-- Sunday, July 30, around noon, the 401 highway through Toronto
Well now, I'm impressed, Toronto. This is about the busiest and most miserable highway I've seen in North America except for maybe I-80 around the tip of Lake Michigan. And it's only a Sunday morning! Bravo!
-- Sunday, July 30, about noon-thirty, Woodbine parking lot (free)
As one of my personal heroes would say, "SuPRIZE suPRIZE suPRIZE!!" No airlines were involved today, and I am right on time to make the 12:55pm post time.
This Woodbine is a pretty impressive place from out front, much bigger than what I thought it was going to be based on all the Internet whining I'd read after the BC there, and five floors at least. A nice walkway from the parking lot leads past a huge walking ring with big trees in it, past a nice little flower garden in front of the valet parking area, which garden contains a big, well done, statue of Northern Dancer, and up to the main entrance, which, if I didn't know better, I'd think was the entrance to a Cineplex Odeon 100-screen mega-theatre. Big monster marquee awning over the doorway says RACING - SLOTS, and the underside of it is lit up like the entryway to some Hollywood theatre. Above the awning there's a huge metal grillwork with a whopping green WOODBINE sign at the top that I personally think would be way cooler if it was neon, and then smack dab in the middle of all this there's a big jumbotron flashing out messages and ads and come-ons for all the delicious gambling opportunities inside. Someone told me later there's one sequence where slot machines run around a racetrack, but tragically I missed that.
Just inside the door (free admission) there's a gift shop and a well-guarded entrance to the big casino area, which I am given to understand occupies the entirety of what was once the first floor of the grandstand, but I didn't visit the casino on this day (or maybe I did at the end of the day, come to think of it, but nothing sticks in my mind. There's so many casinos at racetracks these days they all run together unless they have some really cool attraction like for instance the Whirlwind Of Cash at Sunland Park). So anyhow that's all about the casino.
Where you want to go for the racing is up the escalator past the shellacked jockey silks hung from the walls, to the 2nd floor, where you can buy your program ($2.50), and there's a beer stand right handy there at the top of the elevator (big LaBatt's Blue, $3.75).
Now then, I have a confession to make here. This was obviously a huge place, and much exploring was going to be necessary for me to properly document the whole thing, only I didn't. And the reason I didn't is because I was running around searching out Internet corerspondents, and then chatting with them for most of the day, and didn't get time for any notes at all about this floor. But take my word it's huge and very nice and clean and pleasant, apparently having been recently remodeled along with the slots floor. I learned later that the remodelling came after the Woodbine BC, so anyone who hasn't visited since then, hasn't seen it. I also learned that if I wanted to see the "old Woodbine" all I had to do was go upstairs to the 3rd floor. But I didn't.
What I DID do was hustle to put down a bet on the 6 horse in the first race, and then walked out front and plopped in a seat in the balcony overlooking the apron and watched him come in 4th of 7. After that bit of expert handicapping, I recalled I'd left something in the car so took a little stroll back out to the parking lot.
As long as I was re-entering the park anyhow, I decided to go around the walking ring the other way and try a different entrance, and as it turned out this different entrance was right by the saddling area, which is a nice indoor one located on the basement floor (well, sort of - the place is more like a split level), back of the stands, but in front of the big walking ring. And if you can understand that, two points for you. I didn't find the Internet correspondent I was supposed to be looking for here, so went back upstairs to craft another fine bet.
In the 2nd race I managed to select the 3rd place horse with my WP bet. I could feel my selecting powers gathering steam within me. By the 4th race I would surely select a winner.
I'd also managed to do a bit more exploring, visiting the apron on this whirl through the plant. This isn't much of an apron at all, and you can't see too much, as it is smack up against the turf course which is outside the dirt course which is outside the harness track which itself surrounds a really big infield which has plenty of toteboard and (very nice) landscaping action to block the sightlines. Oddly, even though there is a jumbotron at the front door advertising slots, there's no jumbotron in the infield showing races. Not surprisingly, there was no one on the apron but me and a few grooms. The regular folks who wanted a view were either up in the outdoor seats just above the apron or in the indoor seats just behind those, or up in the higher levels.
It was now time to get serious about finding Internet correspondents, however. In the paddock area I found Terence D., a friend of Cindy the lady who runs one of the Internet racing correspondence lists. Near the gift shop the growing entourage picked up Ron G., a member of that same correspondence list for even longer than me. And at the top of the escalator none other than John V., who, it turned out, is the King of Schmooze at Woodbine, apparently knowing everyone. We had to stop about 6 times for Johnny V. to say hi to this one or that on our way upstairs, where correspondent Bill W. had secured a nice table on the 3rd floor balcony directly overlooking the track, and that's where this group's Canadian bash spent the afternoon, picking up also lurker Norm P. and long-timer Doug K. on. Here I must also offer a public apology to Internet correspondent David E., who'd written me saying he'd like to meet up at Woodbine. Somehow in compiling the rather fat file folder that went along with me on this trip, I didn't include his email, so inadvertently blew him off. Sorry about that, David.
