"New" Sportsman's Park, Cicero, IL, Mar 4-5

When I entered Chicago's newly remodelled track in the summer of 1998, I was pleasantly surprised by the many improvements that had been made to enhance the on-track experience for the patrons of live racing. Unfortunately, when I entered Chicago's other newly remodelled track this past weekend, the impression was more one of disappointment and dismay. The overall feeling is one of a huge facility catering to simulcast patrons, with a track out front as an excuse to hold a simulcast license. And the live patron be damned. Much the same feeling I got at Delaware Park about the casino. Except that park is attractive.

To be fair, there are a few things that are improvements over the old Sportsman's Park.

First there's the track. The corners aren't as tight as the old oval, or at least don't seem as tight, and horses don't seem to have trouble negotiating them. That's a plus. And it seems to play fairly to all types of horses. Gone are the days of whatever horse got the lead out of the gate coasting home an easy winner. If anything, frontrunners are at somewhat of a disadvantage, as the presser types seem to be dominating so far. Deep closers still have their difficulties. And absent the longshot frontrunners that get propelled to victory by the inherent speed bias of the old strip, so far the races have been quite formful. Perhaps that will attract more attention from simulcast players across the country. It's obviously a deep and slow track, as judged by the snail-like times so far, and when you're down on the "apron", there's a distinct difference in the sound - no more pounding of hooves as the horses run by. It's a lot softer.

Second improvement is the new paddock and saddling enclosure, which is located under the big new auto racing grandstand, at what used to be the outside east end of the old grandstand, about where the old licensing office used to be. This has lots of room for patrons to view the horses without the obstruction of the windows of the old paddock, and is a shorter walk from the grandstand floor than the old paddock.

Third, and final IMHO, improvement, is the third floor of the grandstand. It seems to have been spruced up with a nice new drop ceiling, and seems much lighter, airier, and more pleasant. OTOH, all that additional light casts quite a few glares on the TV monitors in that area.

One neutral change that I noted: The main clubhouse used to be a dark brown color on the outside; now it is gray. Thankfully, with all the conversion of the place to an auto racing facility, the small horse racing bas relief that faces Laramie Avenue from the clubhouse has been retained.

On to the negatives.

While parking is still free, there is now a $1 grandstand admission. This $1 gets you a program, so if you're the type who bought a program in the past, it's probably a good deal. If you're the type who doesn't care about the program, it's a $1 admission you didn't pay in the past. Big deal, it's only $1.

While the main floor of the grandstand is little changed and is still primarily a huge simulcast parlor, there are a couple of irritating changes for the worse.

First, all of the stairways that used to lead to the outside seating have been blocked or taken down. If you want to get to the seating outside, you have to go out front into the weather and climb up some stairs at the front.

Second of all, on the concessions front, the very popular little cafeteria area that used to serve up the bargain priced fried chicken dinner as well as other full meal specials is history, and all that is there now is your basic hot dog/polish sausage/Italian beef kind of stand. Hot dog: $3.00. The stand serving Mexican food is also gone. All over the grandstand side the concessions are limited, and generic. Cheese whiz nachos seemed especially popular this weekend.

The second floor of the grandstand, which used to be one of the best places to hang during inclement weather and then pop out long enough to watch the live races, and had arguably the best bar in the entire Spt complex, is now a dark junk storage area. All access to outside seating from this floor is also blocked. The only current use of this floor is for a small stage and concert area toward the west end, where on Saturday there was a country and western band playing to a group of about 11 patrons, most of whom appeared to be friends of the band, and on Sunday a Latin band, which attracted a few more patrons. The total lack of any concessions in this area, added to the near total lack of any wagering facilities, undoubtedly contributed to its immense popular appeal. The jock's room at the east end is the only other visible use of this floor.

The 3rd floor of grandstand is decent, as mentioned above, and is the only place you can just pop out front to watch the races.

Over on the clubhouse side, the main floor, also once a very popular area to spend the day, is a total loss as far as live racing. There's a huge concrete retaining wall for the auto races blocking all view of the track. I stopped in there once during the winter for simulcasting and wondered why they just didn't cover up the windows with black plastic garbage bags like Evangeline Downs does; by this weekend they'd done nearly that, with the windows covered over by dark shade screens. When I was in there on Sunday, the size of the crowd on that floor as compared to past years indicated to me that this floor has lost nearly all appeal as a place to spend the live racing day. It's now just another part of the big simulcast facility. From the upper floor, which was reportedly way crowded on Friday but which was only somewhat more crowded than the lower floor by Sunday, you can sort of see part of the track, mainly the clubhouse turn, assuming you get a seat down front. I didn't spend a whole lot of time there, as I was mainly in the clubhouse to chase down some decent food, but others who spent more time there on Friday and Saturday had the following comments:

- Friday Patron K. (via email): "Don't even bother going to the clubhouse - all you can see is concrete until the third floor and then all you can see is the CH turn. Pitiful."

- Saturday Patron S.: "That dining room s*cks! You can't see a thing from there!" (Patron S. had just had lunch in the dining room, and went on to expound at great length how the whole place s*cked. [Incidentally "s*cks" was a word heard and overheard quite often over the weekend. Along with the phrase "Well, it's only 54 days".])

And the last bad thing about inside is: Only Budweiser on tap. I wasn't the only one unhappy with that. I heard complaints in nearly every beer line I stood in, and comments like, "Well they've got a Budweiser sponsorship now; to hell with what the customers want". $3.00 for a not too big sized, generally foamy, and of course utterly tasteless Bud. Bottled beers of decent varieties like Heinekens and Corona for sale at $3.50.

Enough about inside. The real problems are out front, anyhow.

