Snow Birds & Lounge Lizards

Turf Paradise, Phoenix, AZ, Jan 7-8, 2005
Various Phoenix OTB's, Jan 6-12

Betcha didn't think the old Tour would be back in Phoenix in January again only a year after the end of an era, didya? Well, neither did I.

But, as it turns out, McChump #2 homed in on Arizona like a jet-powered snowbird with radar just as soon as the weather started coming up cold in the rest of these United States, and there he was, waiting out the winter. Sweet deal, too, staying free, house sitting for a friend who'd moved but not yet sold. And I had this free flight from SouthWest that had to get used up before Jan. 25 ...

So we thought we just might make a Santa Anita side trip, too. But as the weekend approached, the weather in Los Angeles looked awful. The weather channel guys were calling it the storm of the winter. Nah. Don't think so. No reason to drive six hours for that, chump. The right choice, it turned out, as we watched a soaking wet mess and nearly no fans (except a couple cowering under umbrellas) at Santa Anita on the tv signal Friday and Saturday, and then finally Sunday's card was washed off.

That meant we'd be restricted to Turf Paradise, and the Phoenix OTB system. A whole week of it. But we determined to make the best of it. And it wasn't raining.

Started out with Thursday afternoon in an OTB. Lost money. Rats. Determined to go out to track the next day to get it back in person.

The Friday trip to the track started out good. It's kind of a long drive to TuP from where McChump #2 was staying, so we got to listen to the entirety of the Red Sovine greatest hits CD that I had finally found at some flea market or freeway truck stop in Louisiana. (Long time readers may recall that we've been looking for this one a long, long time). "Teddy Bear", "Giddy-Up Go", "Phantom 309", they were all just exactly the classics we'd remembered. But there was one near the end that we didn't remember, about a big pine tree that kept whispering "You belong to me!" all the singer's life, but then one day late in life when he was diagnosed with a dread disease and had only 60 days to live, he went back to see the big tree one last time ... but it wasn't there! Someone had chopped it down, and he was mightily bummed. But when he went to the undertaker to pick out his pine box - and yes McChump #2 saw this coming - the wooden casket whispered out "You belong to me!".

We agreed that whoever put together that CD - actually titled "The Best of the Best of Red Sovine" - really knew what they were doing. McChump #2 didn't think he needed me to tape it for him, though.

At the track, we were greeted with a bit of a perplexing problem. Atop the little building that houses the clubhouse side admission gate (cost unknown; McChump #2 had some passes), one could sort of see the head of a bird that was resting on the little building. McChump #2 swore it was a hawk. "See the beak!?" I swore not. "That's not a hawk beak you pud." It became a point of some contention, not resolved till we went in and could see from the other side that it was merely a mourning dove. Unfortunately we didn't have any money on that. However, for the rest of the week, any time I'd see pigeons atop a roof I'd point them out: "Look schlub, eagles!". This was hilarious. To me anyhow.

On Friday we won all our money back and more. McChump #2 even hit a big signer from Gulfstream. He was the king. But it was cold out there and the heated part of the clubhouse isn't all that great to hang out in, so we departed early, with plans to come back the next day.

Which we did, but it was still kind of chilly. And really, once you've seen the inaugural running of the Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile, and talked with the people you still know out there, and had a beer or two, and picked up your free bottle cozy that looks like racing silks but with TP instead of TuP on it, and enjoyed viewing the various sets of cheerleaders and Hooters' girls on hand, and waited patiently for the "much anticipated stick horse race" between the Hooters' girls and the Suns' gorilla only to see it never materialize, how much more time can you actually spend at the track?

<-- The free bottle cozy. Admit it, you are jealous.

So we needed to come up with a new plan is what I told McChump #2. I told him, I says, "McChump #2, what we must do is go to a different OTB every day!" To which he agreed, albeit grudgingly.

So we did try a few and here is the report (really, there's a good story at the end).

If you don't know about the Phoenix OTB system, what it consists of is a network of places with a few TV's, an Autotote machine or two, and maybe two but usually one teller, shoehorned into a whole bunch of existing bars and bar/restaurants all over the Valley of the Sun. You get to choose your favorite setting for video horse racing, and there's no stupid surcharges or long drives like we have here in Chicago. I like it. Only bad thing is there's only two TV channels which flip around a lot between tracks, and for some reason linger lovingly on the N. California signal to the detriment of all else, but anyhow you get used to it. Sort of.

-- McDuffy's aka McScruffy's in Tempe: We went there twice, once on a slow day and then on a football playoff Sunday. This is an okay place, especially if you like sports bars. I object to the price of beer at this place though. Too high, too high. McChump #2's favorite place however, but he'll drink the cheap domestic Crud. Good easy-on-the-eye server girls bein' as how the place is two blocks from ASU, good food, and a fairly okay OTB setup. Not great but okay. You judge.

