It's not that I had anything against Hawthorne. It's just that you get tired of seeing the same old horses week in and week out. The challenge just isn't there - know what I mean?
So I decided it was time to check out a couple of the region's smaller tracks. The McChump Fall Foliage Tour was born.
The Tour got a slow start Saturday morning, as I ran into road construction almost immediately, somewhere in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, just outside the town of "Citizen's Utilities", if the sign on the water tower was to be believed. But after a half hour or so of poking along, The Tour was back up to speed, and I was rolling along, with the compass set for Collinsville.
I knew I was on the right road for small-track racing when the first cassette ended. I was in No Man's Land, the land where 90% of the FM radio stations play country, and the other 10% play Meatloaf and David Lee Roth. As I fiddled for another tape, I was treated to rural FM ad spots for, in succession, a chiropractor with his own snappy jingle, the big Junior Achievement "Achievement Bowl-a-Thon", to be held the following Saturday down at the West Side Strike 'n Spare, and finally, a spot for a local furniture outlet that started out ATTENTION SPRINGFIELD! and went on shouting in a tone that would make a monster truck rally announcer turn green with envy. I had to get a tape in, pronto. Luckily, I had packed the official travelling music of the McChump Racing Tour, and small Illinois towns from Springfield to Collinsville were subsequently serenaded with the dulcet tones of all The New Duncan Imperials' big hits, from "Shut Up and Drive" through "Home Sweet Mobile Home". Racin' fever was boiling in my blood. I was pumped for this trip.
Some six hours after leaving Chicago, and a little less pumped, I finally pulled into Collinsville. Now, you'd think it would be a pretty easy job to find a racetrack in a town of 22,500, but I turned it into an adventure. After taking in most of the sights of the town, including the water tower shaped like a giant catsup bottle, I decided that maybe one of the strict rules of the McChump Tour could be bent just this once. Armed with the helpful Amoco boy's verbal directions, I finally found Fairmount Park.
Parking: $1. Well, more than I pay in Chicago, but not bad. Admission: Free, of course, and not without humor value as the woman tried to feed my owner's card Arlington bar code through Fairmount's system. Program: $1.50, with simulcast program extra.
As I'd arrived early, I decided to check out the simulcasts while handicapping the night's card. Simuls were only happening on the grandstand side, so I left the clubhouse building (these are separate at FP), and headed over to the cheap seats, not to return, as things worked out.
The lower (inside) level at FP is mostly given over to tables and simulcast monitors which are arranged in one long line down the center of the space. Not a bad arrangement. And the plant itself (not a big place - about Evangeline size) was clean and pleasant enough, though a little dark. But what immediately caught my attention was the concessions area: four separate booths, each marked with a different food specialty, like Italian, and Mexican, and All American, and so on. Visions of racetrack fare as varied and tasty as the food you can get at Comiskey Park danced through my head, and my stomach, which had been subsisting on interstate McDonald's coffee and Big Macs all day.
GOOD JOKE, FAIRMOUNT!
The Mexican booth featured cheese whiz nachos in addition to the basic hot dogs and stuff. The Italian booth had dried out pizza, in addition to basic hot dogs. All American? Hamburgers. I decided on German, and while it wasn't the worst bratwurst I've ever had, I determined right then and there to slam Fairmount in the BSF dept. So here it is: 30
Giant beers, on the other hand, were a tasty $3.15 Only Bud, though. To be expected within sight of the largest American brewery, but still.
I wandered out front on the apron to watch most of the action, and to check out the horses in the paddock down past the grandstand end. The apron suffers a little as a place to watch from, as the track surface is about 30" higher than the apron itself and the rail is right in your eyes. As it was a little cool, most of the big Saturday night crowd watched from inside, and initially it was fairly lonely out there, but the apron got to be the hoppin' place to be as the night matured.