In the 3rd race, like an accelerating locomotive of handicapping, I managed to pick the 2nd place horse. A groovy $4.20 to place. Race 4 only had 5 horses, so I made the rare decision to pass a race, and instead concentrated on the beer that appeared in front of me, pestered the Internet correspondents for their UPF horses, and in general had a great time conversing about Woodbine and who is who's enemy on the Internet, and who on the Internet is hiding behind nom de plumes, (and I'll assure you this is a pretty knowledgeable bunch you ain't foolin'), and getting to know this big, enjoyable bunch of Canadian correspondents. Nothing like hanging out for a day with a big passel o' fellow racing fans.
All the socializing, though, makes it a bit difficult to handicap, and somehow, in the 5th, my train was derailed, as instead of first, my horse finished out of the money! How could that have happened? Ron selected his UPF horse in this race, however, and it managed a close 2nd.
John V. had by this time introduced me to a tasty beer I'd never tried before, Schliemann's, or something like that, and thus fortified, I snuck down a ways from the group and handicapped like a madman for a minute or so. For the 6th I selected a horse named Arctic Squall, and boldly bet him, even though I was going against both John's and Terence's UPF picks. Normally I wouldn't do that to jinx a UPF horse, but if I was to lay off this day I wouldn't get any bets at all in. My train got back on track with a nice $9.40/$4.40 winner.
I can't kid myself - the 7th race was the real reason many of these people were at Woodbine today. One of Bill W.'s homebreds, Proudly Loudly, partly owned by Doug K., was running in a 1-1/6 mi. N1X allowance, for a purse of $56,000 Canadian. Wow! That was the first time all day I'd really looked at a purse. I took a look at a few more. $50k claimers running for $56,000. MSW for $50,400. Oclm80000 for $60,000. And the feature of the day, an Ontario sire stakes, for $125,000. I can remember just a couple of years ago when Woodbine purses stunk and stunk bad. Now they're running for some real cash up there. I hate slot machines with a passion, but ...
Bill's horse, unfortunately, acted up in the gate and was a late scratch. I got a refund on that race. As well as a bit wet - it was starting to rain.
Another sneaky handicapping getaway revealed the horse I would choose as my UPF (and personal) bet in that featured 8th. The number 4, Trailthefox, had just been claimed out of a $50k race at Hollywood Park, and shipped right up to Woodbine for this race. Bill confirmed that his sire Foxtrail was indeed an eligible Ontario sire. And his trainer ... none other than Pierre L. Bellocq - Peb! - with no starts at this track. This horse had obviously been bought just for this race (and maybe other Ontario races down the line). It was all too suspicious, and I've seen this sort of thing before, in the form of an Illinois-bred horse named Beboppin' Baby, claimed for $32k out of a So. Cal. race and brought back to Illinois where he went on to become a graded stakes winner. Okay, maybe there were a few differences, like the latter making his first Illinois start in a N1X, and as I recall never being any sort of price like 12-1 Trailthefox was today, but still ... fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. "I am gonna make sooooo much money for UPF on this race!", I announced to the group as I revealed my choice. And for me too, although I didn't say that.
Trailthefox backed up my bravado, thankfully, by winning and paying $25.90/$8.20. I am the King! Better yet, the King with witnesses.
I also won on the short-priced Undue Influence in the 9th. The price was so impressive I failed to write it down.
I'd been pressuring Doug to come up with a UPF horse, and he finally did, with Later Years in the 10th. Later Years won and paid a nice $14.40. Meanwhile, I personally lost a good deal of money on this last race of the day, as I was thinkin' I was the King and was going to hit a real big exacta to end the day on a giant note. Didn't happen. The racing imps demoted me from The King to Used To Be The King in less than 1-1/2 minutes. Those little jerks! It was a good day for UPF though, as we had the two winners, plus a contribution from Johnny V. of 10% of his days winners. And a reasonable day for me despite that final diss - a whopping $48.55 to the good.
After the races, Bill W. was nice enough to take John V. and me to the Woodbine backside to meet his horses and his trainer, and then later the three of us went to dinner, with John V. kindly picking up my tab. My debt to various Internet correspondents is surely growing large.
This was great day with great folks, and a very nice track which is surely on the list of tracks to visit again at some future date. (That'd be the opposite list from the one Rockingham is on.) Thanks much to everyone I met at Woodbine. As I told Johnny V., I've decided Canada is my new favorite furrin' country. And these Canadians - they're not so different from you and me after all. :)
About three miles out of town on the QEW headed around the tip of Lake Ontario it began to rain, and I mean rain like heck. I really hate driving in the rain. Actually, I can usually do without any rain at all. Stupid rain.
For goodness sake, chump best not flop!