-- North Star in N. Phoenix on E. Bell: I think this was the one. We stopped here on the way home from the track one day. It's real close to the track, in fact I'm surprised how close. It was a good OTB and decent prices on beer, kind of a dark neighborhood bar kind of place. But we weren't there for long so I can't say more. I give it thumbs up.

-- Ham's on 24th St.: This is a long time existing restaurant where we spent a weekday afternoon for lunch and some horse playing. I got the distinct impression that the (mostly older) help does not appreciate horseplayers among the patrons (we were distinguished by our telltale DRF's). Bad, slow, snappish service all day from waitress and bartender while other diners got lots of attention, even though we also ordered lunch and ended up tipping fairly. I would suggest that this joint get out of the OTB business if they don't want to be in it. A very unpleasant experience because of the service, even though the food was good and prices okay. On the positive side, they had Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap, and this seems to be the new hangout of JabberJaw, an old coot who sits at the table next to you and never shuts up, narrating the pp's and his bets and the races all day long. He used to be a regular up at the 40th Street Grille before that place went out of business. McChump #2 seems not to appreciate JabberJaw, but I think he lends a touch of panache to any joint he patronizes. I wouldn't go back just for him, though.

-- Armadillo Grill on Camelback: I like this place and it was my favorite. Very friendly service, okay prices and good food, and decent atmosphere and OTB facilities. The AutoTote machine ate McChump #2's voucher one day, but the single clerk on hand fixed that up in a jiffy. Supposedly this is the place one can occasionally find Jerry Simms, the owner of TuP, hanging out. We were there twice, however, and did not find him hanging on either occasion. However, both days we were there, there were some other notables on hand, specifically some serious yakkers. First day it was a guy at the bar going on nonstop about the troubles in his life and the world in general to the poor guy next to him, who looked to be trying to play a horse or two. Miserably. The next time it was a somewhat newbie-seeming player sitting with two of his friends, who went on and on loudly about everything, but in particular those horses that just came out of nowhere in the stretch to beat the nags he'd bet. "Did you see that, the 6 came out of NOWHERE!!!". Even though the 6 could be seen making a strong move all the way around the turn. So keep that in mind: Good place; yakker heaven.

Let's see what else did we do this week besides OTB's and various local establishments ... ummmmm ... Mexican food at the TeePee on Indian School still wonderful ... Mex at Rosita's on McDowell still wonderful ... excellent new (or at least recently relocated) Mex place named Los Sombreros on south Scottsdale Rd. that serves some of the best central Mex food I've ever had, really, and then ... tragically ... yes the rumors are true ... The Monastery (the new one, on 28th) is finally going out of business. Visit it while you can. Supposed to be adios by mid-summer. Sniffle. Part of our lives for nearly 30 years.

But we bounced back from that sadness with another OTB trip.

-- Horse & Hound on Broadway, Tempe: It was the last day of the trip, Wednesday, and we had to go further afield than usual. Naturally, McChump #2 suffered a gettin' lost incident of major proportions on the way. This was after he'd taken me to a dog pharmacist to get some prescription eyedrops for my mysteriously deflicted eye. Needless to say, all the ingredients were in place for a fine afternoon.

Horse & Hound is a pretty good bar and OTB, with an outside covered patio area with some simul TV's, then another room with some simul TV's around the bar, and finally kind of a back room by the wagering window with some more TV's and small tables. We opted for this last, owing to the light in there and McChump #2's old grampa eyes.

This was kind of a different crowd than we'd experienced at any of the previous Phoenix OTB's, which had primarily been populated by (mostly) silent grouchy old white guys like us. This one had more black folks, and way more opinionated and outspoken individuals. This place was lively. To me, it felt like being right back home on the grandstand floor at Hawthorne.

We were doin' okay there, having a good old time, being mildly entertained by listening to a lady sitting behind us with a friend, as she narrated every race that went off on the simulcast monitors at whatever track. Mainly it was "look at that!" down the backstretch and then "look at that!" again concerning the payoffs, and "lawdy can you believe that!" and "did you see that super?" and "I just knew it I just knew it!" and (no matter what the track) "That was Tyler Baze, wasn't it! I just knew it!" Aside from the minor problem that she hardly ever got up to go make any actual bets to ever have a chance of winning any of them, we truly believed she probably would have got those giant tris and supers. Nay, she deserved them.

But then the real attraction of the day began. An older guy, kind of normal looking for a horseplayer, came in and sat down at the table next to us.

