Phil's Big Caravan from Dallas

Evangeline Downs, Lafayette, LA, Apr 28

Quarter Pole Downs, Rayne, LA, Apr 30 (Track #84)

Festival Internationale de Louisiane

Delta Downs, Vinton, LA, Apr 30

Laissez les bon temps roulez, chump!

Note: This story is really long, and much is travelogue (hey, it's my website). If you don't want to wade through that and want to skip right to the horse racing part, click here. But it'll be your loss.

I kind of stumbled onto this outing, chumps. There was no Cajun Country trip on the 2000 agenda, what with having been down to visit the Big Easy just a few months earlier in a previous story, and all the other recent travel that sort of put a ding in the McChump Industries Y2K TravelBudget(tm). But when I got the word that there was a big Caravan of art studio types headed from Dallas to Lafayette for the Festival Internationale de Louisiane, a Caravan headed up by no less than the notorious photographer Phil, he of the Art Car, he of the yearly trek to Burning Man, he of the unabashedly unreconstructed hippie philosophy, my blood got to boilin' and my brain got to bubblin', and I sez to myself, I sez,

"Hey. That sounds real keen."

Plus, you know, there's racing down there this time of year, thoroughbreds at Evangeline, quarterhorses at Delta Downs, and the season at Sportsman's Park in Chicago was still in full swing. So, I mean, really - there was no choice.

-- Friday afternoon: 2:30pm.

And so it came to pass that the McChump Racing Tour appeared in the lot at National Rent-A-Car (official rental car of the NTRA) at Houston Hobby airport on Friday afternoon, pickin' out a temp ChumpMobile to carry me to Cajun country. Whaddya know: there's the exact model/color mighty Olds Alero that McChump #2 and I had just employed on the New Mexico road trip. I thought that was pretty keen, too, a proven recipe for success. So I took it.

Well ... it turns out that while Olds Aleros are perfectly adequate for nice smooth New Mexico interstate highways, they are not particularly well suited for long distance driving over miserable bumpy roads like I-10 through Louisiana has become in recent years. By the time I was done with 3 hours of pounding bumps, followed by 45 minutes of crawling torture through a two mile construction zone outside Lafayette, a serious headache was an unwelcome visitor. But the good thing was I was pulling into the parking lot at Evangeline Downs. Free.

Nothing much changed at Evangeline Downs. As I walked in (admission free), the second race was about to go off, and Gerard Melancon won on a 41-1 horse, followed in 2nd by a 8-1 horse, followed in 3rd by a DH between a 5-1 horse and a 20-1 horse, for two tris, one at $3500 and the other $7000. Il sont partis!, huge prices at Evangeline, and all is right with the world. Except of course for the fact that it wasn't me cashing.

The black people still sit on the left end of the apron, and the white on the right, and the sad little slot machine room that used to have no people in it has been transformed into a sad little simulcast room with a few people in it. But that's about the only change I could see from when me and McChump #2 were there back in ot '95 (and I must admit I didn't really check it out the other two times I've been there since - it may have been gone for several years now). I got well on the 3rd race with a nice priced winner - despite the usual 1-3-4 finisher quinella box - and it was a beautiful, warm, lazy Louisiana night at this sleepy little track that seems to never change.

But I couldn't dawdle. There was places to go and people to meet, specifically a contingent of the big Caravan from Dallas, at 8:30 sharp, at the "big pole by the main stage" at the festival in downtown Lafayette. So the rest of the card at EvD played out without me, or so I assume.

Naturally, there was no big pole by the main stage, and no contingent of the big Caravan from Dallas. But there was some excellent Cajun music going on at all the stages, some good beer choices (various Abita brews: 6 tickets), and some sausage jambalaya and crawfish etouffee that screamed out "hey chump - eat ME!" An invitation I was powerless to resist.

After a few hours, though, even the most befuddled chump at the Festival Internationale starts thinking "hey, I'm in a strange town here and need to start paying some attention to where it is I'm spending the night". So it was back to the Rent-A-ChumpMobile and off to Breaux Bridge to seek out the Boudin & Cracklin' cabins on the Bayou Teche where everyone was supposed to be staying. Turns out these were just down the street from the scene of last year's Crawfish Festival adventure, and the giant crawdad float out front (an old friend from the Crawfish Festival parade) gave the place a sense of familiarity. Plus there was a bunch of autos out front with Texas plates, and when I asked, "Is this the big Phil expedition from Dallas?" the answer came back "yes". And quite thankfully, those Texans already on site were very friendly and accommodating (and had beer) until Phil, the unreconstructed hippie, and his van load of folks from Dallas, could be summoned on Phil's unreconstructed hippie cell phone. At which time some of them went out to party some more at a local bar, but the McChump party headed for bed, being like, 20 years older than most of the kids on this expedition (except for Phil).