By McChump #1
CHICAGO - 0-stinkin-casinos and 20 racetracks from one end of North America to the other and points in between in 2 months. When the concept of the McChumpalooza 2000 tour was first raised about a week ago, I thought, "Wow, I've been doing this for years and these 2000 plans have been in place since like March, but now I can put a silly name to it!" Well, now that McChumpalooza is at hand - a RentAChumpMobile and I will kick it off sometime tomorrow with a leisurely drive to Shelby - I have to wonder: What would my 2nd-grade teacher Mrs. Schmidt think?
Oh, even with the thought of that dour old puss scowling at me, I'm still excited and looking forward to it. But to be perfectly frank, I also have mild feelings of apprehension and pressure (though I just took something for the latter).
Part of the apprehension stems from the fact that, despite having thrice traveled to Shelby on the way to and from Canada, and having made several trips to other towns on the High Line like Cut Bank, Havre, and Rudyard, I still don't know where the Marias County Fairgrounds is located. And, I'm staring at the prospect of having to stop at a gas station and ask. There's a real good gas station right at the intersection of I-15 and US 2, though.
The other part of the apprehension comes from the fact that, in my entire life, I've never seen any simulcast races from some of these tracks that are on the itinerary. For all practical purposes, they may not even exist!
I've seen some simulcasts from Northlands Park, so I'm pretty sure that's a real track. And, the town of Grande Prairie actually appears on the map of Alberta, so it may follow that Evergreen Park exists as well. But, whether or not Sagebrush Downs will be there when I arrive, or if post time at the NW Montana Fair is really 1:00pm, or whether or not there will actually be racing on the day I'm at the Crow Fair, these are questions for the ages. I think I know more about Quarter Horses than I do about the racing at these tracks.
I know I will feel much more comfortable with the existence of places like Saratoga, and Woodbine, and Emerald Downs - you know, places that are on TV. And Kentucky Downs, which concludes the Tour, well, I've been there before, so I know it exists. I sure hope they're still serving up the ham and redeye gravy at Loretta Lynn's Country Kitchen up the road. The Loretta shrine in the lobby is nice, too.
The point is, I'm not so presumptuous as to think I'm going to walk into all of these racing venues exactly at post time, and according to schedule. Mistakes will be made, and road construction will be encountered.
However, what I can and will do is apply tried and true McChump travel principles to the Tour, and offer any law enforcement official I encounter a doughnut.
Where additional pressure comes in is the betting. Each day of the tour in Canada, I'll have to decide what quantity of Canadian money equals $5 American so that if I accidentally win I'll actually have the proper dollars to donate to the United Pegasus Foundation when all is said and done.
Beyond the obvious implications of currency conversion, I must say I've never been in a position of having to grind out some winners for meal money. This is different. Picking for charity has its own special pressures. It's only one horse, in one race. So, please understand that I'm not selling out by going the conservative route on occasion and betting horses I think have an excellent chance to win rather than my usual gameplan of counting on some longshot exacta during the day to bail me out for the other eight losers.
Oh yes, there is one other aspect of pressure. With this crazy McChumpalooza tour schedule, I sure hope I can get my mom to do my laundry the two times I'll be in Montana.
-- Thursday, July 20
I may have mentioned this before, but every day you are learning something on the McChump Tour. Today's lesson is that racing is far from the worst run industry in the world: it cannot hold a candle to the airlines, and in particular to the worst of the worst, Northwest Airlines. "Oh gosh, 'traffic delays'". "Oh gosh, you're not going to make your connection in Minneapolis". "Oh gosh, the morning flight is full." "Oh gosh, no we won't put you on another airline." "Oh gosh, too bad you're going to be an entire day late". "Oh gosh, yes we know you paid almost $500 for that ticket, but you didn't really expect that meant any particular time did you? We'll just fit you in at our leisure".
On the way out to pay a parking fee for the enjoyable time I'd spent at O'Hare that day, I looked at the other airlines' monitors. Odd. Hardly any delays. Northwest Airlines: Just Say No.
And to tell you the truth, at this point I cannot honestly remember the last time a flight I was on or meeting either took off or landed on time. Airlines: The Worst.
-- Friday, July 21
Presumably racing at the Marias County Fair went on without me. Stupid Northwest Airlines.
-- Saturday, July 22
An extra added bonus courtesy of Northworst, over 500 miles to drive in one morning from Great Falls to Edmonton, instead of the more leisurely trip from Lethbridge that had been planned. And I almost woulda made it close to the 1:00pm post time if it wasn't for a getting-lost incident in Calgary, and if I had known that the fastest way to get to Northlands from the south was to get off the Calgary Trail as soon as possible and get over to 66th Ave. which turns into 75th Ave. which turns into the Wayne Gretzky Parkway. And for the fact I had to park about 1/2 mile away from the race track because it was Klondike Days at Northlands Park. $4.00, Canadian, in a high school lot.
Entry fee (because of the fair): $5.00, Canadian. Track program, another $2.00.
Not much time to scout the main floor, but what I did see was a real nice bright concourse with a nice tile floor, lots of tables, strategically placed TV's, and a varied selection of concession stands. But I had to get upstairs.