First there's the sightlines and the view. No matter where one sits or stands to watch the races, at least part of the far turn is blocked by a two story building in the infield which has something to do with auto racing during auto racing season, and which serves at the licensing office for horse racing. And since it serves as the licensing office, and the only way to get to it is from Laramie via the auto racing pit tunnel, one is now treated to a constant stream of cars coming and going and parked in the infield, which is itself an extremely unattractive bare expanse of asphalt and dirt. Ever present in your viewing field is the huge wire mesh auto crash safety net on top of the concrete wall, and outfield and infield walls covered by bill-boards, one of which tastefully advertises Purina Dog Chow. At least that was good for a laugh.

Good for another laugh is the toteboard, which even some of the dinkiest tracks in Podunk-land would find embarrassing. Constructed of two truck trailers, this toteboard displays odds, payoffs, MTP, and the total amount in the WPS pools. No separate pools on each horse, no fractional times during or after the running of the race, no exotic will-pays, not even the time of day. On the plus side, it does have a space for quinella payoffs, quinellas not being a wagering option at Spt. Also, the auto race placing board out in the infield displays the full order of finish after the race is run. If you want any of that additional information, though, instead of just glancing up at the toteboard like in the good old days, you have to stop your handicapping or socializing, get up from your seat, and run inside and look for a TV displaying the Spt signal. That's pleasant.

Backing up from the track a bit, there's the "apron". This is simply the auto racing track itself, as the horse track is laid over the pits acceleration/deceleration lanes. To get to this apron, because there is that huge concrete retaining wall all along the front of the grandstand, you have two choices: walk way down to the east end of the grandstands and enter through the same gap as the horses enter from the paddock, or clamber over a temporary set of wooden stairs down close to the clubhouse building. Once you are on the apron, you wonder why you even bothered. You surely can't watch the races from there, as the dual obstructions of the toteboard and the infield building block at least 1/2 of any 6f race. Even trying to watch the horses in the post parade is an irritation, as there's a layer of chain link fence lining the inside rail, and as the horse track is a good three feet above apron level, this chain link fence and the inside rail is right in your eyes. There's no benches or tables anywhere out on this apron other than a small set against the Winner's Circle, and it is about a 1/2 mile hike back inside if you want to place a bet. There's also a disaster waiting to happen here, as the gap the horses leave from the paddock to the track has no rails along it at several crucial points. A spooky horse could easily take off down either the inside lane behind the concrete wall where there are patrons walking or waiting for the horses to vacate the gap, or down the asphalt auto track "apron" itself in either direction.

Quickly dismissing the apron as a place anyone ever wants to spend any time ever again, the next task is to find somewhere, anywhere, that offers a decent view of the proceedings. As it turns out, the only place this is remotely possible is the small deck lining the front of the grandstand third floor, and maybe the top three rows of seating.

From this viewpoint, the building in the infield blocks only about 1/3 of the far turn. The deck has some nice little tables, a nice touch. And the seats are relatively comfortable. Unfortunately the stands are aluminum, so of course the little kids go banging up and down them all day long. And also, unfortunately, from this vantage point, you are a long long way from the track, a two floor hike from the paddock, out of range of the rather crummy PA system which even when you can hear it is that double-echo'y kind of an auto track PA system, and stuck on a floor that has one lousy concession stand for everyone else who is crowded up there, as they too have figured out this is the only semi-decent spot in the entire park. Though by Sunday crowded wasn't exactly the word.

And you are also uncovered out there, as nearly the entire former roof of the grandstand has been cut away, leaving just a very small covered section tucked down against the clubhouse building, which of course blocks the view of the clubhuse turn from this small covered area. (Not that two turn races are a common event, or anything.) On this weekend the seats out front of the 3rd floor where you could actually see something were no problem, as it was unseasonably warm and beautiful in Chicago. On an inclement weekend (my most prevalent memories of Sportsman's Park racing seasons), all agreed that this vantage point too will be totally worthless.

Which brings us to this point: The true test of a racetrack's a ability to serve its live customers is how it accommodates them in bad weather. This track has no chance. The views through the only glass enclosed areas (clubhouse) are atrocious, and the only good viewing spot is out in the elements. Although the 3rd floor grandstand has a glass front, the backs of the top row of seats block the view of the track.

There's also a few other minor complaints, like the "finish line" TV camera that seems to have a real funny angle to it, and the finish line itself that is poorly marked for live patrons (and possibly others) to judge anything by.

While I acknowledge and appreciate all Sportsman's has done in the past for Illinois racing, this new layout just does not do it for me. It is an extremely unpleasant, unattractive, and un-user-friendly place to try and observe live racing, much less enjoy it. IMHO. Maybe it will be a success with the simulcast viewers from out of town and the simulcast players sitting downstairs in the dark, I don't know. But it has already lost its appeal to a good many of the live patrons I spoke with over this last weekend.

It is only fair to note that the opinions of the Kelly Sampson Fan Club were divided on the merits of this track, with two in the "s*cks" camp, two in the "well, it isn't THAT bad!" camp, and one member missing the vote. So your results may vary.

One of the last things I heard on Sunday, from another of the few die-hard live racing fans in Chicago who've supported the program through thick and thin up till now, and who was proclaiming his disinclination to come back, was this: "You've been to a lot of tracks. Have you ever seen anything worse than this?" Mmmmmmm ... tough question. Originally I answered I thought maybe the Brown County Fairgrounds was worse.

But then on Lakeshore Drive on the way home I remembered they had way better concessions. So I think I'll spend the rest of the 54 day sentence at out-of-town tracks trying to find out if there is an affirmative answer. McChump shall spend the Spring in exile from this piece of crap.

A huge McChump thumbs down on this one.