-- Saturday morning: 8:45am.

Morning brought our surroundings into the full light of day, right after Phil woke us all up by banging loudly on a very big mjembe drum. (I am not positive, but Phil may have also awoke the German couple who occupied the one cabin our party did not occupy. But that is just speculation on my part. And they made it to breakfast on time so how could they complain.) The Boudin and Cracklin' cabins turn out to be a mismatched group of 8 or 9 smallish cabins, with back porches hanging over the bank of the Bayou Teche. They're part of a restaurant/bed & breakfast spread that sits on a good expanse of tree covered land behind the Boudin and Cracklin' cafe, which is run by a guy named Rocky and some other very nice people. Big flat patio out under the trees with benches and tables for just sitting, or maybe eating your lunch, a herd of cats living under the buildings, and a French language Cajun station playing over an outdoor speaker out into the yard. Definitely a first class base of operations for a big Caravan set to enjoy the delights of the greater Lafayette area for a weekend.

There was the crawdad float out front, and right next to the float was the Art Car de Phil, a van covered with flowery paint and glued on trolls, monsters, bugs, and plastic characters of all kinds. Depending on which side of the van you were on, it was either the Caravan of Dreams, or Journey With The Gods, or something else. Kewl!

Breakfast at the Boudin and Cracklin' was served at 9:00am sharp, and we had the choice of eggs and cajun sausage, eggs and ham, the cajun platter featuring boudin and head cheese, or them little puffy pastry things, bignays or whatever they are. I passed on the head cheese combo. Reluctantly. The sausage was quite tasty. As far as the side dish of cracklin' that was also served, well I guess if you're the type who likes to scarf down a bag of pork rinds while you're sitting there in your La-Z-Boy watching TVG or maybe when you're feeling the rush online in your pajamas with YouBet, then cracklin' is probably for you. But I am not prepared to proclaim it the breakfast of champions just yet. Meanwhile, Phil entertained one and all with one of the small shellacked alligator heads on sale. The general feeling was that Phil should put the alligator head back on the shelf and zip his fly.

Caravan leader Phil didn't give us much time to dawdle over breakfast, no matter who had what kind of hangover. There was plans for the morning, big plans, requiring us to move our butts, and fast, and so Phil informed us. The plan this morning was to drive up to the town of Mamou, north and west of Lafayette, for a visit to Fred's Lounge, where - allegedly - the music, drinking, and dancing started at 7:00am and ended promptly at noon.

Phil's organizational skills were sorely tested by this big crew, however, and the expedition started off kinda late on its 45 minute drive to Mamou. And of course the McChump party, desiring to be at the rear of any flying wedge led by the art van of Phil (just in case a Louisiana state trooper might take an interest), got promptly lost in traffic. Luckily, the town of Mamou appears even on gas station maps. And luckily folks in Mamou grocery stores are nice enough to tell one "It's just up this street. You better shake a leg, though - they close right at noon!"

It was a bit of a bummer to discover that Fred's is a tourist attraction, with a huge crowd - not at all the kind of place that a hip group like ours should have had to share with commoners - but it was plenty fun anyhow. There was a Cajun band rockin', and lots of dancing upon our arrival at 11:30 (and incidentally it didn't close until 1:00 pm 'cause it never opened until 9:00 in the first place), and a guy who seemed to be some sort of band hanger-on banging away in no particular time to the music on a triangle, but luckily they'd given him a triangle beatin' stick all wrapped up in duct tape so he really didn't make any sound anyhow. The ancient, lovable, grandma type (I think her name was Sue) who ran the place donned a tall Mardi Gras hat and took up a wand during the "Mardi Gras Song" and led a snake of dancers out the front door onto the street and around back, and back in through the back door, and a good time (and some beers) was had by all. Meanwhile, some tourists on the street snapped photos of Phil's Art Car.