Internet correspondent Curtis S. had graciously offered to share his table with me on this afternoon, and I quickly found him there in the Colours Restaurant area, which occupies the front of the enclosed 2nd floor of the stands, overlooking the 5/8th's mile dirt oval out front. Very nice accommodations, very handy to betting windows, and TV's at every table. For some reason unknown to me, these TV's had TRN on them, apparently the Canadian version, so we were able watch all sorts of races throughout the day, although I don't know if we could have bet them all.
Today's lesson is that in Alberta, a pitcher of beer is known as a "jug". And I must say, good cold Molson Canadian beer coming from a jug after a 500 mile drive tastes mighty fine. However, I cannot report how much this cost, as Curtis graciously picked up the tab. (If it should ever occur that all the good folks who've treated me over the years come to Chicago all at once, I'll have to pawn the ChumpMobile).
Also on this floor - somewhere - is the casino operation at Northlands, or at least one of them, as there were at least two other buildings on the grounds that said "casino". And just to the rear of the Colours Restaurant, a very nice, clean, comfortable-looking, albeit semi-dark, simulcasting bar area, with the big screens and so on. My comment to Curtis was that the whole operation was surprisingly new and modern looking, and he said the entire place had been gutted and remodeled some five years ago. They did a really nice job.
There was, however, racing to attend to, and as I'd arrived shortly before the 5th, I needed to get busy. Curtis and I both agreed on the #1 horse, Bearspaw Gold, and both were rewarded with a nice $9.90 winner. This game is so easy. Naturally I asked Curtis what would be his UPF best bet of the day horse after that race, and he said that Bearspaw Gold would have been it, but since it was too late, he'd go for Crimson Hue in the 7th. And then I discovered it really isn't that easy, losing back some of my fabulous 5th race winnings in the 6th.
Meanwhile, I got a chance to peruse the entire card, and on this Saturday, we had nine races (dirt only - no turf track at NP), with from 7 to 10 horses each, with mdn4000 horses running for $4800, $4250 conditioned claimers after a $5000 purse, $25k claimers chasing $11200, on up to the feature of the day, the Northland Oaks for 3yo fillies, running for a purse of $30000 added to all the entry fees. In short, pretty good purses indeed.
Tragically, Crimson Hue ran 4th in the 7th race (the Oaks), and I passed on that one as I was inhaling a very tasty chicken quesadilla, brought to the table by a very attentive and friendly young waiter. Of course that might be because Curtis is a regular, but I'll give Northlands credit for having good help anyhow. About this time a friend of Curtis' dropped by, and upon being told I was going to Grande Prairie the next day, rolled his eyes. Some people just don't understand.
The 8th was where I chose to make my stand for UPF. Curtis had been telling me all day that early speed was the thing to watch for at NP, and I had observed that he probably was right. Originally a 7 horse field reduced to 6 by a scratch, it seemed likely to me to be dominated early by the #1 horse, Golden Sparkle, essentially a sprinter in the mile race, but who had weakened in the stretch at the same distance last out. I thought he'd last this time. I also did not like the favorite who I figured as a hanger. The crowd did not agree with me, and sent my selection off as the longest priced horse in the field at 14-1. I was almost right, though. He almost won, leading all the way, and just getting collared in the stretch to finish 2nd. Unfortunately by the favorite. No money for UPF, but as it turned out a nice $10.00 place price and $33.60 quinella for me personally.
After that I lost some back in the 9th, and the oddest thing, the horse that beat me, Six Pack To Go (yes, I know), well, I left him out of my carefully constructed quinella box because the track program, produced by McKinnie Systems, said the horse was 3-0-0-0 lifetime at the distance. "Sure", I commented to Curtis, "today is the day that horse has to decide to win at a mile." "What do you mean? He likes the distance. Look here" at the DRF. Something like 21-7-x-x at the distance. Hey? What is the deal with that, anyhow, McKinnie Systems? 3-0-0-0 in what timeframe?
So I pondered this for a moment, but not too long as I had to run out to do an errand before something else that evening. Total for the day, even taking into account the $20 bet on UPF horses (a long story on this $10/horse, to be discussed in the next installment), a groovy profit of $8.45 Canadian. Curtis felt I could almost buy myself an American beer with that.
Thanks much to Curtis for a great day, great company, treats, a contribution to United Pegasus, and an all around good time at a nice track.
And the boys down at Mr. Lube on Calgary Trail and about 34th who stayed open just a bit late to change the oil in my National rental whose "change oil" light had come on barely 100 miles into a proposed 2000 mile trip, hey, they were great too. They got me in and out of there in no time so I could hustle back up to Northlands in plenty of time for
That's right, Klondike Days in Edmonton means the Klondike Chuckwagon Derby, and there was nine big races on the night's card, which cost me another $8 to get into.