Didn't say anything for awhile, but then started asking who won races at various tracks earlier in the day. I helped him as best I could, but didn't know them all. He kept asking, just in general. After several of these public requests for previous results, my fellow patrons started getting a little edgy, suggesting that if he really wanted to know he might go find out from the mutuel teller, and shockingly, after awhile, even making fun of the guy.

"Ha HA! And do you know who won the 10th at Golden Gate yesterday?"

I mean really. That was a bit much. Yesterday was Tuesday and there was no racing at Golden Gate.

But my new neighbor persisted, and finally after about the fifth or sixth suggestion that he go to the windows and request the results, he apparently did, as he got up and wandered off for awhile. Then it was quiet, except of course for the tris and supers someone just KNEW! about behind us.

After awhile, though, the gentleman came back, sat there quietly for some time, and then up and announced to the crowd out of the blue: "The Number 3 is the only horse not eligible to win, and he is the Black Hole!"

I did not understand this. Neither did anyone else. Silence briefly reigned supreme.

The race (I think at SA) went off, the #3 won, and magic was in the air. The assembled multitude was buzzing to know how the ineligible #3, at the astounding odds of 3/5, could possibly have won the race.

A disjointed explanation began which I did not understand at all, and which the other patrons had to interrupt numerous times for what seemed to be somewhat sarcastic questions and comments. McChump #2 nudged me.

"Schlub. I think this might be Ross."

Aha.

Two, or maybe three years earlier, when we'd been driving back from Tucson on a Sunday morning, we'd tuned in the car radio to a Phoenix AM radio station that has a talk show called "Riders Up!" that's about TuP racing and racing in general. That day we'd heard a caller, apparently a regular judging by the fairly negative reaction of the radio host, who had many unusual theories about how to predict the outcome of horse races, most of which were based on mysterious numerical theories that no one could understand. Not even the radio host, to whom this caller, Ross, had sent a copy of his "book". It was a rather spirited discussion, what with Ross trying to hold the high ground as a published author, and the radio host not seeming to entirely believe Ross.

I had new found respect for my neighbor at the OTB and was determined to learn more, but as unobtrusively as possible, just in case. Luckily, many of the of the other OTB patrons were also anxious to question Ross about his theories, and discuss them, especially the Black Hole. All I had to do was listen. And question they did. Man did they question.

-- The Black Hole:

You know, I never did learn exactly what this was. It did seem to coincide with godawful low odds favorites a lot. But I did learn, "You don't go looking for the Black Hole; it comes looking for you." Laughter. Guffaws.

-- Eligible (to win or lose) horses:

A bit clearer info on this one. As follows: "If the previous winners of the races at today's track are 3-1-3-3, what are you looking for in a poker hand? Another 3, obviously." More laughter. Guffaws. I couldn't figure out why you might not be looking for another 1 as well, but it wasn't my theory.

-- Eligible (non-eligible) horses might not always win:

Believe it or not, that can happen! Or the eligible/ineligible horse might not be the Black Hole. Then what you do is you mark them down to watch for next time. (This actually seemed to happen more often than you might think. When one came in 2nd, a wit in back called out, "Buy Nostradomus a beer!" Hey now, it was a pretty decent price, and got beat by an odds on favorite, so cut some slack. Besides, it was not the Black Hole.)

Well, you might imagine that McChump #2 and I were taking this all in straight faced, and not giggling one bit. Meanwhile, "I just knew it!" from behind us.

McChump #2 had to try. He went up to the windows and asked for "$20 WP on the Black Hole" and cracked up the teller. He also found out the Hare & Hound was the only OTB in Phx that hadn't 86'ed Ross.

Man. We were having an excellent time. But then I made a serious blunder.

Up till then I had stayed under the radar. But Ross made some comment that cleared his bad pick in some race with an excuse like, "But it might have been the one instead", and I responded, "It doesn't count unless you actually bet".

Then the game was on. He noticed me, and there was all sorts of explanation starting up, right up till I told him, "I know, I heard you on the radio".

Then we were quiet for awhile. But not for long. Soon there were questions starting up about other topics from the "Riders Up" radio show, like what slot machines were going to mean to racetracks (I told him: "See that little corner over there? That's what horseplayers will have left"), and had I ever been to Delta Downs ("Yes"), and like that.

But as you might imagine, it hadn't been the greatest afternoon for handicapping. Kind of difficult to concentrate. Plus now we were never going to get a moment's peace, and me and McChump #2 had a date with electronic trivia somewhere, so we left. But as we were leaving, I swear I heard a final "Would you look at that! I just KNEW it!".

The Black Hole, no doubt.

Horse & Hound ... a big thumbs up.


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