The Caravan from Dallas, however, could not tarry all day at Fred's, and so before 1:00 pm it was farewell to Fred's and "y'all come back now", and off to Johnson's grocery in Eunice, for the "best boudin around" as lunch. Johnson's also had some real good cajun sauces and spices on the shelves, and this was snapped up by the Caravan from Dallas. And by me.

It was at this point that the main body of the Caravan and the McChump Tour parted company, at least for awhile. For you see, the Tour had heard radio ads for an "etouffee festival" in the small town of Arnaudville, and was determined to visit that, while the bulk of the expedition was headed back to Lafayette for the big music festival. The McChump Tour headed east, feasting in the car on boudin spread on French bread with cajun spiced butter and cajun garlic sauce, while the rest ate their lunch off the hoods of their cars outside Johnson's.

The trip east from Eunice through Opelousas to Arnaudville was of interest primarily due to the large number of businesses named after famous jockeys, such as Guidry's Transmission, Lejeune Insurance, Romero Grocery, Delahoussaye Furniture, Melancon Exterminators, Lanerie Mobile Home Sales, and so on and so forth. They really appreciate their racing jockeys down there.

Arnaudville isn't a big town, by any measure, but it still took nearly three minutes to find the festival. The festival was being held in a wide spot by the road next to one of those cool-looking southern cemeteries where all the white-painted graves are above ground. There was a mobile stage with a band twanging away, the asphalt of the street as dance floor (and oddly, one of the same couples who were at Fred's just awhile before were now cutting a rug there at the etouffee fest), a big tree that everyone was standing under to get out of the sun, a beer stand (one ticket), a small carnival, a couple of concession boths, some tents in the back where 11 contestants had cooked up batches of etouffee, and a table, where several local dignitaries were judging the etouffee contest, cleansing their palates with a sip of white wine in between the bites of the various etouffees. Not the biggest festival you ever saw.

No actual etouffee could be purchased by the festival-going public until the conclusion of the judging, so a good crowd hung around the judges for awhile, spurring them on, and after the mayor of Arnaudville (resplendent in a t-shirt) had announced the 1st and 2nd place winners in the seafood, meat, and vegetable categories, and presented them all with their awards, etouffee was finally for sale, at $1.00 the sampler bowl. Well, not right away it wasn't, because the woman in charge of collecting the $1.00 could not find her money box anywhere. Somehow during the excitement of the awards presentation it had disappeared, presumably containing the 11 contestants' $25 each entry fee. But finally she just started taking the dollars. The McChump Tour went with a crawfish etouffee with mushrooms, and it was very, very tasty - way better than the festival etouffee the night before.

But soon it was time to depart quaint Arnaudville, and head back to Breaux Bridge, where a large stash of "big festival" tickets had been inadvertently left in a jacket pocket that morning, and then on into Lafayette to meet up with the Caravan and party at the big festival. It was on this trip back to Breaux Bridge from Arnaudville, on the little highway paralleling Bayou Teche back into town, right after the two sherriff's cars were seen speeding north toward Arnaudville, discos a goin', perhaps to investigate the case of the missing money box, that one of the seminal events of this entire story, actually much of the reason for this story up till now, occurred: A radio commercial. That's right, a radio commercial, on "cajun western" station KBON, Eunice, Louisiana, the same station where I'd heard about the etouffee festival, and it was talking about horse racing. I didn't quite catch it at first, but did as it went on, about this being the oldest racetrack in central Louisiana, and I thought maybe they were talking about Evangeline, but then there was something about racing at noon on Sunday and I know Evangeline doesn't run then, and then the commercial said Quarter Pole Downs, on Quarter Pole Road, in ... and then I missed the damn town name due to a distraction in the car, but it was some single syllable name with a long A sound.

Now then - McChump on vacation in Cajun country and somewhere within the listening area of KBON there's what can only be an authentic Louisiana bush track, and it's running the next afternoon. What do you suppose the thinking was in that Rent-A-Chumpmobile right then? If you guessed "changing plans" you'd be pretty much right. But where the h*ll is Quarter Pole Downs? This was the question haunting the McChump Tour on the way back to Breaux Bridge.

It was still the question haunting the Tour upon awaking from the nap that had seemed in order upon arriving at Boudin and Cracklin' cabin #3. So, it was time to hike up to the Boudin and Cracklin' Cafe to see if anyone there knew. One old gentleman in attendance said it was in Abbeville, but Abbeville didn't sound exactly like the town name I thought I'd heard. I resigned myself to probably having to call KBON to find out if I couldn't get a satisfactory answer from someone, but of course I didn't want to do that, as the cabins didn't have phones and the payphone up at the gas station was expensive and there was no phone book there anyhow and at the time I didn't even know what town KBON was in, and blah blah blah. I'd find out by word of mouth or die trying before I resorted to calling that radio station.