I'd been dying to see chuckwagon racing ever since I happened to read an article about a chuckwagon driver who'd got killed, and one of the people quoted in the article had gone on and on about the "chuckwagon community" this, and the "chuckwagon community" that, and I guess I found it just a bit frightening to contemplate the actual existence of such a thing as a chuckwagon community, so I wanted to see just what this chuckwagon community was, firsthand.
But of course the chuckwagon racing couldn't start right off, there had to be a bunch of hoopla beforehand, like some buggy driving exhibitions through some PVC pipe "hazards" that were set up to simulate a bridge, and a stockyard, and something else I don't remember maybe a pit of rattlesnakes, so I took the opportunity to do some ground floor exploring that I hadn't done earlier in the day.
This really is a nice track. The asphalt apron out front is a bit plain, with some aluminum benches and a few tables, and a smallish "wide spot" type Winner's Circle, but the ground floor is immaculate, with the aforementioned tiled floor, a quite attractive color scheme, comfortable looking designer type (compared to most racetrack furniture) chairs, lots of tables and the little tables wrapped around posts, and nice wood trimming. Also, up on a raised dais sort of thing at the back is a long line of concessions stands, where such things as Chinese stir-fry (around $6.00 for the various flavors), carvery sandwiches, pizza, and your usual sausage and burger type items could be found. The beer selection was a bit on the lacking side at the downstairs bar however, but not bad. And the big glass of Molson Canadian rang in at something like $3.25.
Out front I took in a few more notes on the track itself, with a nicely manicured grass infield, a full function toteboard, with a small lake behind that with a fountain or two in it, some very nice landscaping and bushes down in the clubhouse turn, and an extra "stakes Winner's Circle" also down by that end. The grandstand itself is a medium sized affair covered in blue sheet metal, with the ground floor, enclosed 2nd, and then some outdoor seats up top under a big cover. Nice small dirt walking ring down on the left end of the apron, in front of the door to an indoor paddock (which I never saw). Very pretty overall, except for a big wide dirt spot in front of the stands poking into the infield that had some bleachers wrapped around like this was a rodeo ring or something, but no, this was the starting point for
You see, they don't just line them up and say "go", no, it's much more elaborate than that.
First the chuckwagon drivers drive up and down the track a few times to warm up the teams of 4 thoroughbreds pulling a flimsy-looking little chuckwagon (with the sponsor's logo all over the "cover") that wouldn't have held enough food to keep midget cow-punchers on the trail for more than 2 days. Then the drivers take a spin through the starting semi-circle which is equipped with lines of rodeo type soft barrels, and all the while the announcer is calling out the sponsor's name and doing a little ad, as well as announcing the driver so-and-so, 3rd generation chuckwagon driver from the Peace country, or maybe Red Deer, and he's been 2 time world champion chuckwagon driver and was the winner, or maybe 2nd, in the chuckwagon races down to the Calgary Stampede earlier this summer.
Then the drivers approach the starting area and pull their teams to a stop between the barrels, pointing diagonally out onto the track, aimed the wrong way. An outrider on foot, with his own horse in one hand, takes the lead horse of each team in the other to steady them. Another outrider on foot, with his horse in one hand, grabs onto a small red "stove" that looks more like a painted pony keg at the rear of each chuckwagon. For a moment all is still, until suddenly the sherriff rides by and blows a beastly air horn.
Then all hell breaks loose.
The outrider at the rear flings the red stove into the rear of the chuckwagon, and then starts trying to mount his own horse. The outrider at the front releases the snorting team and tries to get out of the way as quickly as possible, all the while trying to mount his own horse. And meanwhile the chuckwagon driver is whipping his team to speed while negotiating a tight figure 8 type of turn back through the barrels and the other chuckwagons and the outriders until he's out of that small starting area and headed down the track the right way. Then all four chuckwagons and all eight outriders pound around the tight turns and short straights of the track in a cloud of dust in a wild procession that looks like a chase scene from a John Wayne movie, with the drivers pounding away for all they're worth on the horses with the reins.
The general idea is to win the chuckwagon race without incurring any penalties, and the rail seems to be the real good spot to be so you want to do that figure 8 thing real fast and get out first. Although I did see one real nice move on the outside on the 2nd turn that won one race from behind, and then in another there was a photo finish when one driver slipped through a hole at the top of the stretch and caught the leader. But overall, the rail was the place to be.
Each driver gets a time, and penalties are assessed for such things as running over barrels, or your outrider losing touch, or your outrider not finishing, or probably a million other things. Then there's like 4 or 5 nights of these things, and the lowest overall combined times win, so you don't really have to win your individual heats. $85,000 in prize money on the line overall. No betting. As I recall, they were running the 5/8th's mile, including all that commotion at the beginning, in around 1:20. Drivers from the Peace country seemed to dominate. It's like the Louisiana of chuckwagon racing driver production.
So, there it was: The Chuckwagon Community. I was duly impressed.
