Blueberry fields forever, chump!

--- Great Lakes Downs, Saturday, August 21, 1999 ---

After a weekend in the ~150F heat of central Texas, a weekend in a cooler clime had a certain appeal. Thus on a pleasant late Summer afternoon the Chumpmobile could be observed speeding north along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. After the interstate quality road petered out north of Holland, MI, tulip capital of the world in that particular part of the world, the trip turned into a genuine old-timey country drive. Acres and acres of blueberry fields lined the road in between the forest sections of the lush (and < ~150F) green landscape, with roadside stands every few miles offering blueberries and all manner of other produce type items that are typically offered to the produce consuming public in pint, quart, and bushel containers.

No problem whatsoever finding Great Lakes Downs - just a turn off US 31 to the east onto this one other highway, down a light, and another right, and maybe 1/2 mile to the parking lot entrance. Parking on the evening: $1, and as the ChumpMobile had managed to arrive somewhat before the 6:00 pm post time, it got a nice spot in the front row.

Some nice older folks who bravely parked next to the ChumpMobile inquired if I intended to win all the money that evening, to which I of course answered in the affirmative. And then, after expressing their belief that I would indeed do so, they asked if I was going to the big barbecue that same evening.

Well, no, I hadn't been intending to go to the big barbecue that same evening, but of course when the subject of racetrack food in general and big barbecues in particular come up, I'm a pretty curious kind of guy, so I encouraged them, and they told me all the details of the big barbecue, how for $10 a head you could get parking, admission, the big barbecue, AND a Bellamy Bros. concert after the races. And the way they told it, it sounded like quite the smokin' deal.

Still, as I had already shelled out one whole American dollar on the parking as it was, I allowed as to how I'd probably go a la carte for the evening and kind of ride things out in the traditional racetrack manner. The nice old couple then wished me luck, and I wished them luck, and they headed in via the big barbecue entrance on the grandstand end of the plant, while I, not having paid the $10 special price, headed up to the non-big barbecue traditional entrance in a real good mood, having had a nice friendly social encounter with local racing fans even before I'd even visited a beer stand. Life is odd that way.

Great Lakes Downs, in the main, reminded me of nothing so much as Hoosier Park, except smaller, and bluer. Same general architectural style of a semi-prefab cinderblock and sheet-metal grandstand set up on a man-made hill to give it some perspective over the track, same semi-aggravating hike up the hill to get to the main entrance, same layout at the top, with gift stand at the front separating grandstand side from club side (lacking the common entry foyer of Hoosier) and then those two separated by a glass wall in the seating area, same simulcast area on the top level (divided nicely into smoking and non-smoking sides sharing the same air), same general placement of the mutuel windows on that top level, same seating level below with plastic seats on concrete risers, same stairs down to the apron, same glass enclosed front and sides, same everything. You could even find the bathrooms by heading for the same corners. Must be a new generic 1990's plan for upper Midwestern racetracks.

This was right after admission was discovered to be $2, with the night's program at $1.50. Oddly enough, we're talking about a fairly decent sized circuit here, and there was no DRF for the Great Lakes races. Damn DRF is getting as picky as The Sheets about what tracks they cover.

Okay I arrived more than a little early, so there was no immediate need to go out front right away, so I hung with the smallish, maybe 150 people, simulcast crowd and got to see a very nice performance by Silverbulletday in the Alabama, and a tremendous ride by Hawthorne jockey Chris Emigh on a horse named Grey Velvet in a stakes from HAW. Just watching and listening to the folks on hand, it seemed this was a fairly unsophisticated group of simulcast bettors. Did not see any new bettor orientation program going on, or a resident handicapper. Plenty of races from everywhere in America just crying out for betting action though, and plenty of nice, empty handicapping carrels.

After 1/2 hour or so of watching simulcasts for the sake of killling time, it was about time to take a look at the front side of the plant and get prepared for the night's festivities. Noticed immediately was the fact that indoor seating was probably not a great place to watch races from, as the glass front had lots of big thick metal window frames to block the view. As if I was going to sit inside anyhow. Plus there was a stage set up at the left end of the apron for the big Bellamy Bros. concert later that blocked the view up the stretch, and, of all things, a beer truck on the apron set up against the rail right in front of the stands that blocked a crucial part of the stretch, namely, the part just before the finish line. Even the McChump Tour has to frown on such beer truck placement.

