The loneliness of the long-distance driver

Rockingham Park, Salem, NH, Jul 30, 2000

-- Saturday, July 29, early am, O'Hare terminal C

This morning it is United Airlines' turn to shine. The monitor says the flight to Albany will be at least 1/2 hour late, and

"Uhhhh ... we don't have a seat for you yet". No eye contact.

Say what? You did 6 weeks ago, and I even picked out my seat on your silly little javascript seat selector dealie there on the website!

"Uhhhh ... we're oversold. Go have a seat over there like a good little sheep, and we'll call you up later. Trust us." Still no eye contact.

Over at the seat over there, sitting with all the other angry sheep, it is learned that for some reason United has decided to "downgrade" the equipment coming in from California that is to be our outbound equipment to Albany, so that now a plane that was supposed to carry 118 passengers only has room for 96. Much sarcasm and scathing commentary ensues among the sheep, at United's expense. Everyone in the gate area has a United horror story or seven.

Boarding time arrives, late, and the passengers with seats are boarded. The rest of us sit there with our mouths held wrong. After all the passengers with confirmed seats are boarded, the gate crew decides to call for volunteers to take a later flight. As if it wasn't obvious an hour ago they were going to need volunteers. That process drags on for 20 minutes or so.

Luckily for me, this group is in a volunteering mood, for a $400 voucher, so I get a seat. Many others are not nearly so lucky. We're finally on our way a mere hour and 15 minutes late. Gosh! That's almost on time by United standards!

-- Saturday, July 29, sometime after 1:00pm, north of Boston

One wonders who issued these people driver's licenses. The shoulders of I-93 are littered with fender benders and police units investigating same. Traffic is slowed to a bumper-to-bumper crawl so that everyone still occupying a non-crashed auto can thoroughly rubberneck the accidents and possibly enter into one of their own while they're busy not paying attention to the road.

-- Saturday, July 29, 2:30pm or so, Salem, NH

Here's a surprise. United was somewhat over an hour late, and that's exactly how late I am to Rockingham Park. And I've missed three races. Stoopid airlines.

Parking at this late hour is free, but in the lot off the clubhouse turn, and this lot has seen much better days. The asphalt is full of large potholes, gravel patches, and a few straggly weeds. To be fair, the main lot up at the top of the hill is in much better condition.

Admission on the day is $2.50, and program another $1.50. As the 4th is fixing to go off in mere moments, InstaCapping(tm) reveals the 5 horse, R.C. Angel, as the horse to back to WP, and R.C. Angel finishes 2nd, returning a $5.60 place price, setting a positive tone for the day. A buck sixty ahead.

As it has been a very long drive from Albany, the prospect of food is far more appealing than the prospect of beer at this point, and what do you know, there's something that says "International Food Fair" right there in the middle of the grandstand floor. Yummy! What delights might we find in there?

"International Food Fair" turns out to be a masterpiece of false advertising, as the most exotic foreign item on sale is pizza. Oh sure, there's "American Chop Suey", but the rest of the country refers to this fine dish simply as chili mac. On the premise that this is, after all, New England, I hopefully decided to go with clam chowder ($3.00). The verdict on this was "generic". But it did have more bits of clam in it than what we usually get in The Big Co.'s corporate cafeteria.

Later it was discovered that there's also a little BBQ stand down at the left end by the paddock that offers hot dogs for $2, burgers for $5, and kielbasa for some price I didn't write down, and this food looked a bit more appetizing than what was available in the Food Fair. But overall, I'd give the food selection at Rockingham a big thumbs down.

How quickly these races roll around! The 5th was upon me, and once again InstaCappin(tm) revealed the 4, Ante A Gold Penny, as the class-dropping horse of the moment. Ante A Gold Penny won paying $10.60/$5.40. I am the king. And this time I'd ventured $3WP.

Finally there was some time to do a little exploring, though not without a beer in hand. Would I find some taps pouring tasty New England Sam Adams, or other fine local product? Nope. Crud and Crud byproducts only. $4.00 for the big size, and as I dropped a tip for the bartender he wished me "chiz". Had to think about that one for a moment. Thumbs down on the beer selection, too, chiz or no chiz.

Inside on the first floor is kind of low, and dark, with a tired and ancient orange and white color motif, and linoleum tiles of a pattern probably popular in the 50's. Big bank of mutuel windows smack dab in the middle of the floor, and up front looking out through the glass onto the apron, rows and rows of seats with little work surfaces, that reminded me of nothing so much as grade school desks. A few small areas towards the back are set aside as simulcasting theatres, and have some banks of TV's. The clubhouse end of the first floor, down past the International Food Fair, is much the same, only with a different color motif. There's also a nice looking dining room down there named the Belmont Room, with white tablecloths and the whole bit, but no patrons were there on this day. The club end also has some big glass sliding doors that open to make this end "open air", and these were open on this hot, muggy, still day.

The apron at the clubhouse end is terraced concrete, with a bunch of steel mesh picnic tables on the terraces, while the GS end apron is sloped asphalt, and the seating here is a bunch of very ancient fiberglass benches of indeterminate, sun-bleached, red and blue colors. Off the GS end there's a little terrace area where the BBQ stand is located, overlooking the paddock area, which is a very nice, attractive paddock with covered stalls and lots of landscaping and flowers so that it'll look real nice on TV. There's also a big lawn area down here past the paddock, and a building that looks like a private party building or some such, with a big patio under a tent, but I didn't visit that.

