Desperately Seeking Saratoga

I don't know what it was come over me. Maybe all the hype on the Derby List and in the DRF come mid-summer. Great racing. A stakes every other race. The best breeding. The best people. No maiden claimers, ever.

But anyhow there I was one day at lunch just squooshing my mashed potatos (potatoes?) into interesting shapes like Richard Dreyfus modelling Devil's Tower, when suddenly one of the shapes sent a chill of deja vu all over again down my spine. The siren call of The Spa started resonating through every fiber of my being:

"Sar-a-tOOOOOOga. Sar-a-tOOOOOOga. Sar-a-tOOOOOOga."

I couldn't sleep that night, nor the night after. The day after that I sold my possessions. The day after that I was up before the crack of dawn tricking out the Chumpmobile in a manner I thought most likely appropriate to Saratoga: Nice selection of chewing tobacco, bait shop, and seed corn hats for the rear window deck, plus a fake reclining poodle with glowin' eyes and bobbin' head action for the same, a genuine imitation zebra skin dashboard cover, fuzzy dice for the mirror, raccoon tail for the antenna, and the coup de grace, a naked lady dashboard compass to guide me on my way.

"Sar-a-tOOOOOOga."

Trembling, I pointed the Chumpmobile into the rising sun, closed my eyes, held my arms in front of me, fingers outspread like a true seeker, surrendered to the feeling, wheeling and dealing, and in hushed and reverent tones repeated The Mantra:

"Sar-a-tOOOOOOga. Sar-a-tOOOOOOga. Sar-a-tOOOOOOga."

And with a thrashing of gears, the Chumpmobile was off, in a generally easterly direction, like a hot wind blowing off the prairie.

Approximately eight blocks later I deduced the fatal flaw in this plan, and determined to head south for awhile, at least until I got around Lake Michigan.

-- Saturday, August 16 --

My first indication that there might be a problem came when I pulled into the parking lot. Free. I'd read where Saratoga was much more expensive than that. And then there was the admission price. Free again, and that didn't seem right either. And come to think of it, the grandstand didn't look much like the pile of mashed potatos. Program: $1.00, and ... oh no, chump! This was the most embarrassing McChump getting lost incident of them all. The naked lady dashboard compass had totally let me down.

The cover of the program read: River Downs.

Well, since there was only 35 minutes till post time, I decided to stay for the afternoon.

The River Downs plant is a medium facility with a nice concourse and a good, mostly (if not all) free upper seating section, and a nice escalator to take you up and down between levels. On this day, the concourse was filled up with cars and craft stands in honor of something or other, which made things look a bit busier than they probably were, but which still provided a little alternate entertainment value between races. A building which is, I think, the RD Racebook is tucked down on the clubhouse turn, but I didn't visit that. The big problem I noted was no air conditioning, anywhere except the gift shop (a nice one), and as it was a hot and muggy day, this was a little inconvenient. But I lived.

The main track is (I think) a mile, and the turf course obviously shorter than that. Both struck me as kind of narrow, with the turf course in particular seeming only 4 lanes wide, but as all turf racing was cancelled for the day, I didn't get a chance to test that theory out.

The track setting is simply spectacular, with a nice, well kept infield, small decorative pond at the clubhouse end, and a big polo field at the far end, and a basic, but flower ornamented toteboard. The backdrop was what made it really beautiful, though - a line of big trees, the silver line of the Ohio River behind them, and then lush, green, tree covered Kentucky hills on the other side of the river. Must be breathtaking in October with the Fall colors and all, except of course they aren't racing then. Unfortunately RD shares its riverside setting with a couple of other local attractions, and the noise coming over from one of these was at times aggravating.

Giant beers: $2.75. Food: I don't know. The girl at the McDonald's on the way had accidentally doubled my order and I was stuffed. Find of the day: a mid-concourse bar named Slew O' Brew. With a name like that, it got all of the McChump beverage business.

The card on the day consisted of 7 live races interspersed with 7 simulcasts from Thistledown. As I had no intention of playing simul's, I passed up a DRF for just 7 races and did my cappin' from the program alone.