After that I wandered over into the big carnival going on down the way, and they had all the really cool rides, such as for instance the Zipper, and Gravitron, and this one thing that looked like a giant slingshot for people, and there was an excellent looking haunted house affair that had a picture of a giant tongue coming out of a hole and grabbing onto a fair maiden, in the process exposing her underpants. I did not see Tilt-A-Whirl on the grounds, but I assume it was there, as it is at all the really good carnivals. But it was real crowded there, so I just had a $2 corndog (corn: too much; dog: too small and kind of dry; stick: excellent) and left.
Later I got heartburn from the corndog, and on the news the next morning I heard there was a big fight later on at the carnival that required the attention of a host of law enforcement officials. But I was sound asleep by then and missed the whole affair.
-- Sunday, July 23 --
This morning I feel slightly gypped. First off, this section of road northwest of Edmonton is called the Moose Parkway, or some such, but I haven't seen even one moose so far, except for the big yellow ones on the signs announcing that this is the Moose Parkway. Secondly, now that I'm beginning to pick up radio signals from Grande Prairie, I'm beginning to think that I was right in the first place about post time at Evergreen Park being 6:30, and not 1:00 like the Equibase chart says was post time last Sunday. After all, if there's going to be the big closing ceremonies for the Alberta Summer Games at 2:00pm at Evergreen, there's not hardly going to be any racing then, now is there? I probably didn't have to get up quite so early.
A friendly man at a Grand Prairie gas station confirms it. 6:30.
Well shoot, now what to do with an entire afternoon in a small and rather featureless town in northern Alberta? Of course, there was this one sign back there a bit ...
I've got it! I'll drive on over to Dawson Creek, BC, and see if I can find Dawson!
Dawson himself was not to be found, but a very tasty lunch at the Alaska Cafe next to the Alaska Hotel was, and so was the beginning of the Alaska Highway. Looks like a highway, all right. (Note to mileage pledgers: this side trip was subtracted out of the total on the odometer.)
Lesson for the day: In northern Alberta and nearby BC, they put gravy on their French fries. Not bad.
Soon enough, though, post time came rolling around and the rental ChumpMobile rolled back into Grande Prairie. A note to the wise: If you are travelling to Grande Prairie from Edmonton way, and wish to reach Evergreen Park, do not follow the signs saying Evergreen Park This Way. For some sadistic reason, these little signs lead you in a big loop all the way around town. Instead, you want to turn south on 99th street (or Ave., whatever) just when you get into town, which turns into 98th, and you just follow that a ways down to the southeast edge of town and then suddenly, poof, there it is, Evergreen Park.
On this particular evening, two huge loaded logging truck trailers graced the parking lot. Why, I do not know, unless the Alberta Summer Games had included some of those big pole throwing events.
Parking in the gravel lot: free. Admission: free. Program: $3.50.
This is one of your smaller type grandstands, brown in color on the outside, and named not Evergreen Park but the somebody-or-other stadium. Inside, on the well-lighted ground floor, there's about seven teller windows at the rear on one side, and a small table area with a beer stand for those who choose to sit to consume their concessions. Concessions stand/table on one side of the front, and a small curtained off "casino" area completing the final quarter of the floor. This casino had five players when I peeked in.
As it was family night at Evergreen, there was also a table set up for the kiddies. Face painting seemed very popular among the young set, but there were also some pages torn out of coloring books to color, and some paper plates with two holes cut in them so the kids could make their own masks. With all this and more available, it seemed odd to me that most of the kids there seemed to spend the night running up and down the apron. Oh well.
Out front, the stands themselves are constructed of sturdy concrete, so no banging up and down those, with a surprisingly deep number of rows of aluminum bench seats, open to the elements but with a nice big roof overhanging. There were also some bleachers against the front of the stands, on the asphalt apron, and big sets of bleachers at either end of the stands, as well, to accommodate the really big crowds like for instance earlier that day at the closing ceremonies. (These had been sold out. That was probably a durn good-sized crowd, as we had about 400 on this nice night, and the place was nowhere near full.)
Down on the right end of the apron is the paddock and walking ring, small open stalls kind of saddling area, and this walking ring, well, it kind of looked like it had been gouged out of the forest floor a week or so ago. Which reminds me - this place is smack dab in the middle of a pine forest. Everywhere you look a forest. I couldn't even tell where the barn area was.
Your basic unimproved infield, this night sporting a couple of semi-truck trailers apparently left over from the games, and sadly these blocked the view of the backstretch from the apron. No infield toteboard. One had to go inside to look at the few TV's hanging around. The track is a 5/8th's oval, with deep dark dirt, and a good number of rocks. Inside that, there's the other track, a half mile oval, scraped bare. I suspected what that meant.
Yup. First race: harness horses. My work would be cut out for me on this night, for sure. In fact, all my skills would be tested, as we had two races for harness horses, two races for quarterhorses, two races for thoroughbreds, one race for appaloosas, and one race for paints and appaloosas. Only the mule breed was not represented on this night.
I scored up a nice cold Kokanee beer ($3.00) from the pretty girl running the apron beer wagon, and set to work cipherin' on that first harness race.