Down the stairs, and there's the same ground level concession stands as at Hoosier. Winner's Circle at about the mid-point of the stands, and paddock down off the clubhouse end, a fairly generic dirt paddock with some small covered saddling stalls.

Sadly, sight lines from the apron were also stink-o, what with the beer truck and stage in the way, plus the fact that the apron is one of those that's a bit lower than track level, so there's a green wire fence and the inner rail in your eyes the whole time. All in all I wasn't impressed with the ability to see races at this track, and ended up watching most from way up toward the clubhouse end of the apron well beyond the finish line.

And the $3.00 beer down in the regular apron level stand was marred by the fact that the tap line hadn't been cleaned in some time.

The good news was that the big barbecue was available to all customers for a mere $5, so let's see that's $1 to park and $2 admission and $5 big barbecue and it was fairly apparent the Bellamy Bros. concert was going to be free to anyone who was there, so that's, let's see, uhhhhh ... $8? The bad news was that the big barbecue was not any sort of value play whatsoever, with a burger, dog, or brat (choice of one), plus chips, and a cookie constituting what one got for their $5. Also for sale on the apron were tickets to buy beers at the big beer truck, but one could only buy $5 or $10 strips of these (no refunds for unused tickets), and of course these beers were also $3. So naturally I bought 6 strips at $10 apiece so I could have 20 beers and make the math come out right and not have to waste any tickets. Sheesh. Other food items on sale were hot dog at $2, and bratwurst at $3. Didn't have any so cannot report on quality. Needed room for beer.

Also lacking on this apron was any sort of seating, unless the few benches that had been pulled into a sort of semicircle around the stage consisted of the usual apron seating. However, patrons who weren't me were apparently used to this situation, as they'd brought along many lawn chairs and proceeded to set them up and chill out in the nice, cool, clear evening. And despite all the little inconveniences that irritated me, this crowd really made the evening, as they were quite a fun and friendly bunch to hang out with, and cheered hard for every race, and never abused losing jockeys (so far as I heard), and in general seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Don't know if it was the big barbecue or the Bellamy Bros. that brought them out, but this crowd actually got pretty big as the evening went on, even to the point of being uncomfortable upstairs in the simul area.

Track out front looks like a 5f affair, with the infield being just a big grass field, except for what looks like a big series of sandtraps lacing it. Freeway showing off to the left end of the complex, line of trees off to the right, and the most dysfunctional American toteboard ever observed on the Tour except of course for the one at DRC that simply wasn't there. This toteboard has the time to post, race splits, the numbers of the top 4 finishers in the race, a Miller Lite ad, and lots of blank green plywood. That's it. Needless to say, one had to go in to find a TV if one wanted to see anything like ... ohhh ... odds. The dysfuntional toteboard was made up for by the cutest and most ancient SAM machines ever seen anywhere. These things had to be the original SAM's ever invented, and indeed I looked for Thomas Alva Edison's name on them but didn't see it. Imagine one of those 1952 tv's, one of the boxy little things with a screen about the size of a Dick Tracy wrist radio, add in some rather cheesy looking high-school metal shop construction techniques, and you've got these babies. To their credit, though, mostly they worked.

The live card on the evening consisted of 8 races, claimers all, including a healthy dose of races for n2l type of horses, with purses ranging from $9100 for the $10k Michigan-bred n2l fillies down to $5300 for $5k claimers and some n2l fillies. The "Welcome West Michigan Harley Riders" purse for $12.5k open claimers rang in at $7800, and there were indeed some west Michigan Harley Riders in attendance, some of which were even observed to be enjoying the big barbecue. Going into the night, Mary Doser was leading Terry Houghton in the jocks' standings 123 wins to 77, and trainer Shane Spiess topped that category with 35 wins. I developed a real healthy respect for Mary Doser on the evening, whether she was beating me or making me money. That lady can ride.