The first was the most challenging event any handicapper is ever faced with: the 12 horse field of $5000 maiden claimers, the best of which had finished 5th by 13 in its last race. Still, some horse had to win. After extensive cappin', I settled on my choice, the 4, and placed my wager. The 4 finished 3rd, which won me zero, but it was interesting to note that the winner, the 5, was the TSN figure horse in the race, and as the day wore on, I developed a healthy respect for the TSN speed numbers.

The races were generally big fields, with the smallest being six horses after a scratch, but for the most part were way up there with lots of horses. The $5k maiden claimer paid a purse of $3800, up through an allowance for Ohio-breds at $15,000, to the feature of the day, the Hoover Stakes for 2yo at $35,000. Pools - I didn't record.

I lost moderately on the day, but had a great day at a beautiful racetrack. A big McChump thumps up.

There was a Parade of Breeds horse show scheduled for after the races, and a polo game, and as dearly as I love polo, I decided to skip these in favor of sleep, which had been sorely lacking the night before (thanks mostly to Elvis, who'd shown a lot more life at Comiskey Park than the White Sox did).

I hadn't heard the heavenly choir, though. I'd have to press on, to Sar-a-tOOOOOOga.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, I tried to devise a plan to get that stupid compass back into True. Maybe a good hard smack ...

-- Sunday, August 17 --

With my knuckles still stinging from the smack I'd given the compass to straighten it out, I took a good hold on the steering wheel, lined up the compass crosshairs on NE, and headed out from the Cincinnati area under dark and cloudy skies. After driving for an indeterminate period of time, I finally spotted a racetrack structure in the distance and thought to myself "Yep, this is finally it". While crossing the big steel bridge which, I could only assume, spanned Bog Meadow Brook outside Saratoga Springs, I noted with some consternation that the approaching structure didn't quite match the big pile of mashed potatos of my vision, either.

Indeed, my concern was warranted, as when I got to the entrance drive a big sign out front revealed the total 180 degree failure of the naked lady dashboard compass: Ellis Park. Stupid compass.

Still, as long as I was there, I decided to stay for the afternoon.

Parking: unknown. Admission: unknown.

Oh sure. You say, "Well that's pretty sloppy reporting, chump". But there's a reason. And it's a long story but it basically boils down to I unwittingly snuck in before the place opened for business, and when I realized it and turned myself in to a security guard I encountered, he looked at me like I was from outer space and advised me to "Just hang loose, they probably owe you one anyway". Well, actually they didn't, since I'd never bet an Ellis race before in my life, but I was relieved to hear that news.

So Ellis Park, I owe you one parking and one admission, and hereby freely and publicly admit it, and will try to bet at least $75 on Ellis simulcasts in the coming weeks to make up for it. And thanks, cool security guard, for a very refreshing and friendly attitude toward customers. Take a note, Mr. Nemesis down by the paddock area at Sportsman's.

Programs when they finally went on sale: $1.25

The Ellis Park plant itself, at least the downstairs part, is a larger old plant that reminded me of nothing so much as old Comiskey Park. Same seventeen layers of paint on all the railings and wooden seats, same old quasi-crumbling main structure that still sports "Dade Park" in some spots, same old dim lighting, including some cool old cast-iron stand lamps with the four big glass ball light fixtures, same unique waste of space architecture that relieves the eye from the boredom of the modern steel box, same feeling of being in a small street market on the main concourse level, same smell of popcorn and sausage and the slightly musty smell of an old, old structure, and upstairs, the same stanchions supporting the roof that partially block your view of the action. In short, a cool old place with lots of character.

But they've done something odd. On top of the original structure, supported by a series of double stanchions that further restrict the view from the main stands, they've built a brand new "Sky Theater", a modern, glass-enclosed thing that looks as out of place as the skyboxes at Wrigley Field. It's like the ancient cities of the Middle East where there's just layers and layers of new city built on the top of old. Weird. But they did try to design it to sort of fit in with the old architecture, so it's not a total eyesore. Still, I didn't even try to go up there.

There's also what seems to be a simulcast center, or maybe it's the clubhouse, down on the clubhouse turn, that's also newer, and I didn't visit that either because it was $2.00 extra. Off the grandstand end, there's an extra set of seats, kind of like a high school football field seating section, only better, and behind that there's a big covered yet open area like it's under a big tent with a few TV's and lots of old wooden benches, and picnic tables and concession stands.