But meantime, it was time to head back to downtown Lafayette and the festival to see if the rest of the Dallas Caravan could be found. The fact that the Tour was now 2-1/2 hours late for a 3:00pm arranged meetup ... well, there was a little bit of guilt there. I mean, so far, there'd been more time spent away from the Caravan than with it.

As it turned out, the Caravan was not to be found, despite honest efforts by the Tour, and that meant another evening away from the Caravan, but that didn't take away from the enjoyment of the Festival Internationale. As mentioned when me and McChump #2 were there a couple of years ago, Lafayette closes down its downtown for this, puts up 4 or 5 stages for music, scads of food and beer booths, a whole bunch of "crafts" and other junk stands, and basically parties non-stop from Wednesday evening until Sunday evening. My kind of town.

When the Tour arrived Saturday evening, Louisiana bands of varying pedigree were on all 4 stages, and then as the perfect Spring Louisiana night progressed, bands from all manner of former French colonies and places that should have been French colonies. The highlights of the evening IMHO were out at the satellite stages rather than at the main Scene Vermilion, specifically B'Net Houariyat, a Moroccan band consisting of 5 women in costume singing and playing percussion, and Allakomi, a percussion combo from Burkina Faso, also in bright costume. Quite a wild evening for the festival goers out at these stages dancing away to the African rhythms. Of course, between acts, there was also time to search for Volume II of the famous handfishing video (reportedly titled "The Reckoning"), which unfortunately could not be found, a visit to the front of the local courthouse with its giant brainless "blind justice" busts, and a stop in the full-service news stand to look for the latest Louisiana Horse, but they didn't have it, as for some reason Louisiana Horse is no longer distributed in southern Louisiana, or so the explanation went. However, there was a cock-fighting journal on sale. "Feathers and Steel", or something along those lines.

'Round about 10:30 the Tour decided it was time to head back to the Boudin and Cracklin' cabins to see if maybe the Caravan was there and ready to head out to an additional local pub. But it wasn't. There, that is. So the McChump Party went to bed, so as to be bright and perky the next morning, and so as not to be on Phil's bad side for being pokey two mornings, but mostly so that the Tour would in no way, shape, or form hold up the Sunday departure of the Big Caravan from Dallas, because there was gonna be racing at Quarter Pole Downs at noon! And the revised McChump agenda was to do the morning Caravan stuff but then skip out of additional festival action in favor of the races. IF, of course, Quarter Pole Downs could actually be found.

-- Sunday morning: 8:50 am.

The McChump party is already up and stirring, readying to head up to the cafe for breakfast. The drums of the natives, however, are notably silent. No mjembe drum wakeup call today. A soft knock on the door. "Time for breakfast!" calls a female voice. Phil has apparently fallen down on the job and missed the wakin' up duties, so one of the other Caravan members has taken on the job. Up at the cafe, the breakfast crowd consists of the McChump party and the girl who'd done the wakeup call. The bulk of the Caravan from Dallas seems to be moving just a bit slow this morning for some reason. It's a quiet breakfast this day. No shellacked alligator shenanigans.

Quiet time is an opportunity to ask Rocky where the heck Quarter Pole Downs might be. "Rayne", answers he. BINGO! That's the long A single syllable name I heard! Out to the car to consult the gas station map and ... YES, there it is, right on the way back to Houston! O joyous day! Doubly joyous, as head cheese was not ordered for the 2nd day in a row, no cracklin' made an appearance, and the sausage was even better than the day before.

The Caravan, however, was mighty pokey getting going Sunday morning, rolling out of bed, finally getting breakfast, checking out, and etc etc. Inside I was fretting that alleged noon start at Quarter Pole; outside I was Joe Cool sitting on the patio while the rest dawdled dawdled DAWDLED! And compared hangovers. And swapped war stories from the festival. And played a new drum that had been purchased at the festival. And hackeysack. And one of those deals with two sticks and the hoop. And petted the cats. And posed for pictures on the giant crawdad. Meanwhile Phil, the taskmaster, the latest ariser of them all, finally had a fricasseed pork lunch for breakfast, that's how late this was getting. (As with all food at the Boudin' And Cracklin', that was declared excellent as well, but I didn't try any.)


