A few months ago, when I first visited the University of Arizona's Racetrack Industry Program web page, I was a bit startled by the term "animal racing". Certainly, it's an accurate description when you think about it, and it shouldn't have made such an impression on me, but it did. I just couldn't stop thinking about ... animal racing.
I'd imagine Friday night bar conversations among buddies:
"What ya doin' this weekend, Joe?"
"Wa'll, I thought I'd head down ta the animal races. There's a animal I rilly like in the 5th".
Or perhaps Saturday morning nagging from the wife of a Broken Down Animalplayer:
"Don't tell me you're going to those stupid animal races again! When are you going to buy new shoes for the kids?"
And so on like that. Animal racing haunted every waking hour. And some dreaming ones, too.
Thus it came to pass that I got up really early this past Saturday morning, took a little drive, took a little train trip, took a little nap at 31,000 feet, took a little walk, waited a little bit, and then was rewarded with the sight of the mighty Cool Breeze deftly threading its way through heavy Sky Harbor traffic. Soon thereafter, despite an abortive getting lost attempt by McChump #2, in his own home town mind you, the Breeze was tooling north on I-17 in the diamond lane with the official McChump New Duncan Imperials racin' music blasting from the cassette player, toward a date with destiny. A date with Animal Racing at its finest.
Parking on the day was free, and what do you know, so was admission, but that's just for special people like me and McChump #2. Everyone else had to pay 25 cents. That's right, it was Quarter Day at Turf Paradise, when parking is a quarter, admission is a quarter, cokes are a quarter, popcorn and ice cream are a quarter, and most importantly of all, hot dogs are, you guessed it, ONLY A QUARTER!
The implications of quarter hotdogs were not lost on the good citizens of Phoenix, particularly the older Sun City set, as when McChump #2 and I arrived at 11:30 (first post 1:15) there were already a ton of people on hand chomping hot dogs, and the lines to buy hot dogs were 30-40 people long. And that was the shortest I saw all day. I expect a person could eat like a king for like $3.00 on Quarter Day, and wonder what sort of impact Quarter Day has on business at the local all-you-can-eat buffet joints. Proprietors of places like the Kings Table and such must just throw up their hands and say "Well boys, it's Quarter Day at Turf Paradise tomorrow, so we might as well just take the day off!"
Severely daunted by those quarter hot dog lines, we elected to hit the 2nd floor for some $1.75 sausage pizza, a true value play. And only one person in line in front of us.
As there was indeed ample time before the first race, we decided to take in some of the special sights of the day, which were mostly to be seen down in the big grassy family area off the grandstand side. Down there they had some pony rides for the kids, and a banjo army twangin' away, and one of those big inflated things for kids to get in and bounce around, and face painting, and two rows of tent booths which we decided we'd check out only they didn't have anything cool like for instance genuine Navajo rugs woven in Taiwan, but instead seemed to be geared primarily toward the older set, with stuff like retirement planning, supplemental health insurance, and even one funeral planning business. That kind of put a damper on the booths for us, so we decided we'd better cheer things up with the first special animal event of the day: Pig racing.
The pig racing track was set up down at the end of the picnic area, just a half circle of wood chips with a wire fence around it, leading from a little 4 pig starting gate and then around the turn and up a ramp into the pig trailer, the pig trailer of Cooks Racing Pigs of Galt, CA. When we arrived with about 10 minutes to pig post, there was already a good sized crowd on hand, and the proprietor was going through his spiel, delivered in a style reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie delivering the "Alice's Restaurant Entire Massacree" which made it probably funnier than it really was, but he was saying stuff like "Ask me if you have any questions about racing pigs, or pigs in general", and we thought that "pigs in general" part was pretty cool and we hadn't even drank any beers yet but unfortunately we couldn't think up any questions about pigs in general.
The truly important thing we gleaned from his spiel was that there was betting, of a sort, on the pigs: You went down to a table and picked one of 4 colored tickets which corresponded to the colors of the little pig saddle cloths, and if your ticket color matched the color of the winning little pig saddlecloth, you would win a blue ribbon for your chest that proclaimed "My Pig Won!" We couldn't possibly pass up the opportunity to wear ribbons proclaiming "My Pig Won!" around the park all afternoon, so McChump #2 scored us a couple of tickets, and he became the backer of the blue pig, while I would be cheering the green pig.
Finally the spiel ended, and the pigs came out of the pig trailer, to much popular acclaim, and took their spots in the starting gate, or rather were shoved into their spots, while the barker saddled them up with the little colored pig saddlecloths. After turning the green pig (mine) around to face forward instead of to the back, he popped the gate and the pigs were off!