The card consisted mostly of the low level claimers you'd expect, running in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, and some MSW and allowance horses, competing for purses ranging from $3800 to $9000. A lot of the horses running in both restricted and non-restricted races at FP seem to be the Illinois-breds that can't cut it in Chicago.
After the first two races I was beginning to despair of ever picking a FP winner, and despairing even more of beating this crowd, which consisted mostly of typical older male race fan types. Except for one thing: the winner of the second paid way more to show than it should have. So I watched the totes on the contenders for the third, and sure enough, the favorite was WAY underbet in the show pool. So I plopped down a show bet and watched the horse finish 2nd, paying $4.80 place, and $6.00 show. Maybe I was onto something. So I kept on watching, and sure enough, next race one of the contenders was way underbet in the show pool AND the place pool. Another bet; another good win. I mean, I hate to be a Ziemba scum, but apparently the guy that "takes care of" the place and show pools for Fairmount had the night off. So I just kept sucking down those giant beers and doing absolutely no handicapping of the races, merely betting on any horse the program picked as a contender which was overlaid in one or both of the minor pools, and by the end of the night I'd not only made back the initial loss on the 1st and 2nd, but amassed a tidy profit, as well. This game is SO EASY!
The giant beers made the trip back to my motel into another adventure, but soon I was safe in my deluxe Days Inn room with its nice view of the St. Louis arch and skyline in the distance, and its not so nice view of the semis roaring along I-70 right outside the window. I drifted off dreaming of that elusive McChump ideal: eaaaasy money! In that department, Fairmount Park was deemed a rousing success.
Four am rolled around mighty early Sunday morning, and I stumbled through my shower regretting that last giant beer. Or two. Soon I was on the road, though, heading east through the darkness with a few lonely semis, toward breakfast with an e-friend I'd never met, somewhere in southern Indiana, and an afternoon date with destiny at Hoosier Park.
As the sun slowly rose in front of me, I realized why southern Illinois and Indiana were so popular with Abe Lincoln and his ancestors. Miles and miles of sparsely populated, tree covered rolling hills were simply ablaze with the colors of autumn. Vast fields of ripened corn stretched into the distance, punctuated, much to my surprise, by the occasional busy little oil pump. It made me forget that I was looking at another four or five hours of driving.
Later, as I cruised through Indy, I waved toward the old brickyard, and at Conner's Bar, where you can see more depravity in one Memorial Day weekend than you'll see at most bars in a lifetime. Forty five minutes later, I exited at Anderson and pulled in at Hoosier Park.
Parking: free. Admission: once again free, courtesy of the trusty Illinois owner's card. Program: $3.00, but that includes a big simulcast section. No choice in the matter.
Hoosier Park looks brand new, mainly because it is. The grandstand is about the size of something you might see in a minor league ballpark, and is very clean and shiny. The place lacks a lot of character, though, since it was just cut out of a cornfield. Nice pond in the infield; not a tree in sight. Big Bud signs on the toteboard, and advertising on the backstretch fence like on a minor league baseball outfield fence. Which, IMHO, is a great idea. (They also had a pretty aggressive radio ad campaign. Racetracks acting commercial - what a concept).
I didn't venture into the clubhouse, so can't comment on that. Looked sort of snooty. Nice gift shop right inside the door. The upper level of the grandstand is given over to simulcasting and could be better laid out, IMHO. Big island of betting windows right smack in the middle of things. Automatic tote machines I've never seen before, but they were easy enough to figure out. Lots of indoor reserved seating looking out on the track, occupied mainly by the older set. I headed downstairs, where I was to meet Internet ownership partner Mike W.
The downstairs is the place to be. A much younger and better looking crowd, including a surprising number of women. Windows that aren't too crowded, enough monitors to watch simuls if you want 'em, smoking and non-smoking sides, and then you can wander out onto the apron, or down to the paddock at the clubhouse end if you're so inclined.