FINALLY! The Caravan was off, and first stop was a large religious grotto in someone's front yard in Breaux Bridge, and this was quite the effort in "yard art", as Phil termed it. However, for once the McChump Tour will show a little restraint here, and leave it undescribed further. The little old lady who gladly came out and told us all about it and what it meant to her husband who'd built it was sweet sweet sweet. As was pretty much everyone we encountered in the Lafayette area. And of course had to ask the inevitable question that everyone in Lafayette and the surrounding areas always had to ask: "Where ya'll from?" I'd learned by then just to let the Dallas Caravan speak up, and avoid any mention of Chicago, though, so we were soon enough on our way.

Next stop was to be a park and bird sanctuary/rookery somewhere south of Breaux Bridge. The Caravan from Dallas, the rent-a-Chumpmobile trailing at the rear, dutifully followed the gray van covered with glued-on trolls, monsters, critters, dolls, and bugs out into the wilds of Louisiana in hopes of glimpsing monsters, critters, and bugs, as Phil said maybe we could see some alligators out there. Pretty much everyone had voted to go see the alligators even when Phil had mentioned that we (that is to say HE) was running a bit late that morning and maybe we should skip the alligators, but the popular vote had nixed the skippin'.

So it was that the Caravan from Dallas finally arrived at the bird sanctuary about 12:30, a half hour after the first race was supposed to have gone off at Quarter Pole Downs and who knows how many races there'd even be out there. However, the McChump party followed the rest of the Caravan on foot down the trail, and soon, through the trees, in the swamp next to the path, in the green brackish water, about maybe 50 feet away, the first alligator was spotted, just laying there, doing nothing. At the next break in the bushes where the swamp could be seen, thousands of noisy birds of all colors and varieties could be seen filling the trees out in the middle of the swamp. At the next break, another alligator, and at the next break another. Neither of these latter two alligators was doing anything either. I was hoping one would snap up a passing bird or otherwise entertain us, but no such luck. Then, suddenly, in the path ahead, one of the girls from the Caravan from Dallas could be seen dancing a crazy dance, arms a wavin' and feet a hoppin', but no sound issued forth from her lips. As the McChump party approached, she held out her hands about a yard and a half wide and her eyes open nearly the same and said, simply, "snake!". Apparently one that long had just slithered across the path in front of her. A dark gray or black one with greenish scales or markings on its back. Phil thought this was extra cool and waded into the knee high bushes in his sandals and shorts in search of the snake. The snake had apparently moved on, as no snake was found.

The McChump Tour decided at this point that after the snake there probably wasn't going to be a bigger thrill on the nature hike, what with the alligators being so uncooperative and the birds so predictable, and since time and presumably races were passing at Quarter Pole, excused itself from the rest of the morning's activities, said goodbye to the Caravan, and thanks to Phil for a well-organized weekend of fun events. Truth be told, the remainder of the "morning" activities only consisted of more nature hike and an excursion down the road apiece to hug a large tree, maybe the Evangeline Tree or something, and the McChump Tour draws its line at tree-hugging anyhow. So in no time the Tour was lost in Lafayette, and finally, somehow, back on I-10 heading west toward the bush-racing promised land.

-- Sunday afternoon, 1:30pm

Rayne, Louisiana: Frog capital of the world, or merely a town with a penchant for painting frog murals on the sides of its buildings and putting frog crossing signs on its streets? The mysteries were not revealed to the stranger. Nor were the whereabouts of Quarter Pole Downs. But the boy down to the corner grocery knew. "You take this street here that way (pointing back the way the rent-a-ChumpMobile had just come from) and where the street splits like this (hands forming a Y) you turn right. Then drive till you get to Quarter Pole Road. It's real easy to find, man".

Thanks, man. Those are my kind of directions.

And what do you know, good directions, too, as that's exactly where it was, maybe two miles east of downtown, and perhaps 3/4 mile south of I-10 visible on the horizon, out in the boonies of Rayne. Only it was actually the Quarter Pole Training Center, and admission was $3 the carload at a small shack just inside the barbed wire fence surrounding the complex and just in front of the nice little dirt parking lot, itself in front of the small corrugated tin covered building with a very small "Quarter Pole Training Center" sign over the door.