This race, a 1 mile pace (4 turns) for maiden standardbreds and a purse of $1320, features 5 horses with some rather dubious records of achievement. Mostly, they've been stinking out the joint at higher quality tracks, like Northlands. There is, for instance, Split The Loot, with 9 races showing, and total earnings of $287. There is also Debt Collecter, the biggest money earner of the bunch with $4014 lifetime, in at least 17 races. However, he ran pretty good last time, has a .335 trainer, is getting a much better post than his last three races, so I'll ignore that DNF two races back. That's my horse. He's due.
Two steps after the gates swung forward, Debt Collecter broke stride and settled into an easy canter. He was still in an easy canter the first time past the finish line, trailing the rest of the field by about 50 lengths. As the winner passed the finish line, Debt Collecter was at the 3/4 mile point, and finally got into stride. He crossed the finish line pacing like there was no tomorrow, as the other horses were pulling up on the backside. The crowd broke into a cheer.
There is, at Evergreen Park, something called "The Slow Horse Sweepstakes", wherein you can write your name and phone number on the back of a losing ticket and toss it into a lottery barrel on the apron, and then presumably at some future date, someone will pick a ticket out of the barrel and someone will win something. I dutifully wrote my name and number on the back of Debt Collecter's ticket and tossed it in, for he is the slowest horse I have ever seen. As of this writing, no one from Evergreen has called to tell me I've won anything.
Race #2 was also something of a tester, a 250yd contest for maiden appaloosas and paints, purse $1300, and four of the six contestants had never run before, or so the program said. (This Equibase program said a horse in the previous race was 0 fer 4 for 2000, yet the horse clearly had 6 races showing. Go figger. Maybe in harness racing "qualifiers" don't count.) This Equibase program also showed no workouts of any sort for any of these horses. I listened in vain for workout announcements. The track program boldly picked three of the first timers as its top three selections. Not me - I bet the two that had run before, figuring that the 5 at least had some decent SPI's, and the 6, well, you could excuse that last 10 length loss because it was the horse's first start, out of the one hole, no less. As it turned out, this was real bad thinking on my part. One of the firsters won, the 6 finished 2nd, and the 5, well maybe he got up for 4th. Drats, only two races, and already $8 in the hole.
I'd been thinking that, in the matter of a UPF "best bet" horse, I might be having some difficulty tonight, and had best strike as soon as I felt even reasonably confident about something. The 3rd was a big 8 horse field of N2L allowance appaloosas, running 440yds for $1300, and even if I didn't understand why 6yo Dashing Gold who showed a lifetime record of 0-0-0-0 would be in this race, I decided to fortify myself with another Kokanee and hunker down in this race and make some money for UPF. Thankfully the announcer cleared up the Dashing Gold mystery with the announcement that the horse had won a race in 1998, though created another mystery in why there were no pp's, and that record said 0-0-0-0. But by now I'd about given up on the program being accurate, so who cares.
My choice boiled down to the #7, Ok Easy Pay(AP), who'd just run two credible races, breaking his maiden in the last, and in both of these races at shorter distances, garnered comments like "driving finish" and "finished strong". Now there was an appaloosa looking for 440yds. And it didn't hurt that he was an absolutely beautiful specimen of the appaloosa breed, big and strapping, with a lovely blanket of white spots across his haunches. $5 on his nose for UPF, and $3WP for McChump. (Only $5 today, as I figured that if I go $10/$5 in my Canadian jaunts, that'll about work out to $5 American per horse. Plus I didn't want to crush the odds, as there was only $349/$378/$194 in the WPS pools, to go along with a $279 exacta pool and a $376 quinella pool.)
Ok Easy Pay(AP) got the early lead, was strongly challenged late in the stretch by the #5 Ok Wild N Easy(AP), came back gamely, and at the wire it was ... either 7-5 or 5-7, I couldn't tell. After a long long wait the 7 started circling the small "wide spot" Winner's Circle and the results of the photo were announced, and, YES! Ok Easy Pay(AP) had won! A very groovy $6.50/$3.60 WP price, too. A cool $16.25 in the bank for UPF.
The 4th race, the Northern Mack Quarter Horse Derby, for $4655, was probably where I should have taken my UPF stand if I'd been looking ahead, as OK-bred Daddy's Belly Roll was easy to pick as the winner, but that whopping $4 win price was for me only. And then I gave that money back in the 5th, another harness race.
About this time I was feeling a bit peckish, so decided to see what might be for sale at the concessions stands inside. And there was lots. Pizza $3, steak sand $5, chicken breast sand $4.50, hot dog $3, hamburger $3, pierogies 6 for $3.50, something called the "tri-actor" breakfast (for slots players I guess) $5, and my personal choice, "Alberta beef on a bun", which consisted of some thin cut beef like Italian beef on a hamburger bun and slathered in, you guessed it, gravy, $3.50. I also saw some girls with fries and gravy, but didn't catch the price on those.