Beers: Not particularly reasonable, but that's because I bought bottles instead of having to deal with awful tap Bud for two days in a row. Food: BSF 95!!! YES! Now THIS is how racetrack food should be! Barbecue pork, roast beef, corned beef, and turkey breast were just a few of the sandwiches you could get. Some delicious looking homemade soup and chili bubbling away in pots. Chicken tenders. All sorts of good looking stuff, and most of it no more that $3.50. Try *that* price out, AP, or *that* selection, HAW! (And I'm talking here just about the stuff available to us common folk who don't plunk down $20 for a reserved table). Hoosier Park really did things up right in this department. Hope they keep it up and don't revert to Fairmount-dom.
Unfortunately, the barbecue pork sandwich was just about the highlight of my day, as the HOO crowd proved very tough to beat. Low priced favorite after low priced favorite lit up the win totes, and I didn't see much out of line in the minor pools, except once, sort of. In fact, I think the crowd didn't make many mistakes all day, except one, when they chose a local fav $20k claimer at even money over a successful Chicago minor stakes animal in the day's featured allowance mile. Even then, the mistake was minor, as the 2nd choice paid us backers only 7/5 when he pulled away in the stretch.
Quality of racing was a step or two up from Fairmount, with $5000 clm the bottom price (most races, btw), one race featuring $25k claimers, and the allowance feature (the one with the good Chicago horse) with some horses that had competed fairly well in minor stakes. Purses ranged from $4725 for the cheap claiming horses up to $13440 for the allowance feature.
I got to see more of HOO than I had bargained on, too. My Chicago trainer had asked that I pick up some Indiana licensing forms as long as I was there, so between unsuccessful bets I set out to find the racing office. Unlike the Chicago tracks, this is not located in the main building. It is, in fact, on the backside, on the farthest side of the backside, which is itself located on the far side of a huge parking lot. So I got do to some hiking and see the HOO backside. Once again, rather characterless, owing to the newness of all the buildings as well as their pre-fab appearance. On the positive side, things were clean, and I saw no vermin. Noted the track kitchen but did not stop in. Kind of a dead place, too - not nearly the constant bustle of activity I'm used to seeing. Eventually found the racing office and got the forms, and hiked the half mile back.
It wasn't a banner day for either Mike or me. In fact, in my case, the spare money I'd brought from Collinsville entered the Anderson economy. Plus some I'd brought from Chicago. Things were not helped when Knobgobbler failed to win one of the Hawthorne simulcasts I bet, or when my sentimental favorite Alywow got trounced by much better horses at Woodbine. Meanwhile, the HOO crowd kept plugging away at the low priced favorites, and kept winning. I was bummed.
Then poof! the card was over.
Even though I didn't win, I liked Hoosier Park a lot - fun crowd, good food, nice amenities, nice plant, and pretty good racing. Give some trees a few years to grow up, and it'll be a great place. Great also to hook up with Mike.
200 miles later, about 9:00 pm, I hit the 800 mile mark of this little expedition in the stretch of I-80/94 that winds around the southern tip of Lake Michigan. "Jazz Transfusion" was playing on the radio, and that was just about all I could deal with. I was beat.
Now, this particular road is without a doubt a top candidate for Most Nervewracking Stretch of Road in North America. Either you're doing 75 with two solid lanes of semis on either side of you, not to mention front and rear, or you're crawling along for endless miles at 7 mph through Gary and Chicago's south suburbs. Tired as I was, I was hoping for the former. Unlucky as my day had been, I got the latter. As I sat there in the traffic much as I had the previous morning, and looked at endless miles of brakelights ahead of me, just one thought came to mind: "Man, this is sure a lot of driving just to bag two new tracks".
See you at Hawthorne next weekend.
FOOTNOTE: A 1996 issue of the Illinois Racing News had an article about the upcoming season at Fairmount, and some of the changes made for 1996 were supposedly much improved food in the concessions and on the backside. We shall see.