There's no pretense of fanciness inside the building at Quarter Pole. Just a bar (10oz Bud - $1.50), some tables, a small stage, what looks like a dance floor (plywood), and some pool tables off to the left. Down front of the main floor is a small asphalt walkway next to the glass front of the building, and down on the right end of that, a small concession stand (excellent pork chop sandwich) and the little booth where the horsemen had to pay their entry fees on the day.

Luckily, the radio ad had been misleading about that noon start time, or maybe things were running a bit late at Quarter Pole, as the McChump Tour arrived just in the nick of time for the first race of the day, a race featuring only two horses, horses just coming into the stretch off the turn. In that ancient, mystical, time-honored tradition of horse racing, one of the horses won the race. And then, in a ritual nearly as old as horse racing itself, men on the small concrete apron began seeking each other out, either laughing and joking, or commiserating, or exchanging good-natured jibes, and money, good American money, began exchanging hands.

But enough of that for now, as it had been observed that everyone in attendance with the exception of the McChump party held in their hands a piece of white paper which they consulted and studied, and I was determined to get one of those white pieces of paper for myself, it apparently being a document of some importance. So I inquired of a passerby, and he informed me that they were to be had at the concession stand. At the concession stand I asked for "one of those entry sheets" prompting the proprietor to respond, "Oh! You mean a Racing Form!", apparently recognizing from my Hoosier Park t-shirt that I was a sophisticate in the world of horse racing. Whereupon he handed me one of the entry sheets.

The "Racing Form" consisted of one page, with basic info for the seven races (which had been scheduled to start at 1:00, not noon) like condition, distance, and entry fee, and the following vital handicapping information: horse, owner, and trainer. The seven races consisted of two match races for thoroughbreds, one at 4-1/2f and one at 6-1/2f, four quarterhorse races, and one additional TB event. Field sizes ranged from two in the match races, all the way up to five in one of the TB races. Lots of maiden contests. No purses were given, but I got the distinct impression they were running for the entry fees (generally $25 the horse, except $50 in the only race for winners). At the bottom we had a hearty "THANK Y'ALL FOR COMING!!!!!!". No, thank Y'ALL for putting on this event for me to visit and enjoy on this beautiful Louisiana afternoon!

About this time the little PA system fired up, and a gentleman with a good solid sounding Louisiana accident introduced himself as so-and-so, Louisiana auctioneer license such-and-such. "I don't know anything about these auctions, ladies and gentlemen, but I'm just here to help y'all out today". After which, he started auctioning off Pool #1: "HEY now what'll ya give me for the one horse, five five five, gotta FIVE, gotta five, SEVEN, anybody give me eight? eight eight EIGHT! got an eight got an eight anybody give me nine? going once going twice SOLD! for eight How about the two? Wait ... What? I don't know a thing about this. I'm just tryin' ta help y'all out here!"

Apparently, out of my earshot, there had been some uproar over the way this licensed auctioneer was conducting auction Pool #1, and the locals were not pleased with how things were going. (It certainly was a different approach than the one other time I've heard auction pool betting.) After that auction, Mr. so-and-so, Louisiana auctioneer license such-and-such, was heard no more over the little PA. The locals however, took things into their own hands, and thereafter, prior to each race, a number of gentlemen could he heard in and about the vicinity of the paddock, "Hey got the three for ten, three for ten", or maybe "Got the two for five, two for five", running their own betting pools. One was overheard to say "Man they got to be losing a lot of money today without that regular guy doing the auctions", so I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that maybe somehow Quarter Pole got a cut when the regular guy was running more organized auctions.

Organized betting pools or no, Racing went on. The horses got saddled up in the small paddock area down to the right, in the pipe rail stalls with the corrugated tin roof, the trainers and jocks bantering with each other, "Hey! You actually gonna put a saddle on that donkey?" (the donkey horse won that race). The jocks in their jeans and civvies mounted up and took the horses out onto the dusty 6f track to line up in a small, rickety, paint-peeling starting gate. The races ran, in large clouds of dust between the low, rickety wooden rails around the big grassy infield with a volunteer pond in the 2nd turn. Then after the race the winners lined up for a Winner's Circle picture in front of the sign in the paddock, and maybe, finally, jocks and trainers would pay each other off for bets on the way back to the barn. Lots of folks seemed to know each other, while other contestants seemed to have come from a few towns over to try and take the entry money from the other horsemen, and there always seemed to be a good deal of pre-race bragging on one's own choice and dissing of the other guy's in order to cajole someone into getting money into a pool. Lotsa fun to watch, but I didn't actually risk any of my own money with these sharpies myself.