The building itself is a long, low affair, glass enclosed all the way, with what seems to just be two levels, the first already described, and a 2nd that I didn't visit, which I think is actually the Clubhouse (it cost extra to go up there phooey on that). The outside color motif here is dirty white, with a red, flat roof. Big tower sticking up from the middle of the building, presumably for the racecaller and cameras and so on.

The track out front is very nice, well-maintained and groomed. Mile dirt oval surrounding a 7/8th's mile turf course with a chute for longer races, a "large expanse of lawn" type of infield, and lots of very nice and attractive landscaping around the toteboard, including two little hedges that were formed into the initials RP. Pond down in the club turn.

But aside from the nice paddock and infield, the general impression I got from the whole affair was "tired". The crowd seemed a little tired, too, mostly older folks of both sexes, and barely any kids.

In the 6th race I backed the wrong horse, it coming 4th, but in the 7th I WPS backed the #8 horse, Just Wave, an unraced maiden running against horses that had proved they could lose under any and all circumstances, and was rewarded with a nice $21.60/$13.60 P/S payoff. Handicapping was interesting, to say the least, at this track, as I have never seen a card so full of horses totally devoid of any early speed. Guessing which plodder of a bunch of plodders might accidentally find itself on the lead was a constant guessing game.

Today's card consisted of ten races, ranging from $4,000 claimers running for $4600 through $12,500 claimers contesting $10,500, to the MSW for $11,000, to the feature of the day, The Lou Smith Memorial Handicap, a handicap for 3^ going 1-1/16 on the dirt for $25,000. Most of the races, though, were of the low-priced claiming variety. Jockeys and trainers I mostly didn't recognize, although Taylor Hole seems to be the hot jock at the moment.

Speaking of the feature, I was beginning to think it might be time for me to craft my UPF bet, so I sat down to look over the Lou Smith. Something was bothering, me though. Even though I was up substantially for the day, and pickin' those winners, I didn't seem to be having a whole lot of fun or even a good time. I sat on one of the club end picnic tables and contemplated this conundrum, and listened to the sound of John Dooley's voice calling an Arlington race somewhere inside the clubhouse end behind me.

Suddenly it came to me as Dooley's voice rang clear: This was the deadest and quietest crowd I have ever encountered at any racetrack anywhere. No matter that there was absolutely nothing else going on at the track that day but racing, no band, no entertainment, no nothing - these folks should have still been showing a few signs of life. But they weren't. There'd be a thrilling stretch duel, and hardly a cheer or yell. The jocks would come back after a losing ride on a favorite to nothing but stone silence. The winning players, if there were any, never cheered or carried on when a photo was announced. No nothing. All they did all day was mumble along in low tones, with occasionally some Boston accented word leaking out. Even the announcer sounded like he was tired of life.

I finally removed myself to the far end of the clubhouse apron where two of the 7 children on hand that day were running around and carrying on, just so I could pretend I was at live racing. Plus there was also a honking flock of Canadian geese on the clubhouse turn infield pond, and some bold and raucous seagulls on the apron down there.

My choice for the UPF bet was Prolanzier, a horse who actually showed an early turn of foot. Unfortunately, he had an outside post, got artfully ridden way wide into the 1st turn, and that was that. He never got the lead, and finished 4th. The winner of the big handicap feature race came back to the Winner's Circle to no cheers, had his picture taken, and then nothing. No special presentation, no interview, nada. The fairly big but unenthusiastic crowd had ventured a whopping $22277/$6808/$2500 in the WPS pools on this competitive 11 horse feature race.

I ventured one more unenthusiastic bet on the 9th, and lost it, and then lost all enthusiasm for staying for the 10th. The crowd was a real downer, it was hot, and I had a ways to drive yet that evening. Final profit for the day a whopping $38.80, but no winnings for UPF.

I don't know as I'd make a huge effort to go back to Rockingham Park.

-- Sunday, July 30, 12:20am or so, Brockville, Ontario

I'd always kind of wondered just how "guaranteed" a guaranteed motel reservation is, and tonight was my opportunity to find out, as the McChump Tour had gotten just a bit aggressive about how far to drive from Salem. Even though Vermont was real pretty, and so was Montreal at night, it didn't really make up for the fact that a drive I figured at maybe 5-1/2 hrs had been more like 7. And sure, you can blame bridge construction in Montreal for a bit of that, as well as the fact that English-speaking Canada seems way more interested in posting French-language traffic signs than French-speaking Quebec does about English ones, but this was just mostly a plain miscalculation pure and simple.

"Hi. Reservation for McChump?"

The two employees behind the Super 8's desk looked real surprised, and then a guilty look came over their faces. No eye contact, though.

"Uhhhhh ...", stammered the male employee. "That was a 6:00pm arrival ....", and he just sort of trailed off.

"No", countered I. "That was a guaranteed reservation."

"Well ... uhhhh ... you're in luck", said he, "I just found a room". This as he pulled out my guaranteed reservation form, already all filled in and the whole shot. Still no eye contact.

Yeah, real lucky.

So I got a room, not what I'd reserved, but a room nonetheless, though I pity the poor slob who had actually reserved that room and came in even later than me. Bunch of slugs, anyhow, selling off my room, and probably intending to get double billing on it by charging my credit card, too. Brockville Super 8: Just Say No.

The pattern was becoming clear by now. The airlines' boondoggles. The rental car that needed an oil change. Now the motel double-selling the room. Boobs, incompetents, and crooks run the Travel industry. No wonder horseplayers stay home and watch races on TV.

Today did not rank high in the annals of the McChump Tour.


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