-priced menu item, at $12.50), which looks like a mile of plank road and arrives not only with fries, but with two salads -- a pile of coleslaw and a mixed-green combo about the size of a Pacific island.

Our only complaint -- aside from the distant rattle of the arcade games -- concerns the help, which tends to be short on experience and long on intrusive bonhomie. One kid waiter may insist on calling you "partner" all through the meal; an unpolished waitress may bring your food and promptly vanish. Between the crassness and the forced jollity, the waitstaff here could certainly use some improvement.

Little matter. Whenever you hear the call to the post at Red & Jerry's, you can also interpret it as the dinner bell. Dine and drink here with pleasure, and if you happen to hit the trifecta at Oaklawn, you've got a winner all the way.