It was over in a flash. My pig was taken well wide on the turn, and while making up ground well in the stretch, could not catch the lead pig. McChump #2's pig never really fired. No ribbons for us. Bummer.
Sadly, we departed the pig racing area and headed back to the stands, as the pig race had gone off at noon, thus making it now past noon, and everyone knows what that means. An idea I'd been considering, however, was now cast in concrete, and I had to borrow the Cool Breeze for a quick trip down to the Circle K for some 35mm film before any cool frosties could be consumed.
Re-admission to the park was also free.
The first real race of the day was an event for Arabian horses, 8 noble allowance steeds going to battle for a purse of $3,000, and McChump #2 scoffed at my stated intent to bet the race. I stood by my conviction that Arabians are just about the easiest horses in the world to handicap, however, and bet it, and won the quinella when the Arabians romped home in a blazing 1:14 and change for the 5-1/2f. Take that, Chump!
With camera in hand, I then proceeded to run down to the pig racing area for documentation of the 2nd there, and shoved some little kids out of the way and got some decent photos, I think, to start out my photo essay of Animal Day at Turf Paradise. In this race the blue pig won because no pig really wanted the race and they kept doing things like stopping and all the other pigs would smack into them, and so finally the blue pig sort of accidentally was shoved across the finish line and was declared the winner. By the rules of pig racing, however, McChump #2's blue ticket would be honored for the win in the 2nd, so I set out to tell him so that he could collect his "My Pig Won!" ribbon.
As I passed by the pony riding area I noticed that the pony riding area was beginning to stink pretty bad, and I don't know why it is that pony areas always start to stinking, but they do stink, and I decided that was it for me and the grassy area for the rest of the day. And besides, the pig barker's spiel wasn't nearly so cool the second time through.
By the 2nd race the usual tug-of-war had commenced, me wanting to watch the races from out on the apron, and McChump #2 preferring the TV's inside, usually upstairs in the clubhouse, and then the inevitable compromise on the downstairs clubhouse room, so we were up and down the stairs, and in and out the doors, and wandering around constantly, which made it very difficult to do any serious 'cappin, not to mention you run into about a million people there that McChump #2 knows, so it was definitely an InstantCappin(tm) day if ever there was one. I doubt I ever got more than 3 minutes to look at any one race.
I lost 80 cents on the second race.
The third race was one in which we took an intense personal interest, as German Brown, aka Bucky, the official horse of the McChump Tour, was running 6f in an allowance race. The track was sloppy as can be, given the rain of the previous day and the lingering clouds and cool weather which kept the track from drying at all, and we weren't too sure just how Bucky would run in that mess, but we were hopeful.
Scott Stevens kept Buck a little closer to the pace this time than in recent races, but still, coming down the stretch, he looked to be too far out of it. But he made a good run, and appeared to have caught the leader at the wire, and while the PHOTO sign was posted, I wandered down toward the Winner's Circle, just in case. When the numbers finally went up, we'd won! But what's this, chump? The whole winner's circle dais is already filled up with a whole bunch of old people we don't even know, and there's really no room for us!
Turns out our race was the "Sun City Lawn Bowling Clubs Purse" race, and these were the Sun City Lawn Bowlers. So we found a spot down on the ground, where Stevens immediately pulled Bucky up so we were like a foot behind his rear end, so here we are inching our way out of the way of possible harm from Bucky's hind end, and who knows if the photographer got us in the picture way out on the right side like that, and who knows if we are busy looking at Bucky's butt in the photo instead of the camera, and who the heck knows who all those people in our winner's circle picture are? Ought to be a classic.
And of course I cashed my bets for THAT race.
After the winner's circle I went looking for Internet correspondent Bill W., who I'd arranged to meet by the paddock before the 4th, so it sure was fortuitous that I was already there, the TuP winner's circle being inside the paddock and all, and we got to talk a little until our trainer Phil came up and mentioned that his newly flush owners probably should buy him a beer, and even though I pointed out that all that purse money would probably be training money in no time, and he ought to buy ME the beer, he insisted, so I had to cut my talk with Bill short and buy Phil a beer ($2.25, big), and then only caught up with Bill briefly once later in the day. But thanks, Bill, for taking the time. I enjoyed meeting you.
As long as I was inside, I decided I might as well bet the 4th. Another groovy profit for me. But the 5th - a horrible loss.
Finally, in the interval between the 5th and the 6th, came the real animal racing events of the day: A camel race, followed by an ostrich race, followed by another camel race.
