McChump's "Podunk Track of the Week" Tour - Final Week

Cheesy foreign-built travelalarm zapped me again. Or maybe it was the Bushmills-and-sodas at the Houston bar that closed too early. Whatever. Fact was, a day that was supposed to get started at 6:00 am didn't get underway till 9:00 or so. There was no way of making the day's destination according to schedule. Time for Plan 9.

EZ out from Houston on their fine freeway system on a bright sunny day, and the Chumpmobile was soon tooling east on I-10. By light of day two things were apparent: The landscape around Houston is incredibly flat, and Hank Hill is for real - propane and propane accessories rule in Texas. No, three things: Texas is the world capital of dead dogs by the roadside. Another nearly met his maker on the western outskirts of Beaumont, as the traffic ahead suddenly lit up with brake lights and at least one car skidded off onto the shoulder in a cloud of dust, only to reveal a scroungy lookin' dog take a bit of a tumble on the pavement and then get up and sprint off down the hill. After that I was pretty well woke up.

Even if one had been half-asleep and missed the Sabine River they'd have still known they were in Louisiana - a series of large billboards touted a used car dealer named Bubba. And pretty soon there were freeway signs directing the traveller off the higway to the "Racetrack" in Vinton, but it was still early in the day so I passed up Delta Downs. On drove the Chumpmobile through some very pretty wooded countryside, and over a big huge steel bridge in Lake Charles from whence one got a spectacular view of the casino boat complexes, on, I say, to the date with a simulcast race. The AM dial revealed two French-language Cajun stations - one at 1290 and another at 1490 - and the zydeco and Cajun country music on the box coupled with the alternating light patterns on the highway due to the tree shadows made for an otherwordly, but pleasant, drive through southern Louisiana.

--- Evangeline Downs, Lafayette, Louisiana, December 27, 1997 ---

'Bout the time we hit Lafayette it was getting to be time to see the race from Chicago. Off we went on the I-49 exit north, and pulled up in front of the track that I hadn't seen for a couple of years. Strange. It looked quite a bit cheesier in the light of day than the last time when me and McChump #2 arrived at dusk after spending the day drinking giant beers and chowing down crawdad etoufee and jambalaya at the Festival Internationale de Acadiens downtown. Ah well. I paid my free parking and $2.00 admission, and entered the establishment.

Odd. A good deal smaller than I'd remembered, too. But they'd spared no expense in turning the lower concourse into a simulcasting facility by taping large black plastic garbage bags over the windows so that one could see the few TV's hanging from the ceiling just a bit better. And the place was quite a bit lower and more poorly lighted than I remembered, too. But still, it was a simulcast facility, so I dragged up one of the stuffin'-comin-out garage sale kitchen set chairs from the big pile o' chairs in back of the crowd and proceeded to do a little cappin' and bettin' till my race came up.

Sitting on the Evangeline concourse for simulcasts is an experience. The slant down to the apron at EvD starts in the middle of the concourse inside the facility, so those of us who had arrived late and were sitting at the back were sitting on a down angle and kind of staring up at the ceiling, and I was afraid my $1.50-for-a-damn-small-Bud-product might tip over, but it never happened. They had some jambalaya and hot dogs and stuff there for sale, too, at reasonable prices, but I wasn't hungry.

The crowd on the day was maybe 75 folks, and they were quite vocal when the FG races came up, quite vocal, and I swear to God I actually heard a patron yell out "Go, Baby, Go!", but they also showed decent enthusiasm for the simuls from Lau, HAW, Pha, TP, and Calder. Personally, watching some of those simuls, I was glad I was in Louisiana and not in Maryland (snow) or Pennsylvania (ugly rain). Man, what an ugly day that looked like in the mid-Atlantic.

Still maybe 10 min. to post for the HAW race I wanted to see, so I wandered out in search of the facilities, and found instead the gambling machine room. 20 video machines, maybe, and only two people playing them. The savior of racing.

Finally it was time for VOP's Kristy Lynn's Halo to go at HAW, and he pressed the pace and then took the lead in the stretch, at which point I was up and sort of yelling, the only one in the place doing so, until KLH got caught at the wire to finish 2nd by 1/2 a horse to the favorite, for whom everyone else was yelling, and then it was time to cash out and move on. Total profit on the day: $3.90. Woo hoo!

On the way out I stopped and talked to the gift shop lady, and asked her when they were moving to the next parish, and she said that's not a done deal, that first they were just going to move 10 miles away and then someone came up with this grandiose plan to move a lot further away and wouldn't that be a pain, but maybe the voters of Lafayette will be revisiting the issue of slots at the track in the near future as they seem to have realized what they might be losing there. As I left I wondered just how great that would be anyhow, given the lack of interest I saw in the video game room, but that's their business, I guess. "Call next time you're coming", she said, "And find out where we are." Good advice.