The announcer, well, one could not say there was much emotion in these calls. Plus no intro of horses in the post parade. A mostly forgettable aural experience.

Haven't yet decided if the evening came to an end too early or not, but end it did, and as I had some driving to do before hitting the hay, decided not to stick around for the big Bellamy Bros. concert. One last irritation - the gift shop had closed at 8:30 pm. Which was well before the last race. Guess I won't be sporting a Great Lakes Downs t-shirt next time I visit Santa Anita.

Gonna have to give Great Lakes Downs a basic shoulder shrug as a rating. Too many little things not done right that offset what was a very enjoyable crowd and a beautiful evening. Hopefully that's just a first-year jitters sort of thing and they'll get it right in 2000.

But Mary Doser rules!

--- Mount Pleasant Meadows, Sunday, August 22, 1999 ---

A bit of a surprise awaited the McChump Tour upon awakening Sunday morning. Despite the clear weather of the evening and night before, a thick soupy fog had descended on the greater Grand Rapids area in the morning hours, and threatened to make vehicular travel hazardous. And so it was, just a little, with cars coming out of nowhere, and invisible till you were right on top of them traffic lights, but everyone on the road at that hour behaved, mostly, and soon I was headed out of town in the proper direction.

Or so I thought. What joy, the fog had contributed to a gettin' lost incident of tremendous magnitude, as it was soon discovered that the road ahead led directly back to Muskegon. Quick reference to Rand-McNally saved the day, as an upcoming exit would get me going in somewhat the correct direction, but not direct. And thus, for the better part of Sunday morning, the Chumpmobile could be observed tacking north, and then east, then north again, then east, on all sorts of little Michigan county roads, through all sorts of little Michigan country towns. This little excursion wasn't all that unpleasant though, as the countryside was pretty, a town with a big Danish Festival was discovered, the exact location of Podunk Ave. was finally pinpointed, and there were dozens of beckoning little roadside diners where no doubt a good home-cooked breakfast could have been had if it wasn't for the vow to never fill up before visiting a racetrack again.

Soon, however, the greater Mt. Pleasant metro area hove into sight, and with no gettin' lost whatsoever thanks to excellent highway and roadside signage, the ChumpMobile pulled in at Mt. Pleasant Meadows at the fair grounds up on the north end of town. Lot: gravel, Parking: free. There's kind of a little field out front, between the road and the grandstand structure, that was full of campers and trailers and so on - horsemen village.

The grandstand structure is something less than imposing. In fact, I wasn't too sure I was in the right place at all. Kind of a long, low, greenish sheet metal structure is set up on a little hill, with a greener box on top that looks like the officials' box, a satellite dish out front, a sign that says Mount Pleasant Meadows, and then a simple doorway leading up some covered stairs. Not really any kind of a racetrack entrance I've ever encountered before, but since it was the only one in sight, I decided it would have to do. Free.

Up the stairs I found myself on a very narrow interior concourse overlooking the track through windows, and this concourse was totally and utterly deserted, as were most of the seats out front. Maybe 10 people were seated immediately out front engaged in some sort of conversation, and no horses of any sort were in sight. There were, however, some doors leading to the right, so I tried these and found myself in a sort of bar area which apparently also served as the MPM simulcast center, as there were a few TV's showing racing, a few people sitting about acting like maybe they were betting on these races, a bored looking mutuels clerk, and the bartender girl who, it turned out, was also the program vendor. $2, for the most basic sort of black-and-white non-glossy program, with Equibase pp's for the day's 11 races and precious little else. Needless to say, no DRF with the MPM races was on sale.

No food was on sale yet either, so I went out front in the sun to take stock of the surroundings and get a start on the afternoon's handicapping. The 10 people out front engaged in earnest conversation, it seemed, were horsemen and track management having some sort of meeting about issues facing the meet, and I was surprised at how well they seemed to be getting along and actually discussing racing issues like rational adults. A far cry from most horsemen's meetings I have had the misfortune to attend.