A special 4 animal gate was wheeled out onto the main track, 1-1/2 furlongs from the finish line. Meanwhile, the crowd perused their programs ($1.50), which included the breeding (camel Monica The Terrible was by Temper out of Nasty Storm - I'm sure you remember those champions, while ostrich Jughead was by Brainless out of Always Hope) and the race conditions (For camels. Nonwinners of two races in the Sahara or Mojave Deserts allowed 10 lbs; For Ostriches. Maiden Special Weight. By nomination only - top four selected).
And then the first camel race got in the gate. And they're off! I tell you, camels don't seem to like to run in the slop. Their back ends were slipping and sliding all over the place, and some camels didn't appear to want to run straight at all, immediately bearing right out of the gate and heading for the outside rail instead of the finish line, and making their jockeys really work to keep a straight course. But finally a camel did win, and the big crowd was mightily entertained.
Next came the ostriches, loaded up like right away after the end of camel heat #1, and I almost missed the whole thing, as I was desperately thirsty and trying to score a new frosty while running out to take photos, but I got out just in time to see the gate pop open and the ostriches run down the track, obviously burdened by the jockeys on their backs, and the ostrich on the rail is winning but what's this, chump? Apparently the rail ostrich has had enough of being ridden, and has stopped dead in his tracks, and now he's spinning around and around at a high rate of speed while the jock attempts desperately to hold on, bowing the bird's long neck like a stretched rubber band, until finally the bird manages to spin the jock off and dump him unceremoniously into the mud. Meanwhile, the ostriches on the outside have passed the spinning duo and are in a desperate battle for the finish line. But the spinning ostrich is not yet finished! In a great burst of speed, with like a 110 lb. weight allowance on the other fowl, he races toward the finish line and blasts past for a widening win and straight into the arms of ostrich catchers who have been strategically stationed further down the track for just such an event as an escaped ostrich. The crowd loves this one, too, and gives the spilled jock quite a hand as he returns to the jockey's room, covered head to toe in mud.
Finally the second camel race went off, with the same four camels as the first race, and it was pretty much a carbon copy of the first race, but it was still funny the second time around, and people loved it.
After that the crowd started thinning out somewhat, and hopefully us serious gamblers could get a little work done, which I sort of managed to do by winning in 3 of the next 4 races. Meanwhile, somewhere during all this McChump #2 knocked down a $500+ triple so he was doing pretty well, too, and had also gone down and collected his "My Pig Won!" ribbon and was wearing it proudly, and we'd had several cervezas and were feeling pretty jolly.
At 6:15, with darkness descending, and that kind of bummed me out because I knew I wouldn't be able to take any pictures, it was time for the final animal racing event of the afternoon: Race 10, a 350 yard sprint for mules, oddly enough titled Mule Stakes. A betting race, with plenty of moneymaking potential if only one could identify the fast mules. As these somewhat raggedy characters with their long floppy ears were being saddled in the paddock, I tried to 'cap the race. All the mules I liked were bet down to very low odds. I decided just to watch this one.
The mules ran pretty good, and the crowd turned out to be pretty good mule handicappers as well, as the winner paid only like $5.60 and the quinella was less than $10.
And, just like that, in a cloud of mule dust rising into the sunset, Animal Racing Day was over. Well, in a perfect world that's how it would have been, but since the track was sloppy there was no dust.
McChump #2 made decent money on the day, and I took home 2-1/2 times as much as I'd initially invested in cash voucher. A crushing day of victory for InstantCappin(tm)!
We decided to skip a semi-planned stop at Phoenix Greyhound Park, as both felt it was probably time to park the Cool Breeze and adopt a walking mode for the rest of the evening. And besides, Phoenix Greyhound Park had been forced to move the Weiner Dog Nationals to the following weekend, so there really wasn't any point.
The 2/21 Thoroughbred Times reports that Turf Paradise ranked 8th of 1500 in a survey taken to determine what Arizona businesses ranked highest in people's opinions when it comes to quality of product, service, and personnel. And the DRF results for 2/21 state that TuP got out a crowd of 10,843 out for Animal Racing Day (compared to Sunday's 2,893), although there were surely many more, as the horsemen's lot was full to the brim, and none of those people got counted through the turnstiles any more than me and McChump #2 did. Even if the Animal Day crowd really didn't respond at the betting windows, it's easy to see why the people of Arizona rate Turf Paradise so high on their List - they're trying to make a day at the races a fun and interesting experience.
A big flying two thumbs up for Turf Paradise and Animal Racing Day! Keep up the good work, guys.
And by the way - most of the senior management at TuP are graduates of, you guessed it, the U of A's Racetrack Industry Program. ;-)