The rest of the drive to New Orleans was pretty uneventful, and actually quite interesting in a major swamp sort of way, as long as you accept a major GettingLost(tm) event in a sleazy downtown N.O. neighborhood as uneventful, and then of course the hotel had no record of my reservation, but they were cool and found me a room anyhow at the original discount rate, and after just a quick foray across Canal to Bourbon St., I hit the hay in preparation for a big day on Sunday.

--- Fair Grounds, New Orleans, Louisiana, December 28 & 29, 1997 ---

The Fair Grounds is only 15 minutes away from the French Quarter, as long as you ignore the 10 minutes it takes the Le Meridien valet staff to get your Chumpmobile out of their garage and the other 20 minutes it takes to overcome the bad directions the Le Meridien concierge staff gives you on how to get to the track. But I did manage to get there nearly on time for the first race on Sunday and park the mighty Chumpmobile a good distance away in the free parking section and walk through the cold wind to the track.

Admission: One dollah, American. Southern Showcase Edition of the DRF featuring only three of five tracks from nowhere near the South: $4.00. Track program: $1.25, and that's a small format program but with some limited pp's so you *could* conceivably get along with just this.

I'd arrived a tad late and immediately lost $8 on InstantCappin(tm) the first.

Well I'm sure everyone has seen pictures of the new FG structure so I'll keep this brief. The main facility is a medium sized plant maybe 400 feet long, consisting of a 3 level grandstand on the lower level and then another 3 levels (or so I am told) upstairs in the clubhouse area. To get up to clubhouse you have to take a bunch of escaltors down near the main entrance which I never did. The whole place is lots and lots of blue-green glass set in a tasteful tan plaster shell, with a red metal roof. On the front side it's all enclosed glass, while the back is kind of curved around the paddock, with nice standing areas on the ground floor, and outdoor balconies on the 2nd, then all glass from there up.

The FG facility is definitely still unfinished, with some nice big piles of construction dirt between the GS end and the old (from the tent days) clubhouse building, and unfinished walls and dividers in the licensing office. The lower level concourse is pretty plain, with bare concrete floors but plenty of windows and concession areas, and is divided in two by the walkway from the paddock out to the track.

The paddock itself is much smaller than I had anticipated, as the pictures you've probably seen were definitely snapped with a wide angle lens. The paddock area itself is very nice, except for the oddity of having an asphalt walking ring of all things, which I understand the trainers have been complaining about as a safety hazard. The other strange thing in the paddock was the practice of checking tattoos right out in the middle in front of the whole crowd, and of course the horses don't enjoy that particular indignity, so they were throwing their little fits, and the grooms were smacking the horses up side of the head to keep them in line, so we had the spectacle of grooms smacking horses right out there in front of everyone. I'd suggest that maybe the tattoo checking could be moved into the stalls like at most other tracks. The smacking is not a real attractive part of horse racing. On the positive side, there's an Oyster Bar right off the paddock where you can order up a dozen and slurp them down while watching the saddling activities, if you wish.

After the first I wandered outside and it was darn cold, but it's a real nice brick apron with a few rows of bleacher seats up against the building but no benches or picnic tables. The infield is nicely manicured and landscaped with a couple of ponds, one on either end, and lots of bushes and trees, including palm trees and a couple of huge old Louisiana looking trees that have probably been there since Moses, and this goofy thing that looks like an above ground swimming pool carrying the name "Pete's Fountain" but which wasn't in use on this particular day. The backdrop, unfortunately, is the backside, which consists of an array of large and unattractive blue metal barns. But the signature yellow FG starting gate adds to the infield ambience.

I lost money in the 2nd race, too.

Before the third I was out front wandering around again and heard a familiar "Hey Terry!", and there was VOP trainer Liane Davis and her daughter coming across the apron just like it was another day in Chicago. So Liane took me upstairs to the GS side lower boxes where I met VOP partners Dave and Bart, and spent most of the rest of the day there, goofing off and jabbering and only paying half-attention to 'cappin'.

The view through the glass front of the FG stands isn't quite as bad as Howard made out, IMHO, and the GS level of the stands is laid out pretty nice. You've got your box seats down front, and the freebies up behind, all the blue plastic seat variety, and from the 2nd level you can go out on the little balconies overlooking the paddock. There's a 3rd level concourse, too, with lots of decent food and bars and mutuel windows, and more views out over the paddock. Up on the 2nd level I saw one patron who'd passed out on the bar and never did wake up all afternoon, but he was the beneficiary of a "safety bar", so he wasn't injured.