The track out front is a small 4f affair featuring a QH chute, with a hilly grass infield accented by a reedy pond behind the toteboard. This toteboard actually performs toteboard sorts of functions, but is on the worse side of worse for wear. Falling apart, to be specific. The backdrop is trees and US 37, with some horse barns, and there's more horse barns off to the left in the fair grounds proper area. No apron as such at this track, just about 5 feet of "lawn" in front of the stands down to the track. Not much in the line of rails at this track, either, with just the low rails on either side. At least one could get down there and take a good square look at the track, which revealed itself as one of the rockiest racing surfaces I have ever set eyes on, rivalling the county fair in Illinois.

The paddock is a small dirt affair down off the clubhouse end with covered saddling stalls, but there is a small lonely looking patch of grass in the center of the walking ring inhabited by an even lonelier looking lawn jockey to kind of spruce the whole thing up.

As far as the stands go, they consist of rows "A" through "P" of open-air aluminum bench type seats under a rain roof, with the aforementioned bar kind of taking center stage, pushing out over the seats, and then there's two platform seating areas on either side of the bar structure, making two fairly good sized, flatter seating areas where tables could be set up.

The meeting had been talking place on one of these, but when I wandered back down that way the meeting had gone away and now a large contingent of older folks were filling in all the tables and seats. They were all the more noticeable because at that time, about 1/2 hour to 1st post, there was them, and there was me. And maybe 6 other people, including a grandmother who had a granddaughter out on a beautiful summer afternoon to learn to play the horses. Events later in the afternoon pointed to this big group probably being the "State Employees Retirees Association", as the 4th race, a 350 yd allowance for QH with a Si of 79 or less and paying out a $1,000 purse was announced as being named just that. But it wasn't printed in the program.

As 1st post approached a few more people started dribbling in and it became harder and harder to have a whole section of the grandstand to yourself. Then at 20 min to post came the announcement we'd been waiting for all day: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Mount Pleasant Meadows. If you will stand we will play our national anthem." At 16 mtp we were still standing, well most of us, and finally I remarked to the woman a few rows behind that I didn't feel the anthem was actually forthcoming. She concurred. At that point horses started appearing in the paddock area, and feeling released from my anthemly duties by the time that had elapsed since the actual anthem announcement, I decided to break anthem attention and wander down by the paddock. An announcement came that there were "technical difficulties" with the anthem. At 7 mtp an announcment came that we would try again with the anthem, and the anthem did indeed start up, but right in the midst of the perilous fight. The anthem was promptly stopped, and some announced mumbling about whoever was there the night before goofing things up could be heard coming over the PA. Finally, we were ready to go with the anthem again, and it played through from the top, just as the horses were coming onto the track, which made for quite a fine patriotic racing moment, and when the anthem was over people cheered, and I felt good inside that in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, at least, some Americans still take their anthem seriously enough to go through all that to get a full, proper take from the top. America - what a country!

The anthem episode was only the start of the day for this track announcer, though, as he amused constantly throughout the day with his start and stop and uhhhh ... delivery, giving every indication that he was never just quite sure what it was he was talking about. Personally, I found his habit of announcing overweights and rider changes for horses that had already been scratched off the card quite endearing. And, confusing as it was to me on paper, the odd coupling rules that seemed to change throughout the day had him totally flustered. Horses with the same trainer and owner were in the program as uncoupled, but as race time came up this would change, and we'd get some announcement about this horse and that actually racing coupled, while mysteriously, other horses remained uncoupled, and we ended up hearing quite a lot about what horses were coupled and what horses weren't and why this #4 was now off the toteboard because he was actually now the #2b, and we never understood a damn word of it, but it was great fun listening to this guy, and the pops and crackles of the sound system only added to the aural ambience.

The card on the day, as previously mentioned, consisted of 11 races, 9 for quarterhorses at varying distances up to 400 yds, one allowance for thoroughbreds at 5-1/2f, and the always hotly contested Arabian Racing Cup for Arabian 3^ which had never won 3 races, to be run over 6f. Sadly, only 5 Arabians could be scrounged up to fill the entries for the Arabian Cup and try to take home the winner's share of a $2,000 purse, and then one was scratched even before the program was printed up, so what could have been the betting event of the day turned into a 4 horse event with the highest priced horse going off at 3/1. This also limited the betting to win and place pools only, garnering a pool of $474 on the win end, and $213 place.