In short, no matter what sort of seating or accomodations you prefer, you'll find them at Ellis. I chose original grandstand, and ended up sitting close to a friendly local who cheerfully answered all my questions about the place, and shared many a story about the goofy things that had gone on at Ellis over the years. In general, all the people I met and interacted with at Ellis were friendly and laid back. That's nice. Except for one thing - the laid backness goes a little too far when it comes to where people plop themselves. The patrons thought nothing of setting up chairs in all the doorways so you couldn't get through, or sitting all up and down the stairs so you couldn't even get downstairs to bet without trampling someone. Where's Mr. Nemesis when you need him?

The main track is a nice 1-1/8 mile oval with big turns and two chutes, the usual one coming into the backstretch, and the second set back from the clubhouse so that mile races are run around 1-1/2 turns. First time I'd seen that. The turf course, which I was told is fairly new, looks decent enough, but was just a bit chewed up. All expense has been spared on the infield, which is simply a big flat grassy field with no redeeming features except the toteboard which had a few plants around it, a ratty looking golf green on the right side of the toteboard, where I guess "hole in one" contest shots are hit, and then kind of a small volunteer pond or drainage area down inside the end of the far turn. All the backside buildings look new, or at least recently renovated. Functional would be the word for the track area in general.

Big giant beers: $2.45. Yes! Interesting concession item of the day: Murder Burgers, 10 for $3.75. I didn't have the guts to try those. Small cafeteria area on the main concourse that seemed to have some interesting stuff, but I didn't try that either. What I did try: Giant bbq'ed hamburger from the BBQ Tent out behind the big tent area, $3.50 including chips. An excellent value.

Decent gift shop, but sold out of my size in all the best t-shirt designs.

The card on the day consisted of 10 live races, with generally 9 horses in each race, up to 12 entrants in several, and 2 simulcasts. The shortest field of the day was 5 horses in the simulcast of a race called "The Ballerina" from some track back east. Purses ran from $8800 for the mandatory 1st race maiden claimer ($12500), $7200 for $5kn2l, $9600 for $10k claimers, $14500 for $15k claimers, $25,900 for the n2x allowance horses, and finally $100,000 for the feature of the day, the HBPA Handicap for fillies and mares. Basically, not too bad.

I did okay betting on the day, with my big score coming on the $99 tri in the 2nd. In the third I handicapped the race way different from the track handicapper, and kind of wimped out because so far he'd been doing pretty good. I simply bet my contenders to win, and was quite pleased to see one of my longer priced selections cross the wire first, until I noted that my other two were 2nd and 3rd, completing a $938 tri which I hadn't bet. Yo yo. After that I gave some of the money back, but I still finished up the day with more than enough to make up for what I'd lost at RD. I AM the king!

All in all, another wonderful day, this time in cooler more pleasant weather, at an interesting and friendly park. Another thumbs up.

Leaving the Ellis parking lot, I headed out onto US 41. The clouds parted briefly ahead of me, and the setting sun sent a shaft of heavenly golden light across the sky to a point far ahead and to the east. The naked lady dashboard compass snapped into alignment with the terminus of the shaft like the family Brittany spaniel pointing a sparrow in the backyard hedge.

Saratoga, no doubt.

I even thought I heard the heavenly choir, but then I realized it was only the chorus to NDI's big hit "Home Sweet Mobile Home" on the tape deck.

But I had lost that Saratoga feelin'. The last I saw of the naked lady dashboard compass was in the rearview mirror, describing a perfect arc off the pavement and into the grassy median of US 41, somewhere in the middle of downtown Evansville, IN.

Wednesday was meatloaf and mashed potatos day again at the Chez Big Co. I thought I'd see what it had to reveal this time, and swirled my fork around until I saw a pattern. It looked like the Friday card at Saratoga. Looking down it, the second race caught my eye. But it was unclear. Pushing aside a couple of peas, I learned the terrible truth: mashed potatos are liars. For if one was to believe the potatos, one would also have to believe that Saratoga would card a [gasp!] maiden claimer.


Mosey on back to the McChump Tour main page or the 1997 Tour.