Dave and Bart were hilarious all afternoon, and VOP's Texas trainer Gilbert Ciavaglia was there to run a horse on the day's card so I visited out back with him for awhile, and the feature on the day was the Louisiana Handicap, and overall I lost $32.50. Dang!

One observation was that this is a structure that I think will age quickly. It just seems that way. And some of the door handles were already falling off. No two: The PA system isn't really loud enough. You really have to strain to hear what's going on. Wait - three. The emergency alarm system kept going off at regular intervals ... "Attention! An emergency has been reported! Please move toward the nearest exit!" with lots of flashing lights, and this happened at least four times on Sunday and twice on Monday, and no one on the premises made the slightest move toward the doors, so I'm assuming it might have happened once or twice before the weekend I was there. Dang aggravating.

Sunday evening I hopped the street car over to the Garden District and Tipitina's bar, where they got plenty o' beer and live zydeco and dancing, and I was introduced to jockey Mickey Walls who is one of my personal heros for his incredible turf rides. Mickey was so impressed to hear that I was a fan of his he immediately named me President of the Mickey Walls Fan Club, which y'all can join by sending me $29.95 Canadian (e-mail offline if interested).

Mickey is one of like 43 jocks in the colony at FG this winter, and they're all scambling for rides. I don't think I've ever heard of a jock colony that big.

Monday started out with a visit to Liane's barn and our old buddy Itbaya who is looking very good and getting prepped for a race later in January. The barns here at FG are truly barns, big spacious metal things with the stalls set down inside, not at all like the low little things on the Chicago circuit.

Before the Monday races I checked out the food situation at FG, and found the best spot to be upper grandstand toward what would be normally be the "clubhouse" end. Red beans and rice, jambalaya, seafood gumbo, and all sorts of goodies. I don't remember the exact price for my red beans and rice lunch, but I think $2.15, and it was damn tasty and seemed like a bargain.

Come to think of it, I don't remember the beer prices either! But they were reasonable for large servings, and there were plenty of varieties besides Crud.

Day two was also spent in the GS box seat, and my handicapping was no better than the previous day - perhaps worse. Field sizes for the races on both days were decent, and the purse structure was better than Illinois but substantially less than Kentucky, for instance N1X $24,000, and one thing I noticed was that while there were lots of nice horses in the allowance races, the quality of the claimers was pretty crappy.

Feature of the day was the Sugar Bowl Handicap, which was won by a longshot from Houston, and the crowd was yelling "Fix! Fix!". And of course I didn't have it either, and ended up losing another $46 on this day, which brought my grand total for the four big days of betting at three different facilities on this particular leg of the McChump Tour to a scintillating profit of $23.90, which paid for nothing, but hey - it's better than losing.

Monday night involved dinner at Mulate's Cajun restaurant and a sojourn to Bourbon Street, but New Orleans had filled up with hammerhead Florida State and Ohio State fans in town for the Sugar Bowl, and it wasn't quite as fun as it might have been on a normal night. Well and of course McChump #2 wasn't there this time around to instigate, either. ;-)

All in all, FG gets thumbs up, and I think they'll get better as they work out the newbie kinks. As always, New Orleans gets a huge thumbs up. The Le Meridien gets a shoulder shrug.

--- Tuesday, December 30, 1997 ---

All Fall long as I've been driving I've seen roads everywhere going to Memphis, and turnoff signs pointing to Memphis, and trucks coming from Memphis, and "Memphis xxx miles" mileage markers, so finally I decided I'd better check out this Memphis thing and see what the heck the attraction was.

Nice drive up through Mississippi, surprisingly all piney woods till you get way north when it finally turns into Faulkner-land, and Mississippi must be either really progressive or really dangerous, as all the Interstate rest stops have 24 hours security.

Finally I was in Memphis, only to find more football hammerheads, as the Southern Mississippi and Pittsburgh fans were in town for the Liberty Bowl and gommin' up all the bars and restaurants, but there was a great parade with some most excellent marching bands from all over Mississippi. Beale St. is a tremendous disappointment, only like 1-1/2 blocks long, and the music, at least Tuesday night music, most underwhelming, as I kept waiting for the Memphis equivalent of Buddy Guy or Eddie Clearwater or Donald Kinsey or Lonnie Brooks or James Cotton to come out on the stage and put some life into the show the backup band had started but they never did - the backup band was all there was. I was forced to conclude that for the most part Memphis and Beale St. are much overrated. Fakes, even.

The downtown Memphis Day's Inn is not recommended, even though it is relatively cheap. It's a dive.

Finally back in Chicago for New Year's Eve, I was so tired that I fell asleep early and missed all the neighborhood gunfire that usually ushers in a New Year or a Bulls championship. But that didn't take nothin' away from what was, all in all, a most excellent Fall podunk track tour.


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