However, the Tour couldn't stay for the whole card, as it was necessary to get headed back toward Houston for an early Monday morning flight back home.

Headed back being a relative term, because we all know what lies between Rayne and Houston, right? That's right - Vinton! Home of Delta Downs, and wouldn't you know it, they just happened to be running a Sunday night card of quarter horses, so the Rent-A-ChumpMobile made the north turn off I-10 and pulled into the Delta Downs parking lot shortly before the scheduled 5:30 pm post time.

-- Sunday evening, 5:10pm

Parking was free, and so was admission. Program for the night's racing was, well, I forget. The place was eerily empty, however, for a track that was 20 minutes to post. Even most of the picnic tables out on the patio were empty. Oh well, if they want to put on a private show for the McChump Tour, that's fine with me, I guess. A nice cold brewski was scored, and one of the patio picnic tables was taken up to spread out the program and do some 'cappin in the warm, still evening.

Item #1 in the program was the announcement in the front that starting tonight, post time was 6:30. D'oh! The McChump party, however, was not the only party that had been taken by surprise. People started arriving and taking up the nearby tables with comments like "I wouldn't have driven 85 mph if I'd known that post wasn't till 6:30!". Now there, ladies and gentlemen, are racing fans dedicated to their early double.

It turned out to be a quiet, lazy, enjoyable evening of racing, if not particularly profitable. But the real point of being here this evening wasn't really the scouting of a new track, so much as checking out what was new since the slots were introduced, so that's all we'll talk about here, and get this already too long story wrapped up.

On the outside, the first thing I'd noticed driving in was a huge, fancy new entry way under construction out front, where it looks as though whatever rich and famous patrons may stop by Vinton will be encouraged to use for valet parking or limousine dropoff, or whatever, and which is shown in artist's conception there on the web page I've linked above. Believe me, the track doesn't look all that fancy yet. Next, on the left side by the entrance shown in my own photo linked above, there's some fancy new concrete work that has the looks of handicapped access to it. There's also little golf carts that roam the parking lots now, and if you want a ride up to the building, they'll give you one.

Inside, just inside the door where there used to be the little video slots area behind a wall, there's now a fancy glitzy open slot machine area, with lots of lights and noise and all the amenities of a good slot machine area. Down at the far end of the main floor, the clubhouse end, is a whole additional slot machine area, taking up about half the entire floor space. This is also glitzy and noisy and has all the amenities, as well as a bunch of TV's hanging around so one can watch the live and simulcast races. The whole first floor has new carpeting, Vegas-style carpeting, with pictures of dice and cards and all sorts of other gamblin' type stuff woven into the design. Completing the scene, to make the whole place glitzier and fancier, all the walls, about halfway up, are lined with big sheets of sparkly metal that look like that kind of stamped, bumpy, pickup-truck bed lining stuff, except this is gold instead of black. The staircases up have also been redone in nice wood, but I'm not sure where they go, as from the apron, the upper level is still as dark and black and unoccupied as it was when I was there last year.

Inviting as it all seems, from the standpoint of a slots player, there was hardly anyone there playing slots. Most of the seats in the slots area that were occupied were occupied by people staring at simulcast monitors. The purses out there on the racetrack didn't seem substantially higher that when I was there last year, either. I don't know for sure, but this lack of patronage might have been partially explained when I left and stopped down by the freeway, about 1/2 mile away, for gas before continuing on to Houston: Clustered around this one freeway exit, in this one little town among many towns with casinos in the area, in and among all the gas stations and truck stops and restaurants, were about six or seven bright, glitzy looking little establishments whose name all ended in the word "casino".

-- Sunday night, 10:30pm

The McChump party limped on into Houston, dog tired, and immediately fell into a sound, sound sleep in the comfortable embrace of a Super 8 bed. Well, as sound as the Delta Downs red beans and rice dinner doused with plenty of tabasco sauce would allow for, anyhow.

So it's back to Sportsman's now, for the final 1-1/2 weekends of their 2000 meet from which we've pretty much managed to exile ourselves throughout the whole Spring, and it's time to take the final vote: Evangeline, Quarter Pole, and Delta - are any of them worse than Sportsman's?

Nope, nope, and nope.