The big race of the day was the 11th, the Great Lakes QHA Stallion Service Sale Futurity, for qualified 2yo QH, with a purse of $21,104, to be contested at 350 yds. Other races offered more modest purses, generally from $1,000 to $2,000, except for the two trial races for the Chief Sowmick, QH events of 400 yds for 3^, contested for a whopping $250. No race on the day was a claiming race. Field sizes before scratches ranged from 5 to 10 horses, with the 5 and 6 horse fields being the most popular.

As the day went on, the crowd got steadily bigger, until it was actually respectable, like maybe 300 people. And this was a very talky, chatty crowd, with lots of kids running around, that it was quite fun to be part of. More sophisticated than one might imagine, too, as when I went up to the bar to score a beer (price not recorded, decent selection) I overheard two patrons complaining that Equibase was not reporting GLD or MPM entries and results on the web page. About this same time I thought maybe I would check out the food delights, and discovered there weren't any, just a small stand down at the the left end of the concourse selling hot dogs ($2.50), polish sausage ($3.00), turkey sammiches ($4.00), and nachos deluxe ($4.00). The polish sausage was not that great, and I vowed then and there to rethink my previous vow about not filling up before visiting the track.

No water trucks visited the track on this day, so things were getting a bit dusty out there, but a tractor did drag around a length of chain link fence after the 4th race as the track was a bit messed up by this point, and all the rocks were put back in their place and more dust sifted into the air. Meanwhile, down by what passed as the Winner's Circle, a girl with blonde hair snapped Winner's Circle photos with what looked like an ancient Brownie camera. I can't report on who the leading jocks and trainers were, as no records were provided in the minimalist pp's, but jockey Dennis Berryhill, apparently a relative of the many Berryhills appearing as track officials up at the front of the program, seemed to be a great crowd favorite in the betting pools and sometimes he even won. Trainer Carol Rettele, when she put up rider Richard Rettele, seemed quite capable of putting a horse across at a price.

I myself did not win great scads of money on the day, and in fact it could be said that I lost money, as that's what I did, but it was great fun doing things like running in early before the race to plunk down $3 on a horse's nose to add to someone else's $2 so that he'd open as the 2/5 favorite with $5 on him. Affecting pools that usually looked something like $160/$130/$200 WPS was a pretty easy thing to do, and when I got back to Chicago I looked at the total handle on MPM for the day and noted it was something like $11,000, and I felt proud that the $100 or so I put through the windows on the day was such an integral part of the handle. Put through, I might add, using one of the two SAM's on premises, the same ancient 1952 tv type that were in place at GLD. And we had quite the odd occurrence in the 3rd race, when the exacta paid $28.40, with a $26.60 tri. My suspicion is that, like at most of these small tracks, everybody and their granddaughter is hammering the tri pool, and the only way to ever make money at these tracks is stick with the straight pools. The fact that I didn't win money following this course of action should not dissuade you from the cosmic truth of what I say.

And of course there was the added drama of seeing QH Can U Fly, owned by one Bernard S. Flint, win his race, and wondering if it was THE Bernard S. Flint, and feeling good about it anyhow as it was the 2nd Rettele/Rettele longshot of the day and I didn't miss it the 2nd time this jock/trainer combo popped up, and cashed quite nicely. Thank you.

All in all a great summer's afternoon at a truly fun podunk track, and I was sad I needed to leave before the end of the program in order to get back to Chicago sometime before Monday.

Two thumbs up for Mount Pleasant Meadows.

Here's a tip - when driving down US 37 toward Lansing, make sure you watch out for the stop signs. Two miserable wrecks were observed, apparently the result of people bombing along at 65 and not noticing there was traffic stopped ahead. And here's another tip - on Sunday nights, the traffic on the Indiana Toll Road along the south shore of Lake Michigan is just as miserable as I-80. The payoff is the closer-up look at the steel mills and refineries.


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