After that I won on a 5-1/2f tbred race, lost on the $36360 MBNA Challenge Championship Finals for quarter horses and I bet way too much on this race as I was feeling cocky about my quarterhorse skills, plus one of my favorites jocks Roger Buening got his horse in all sorts of trouble (but the jock that beat me in this one, Shawna Barber, was a real good looker, so that eased the pain), and then lost again in the 8th. Total for the evening: negatory $12.50.
Overall, a fun evening at nice small town track, absolutely beautiful weather, friendly people, a nice beer find in Kokanee, and finally off the schneid for UPF. And as I walk out I find a strong parallel between travelling in Canada and England: After big day of money spending, your pockets are so full of change that your pants are falling down around your knees.
And incidentally, the Equibase charts for Grande Prairie say this program started at 1:00pm, too. 1:00pm in Turkey, maybe. And the conditions posted in those charts? Well, those seem to be all goofed up, too. Race 2 was not for quarter horse maidens, for instance, and race 3 was for appaloosas only, not mixed, and for instance race 6 was actually a thoroughbred race at 5-1/2f not a QH race at 550 yds. I was really disappointed in Equibase this trip.
-- Monday, July 24
This morning I feel slightly gypped. The road signs out here in the wilderness south of Grande Prairie promise caribou, but none are forthcoming. The airwaves are filled with assertions that this was the greatest Alberta Summer Games ever, and the bad news that one of the local favorites racked up a bunch of penalties in the last night's chuckwagon heat at Edmonton, and now is in deep trouble.
This afternoon I am in awe at the rock and ice cathedrals lining the Ice Field Parkway through Banff national Park. And today's lesson is that the French word for creek is ruisseau.
This evening I actually had to put on my jacket as it is quite cool at the modest Crossing resort smack dab in the middle of Banff. The sun takes a long time to leave the tops of the huge mountains surrounding Saskatchewan River Crossing. The young resort employees make up most of the crowd at the resort pub this evening, laughing and playing pool and refilling glasses from their jugs. The sing-songy Canadian inflection and accent of the conversation is soothing music, and the Glenlivet is very smooth.
And what's more, there's only 9 hours to drive back to Montana tomorrow.
-- Saturday, July 29, early am, O'Hare terminal C
This morning it is United Airlines' turn to shine. The monitor says the flight to Albany will be at least 1/2 hour late, and
"Uhhhh ... we don't have a seat for you yet". No eye contact.
"Uhhhh ... we're oversold. Go have a seat over there like a good little sheep, and we'll call you up later. Trust us." Still no eye contact.
Over at the seat over there, sitting with all the other angry sheep, it is learned that for some reason United has decided to "downgrade" the equipment coming in from California that is to be our outbound equipment to Albany, so that now a plane that was supposed to carry 118 passengers only has room for 96. Much sarcasm and scathing commentary ensues among the sheep, at United's expense. Everyone in the gate area has a United horror story or seven.
Boarding time arrives, late, and the passengers with seats are boarded. The rest of us sit there with our mouths held wrong. After all the passengers with confirmed seats are boarded, the gate crew decides to call for volunteers to take a later flight. As if it wasn't obvious an hour ago they were going to need volunteers. That process drags on for 20 minutes or so.
Luckily for me, this group is in a volunteering mood, for a $400 voucher, so I get a seat. Many others are not nearly so lucky. We're finally on our way a mere hour and 15 minutes late. Gosh! That's almost on time by United standards!
-- Saturday, July 29, sometime after 1:00pm, north of Boston
One wonders who issued these people driver's licenses. The shoulders of I-93 are littered with fender benders and police units investigating same. Traffic is slowed to a bumper-to-bumper crawl so that everyone still occupying a non-crashed auto can thoroughly rubberneck the accidents and possibly enter into one of their own while they're busy not paying attention to the road.
-- Saturday, July 29, 2:30pm or so, Salem, NH
Here's a surprise. United was somewhat over an hour late, and that's exactly how late I am to Rockingham Park. And I've missed three races. Stoopid airlines.
Parking at this late hour is free, but in the lot off the clubhouse turn, and this lot has seen much better days. The asphalt is full of large potholes, gravel patches, and a few straggly weeds. To be fair, the main lot up at the top of the hill is in much better condition.
Admission on the day is $2.50, and program another $1.50. As the 4th is fixing to go off in mere moments, InstaCapping(tm) reveals the 5 horse, R.C. Angel, as the horse to back to WP, and R.C. Angel finishes 2nd, returning a $5.60 place price, setting a positive tone for the day. A buck sixty ahead.
As it has been a very long drive from Albany, the prospect of food is far more appealing than the prospect of beer at this point, and what do you know, there's something that says "International Food Fair" right there in the middle of the grandstand floor. Yummy! What delights might we find in there?
"International Food Fair" turns out to be a masterpiece of false advertising, as the most exotic foreign item on sale is pizza. Oh sure, there's "American Chop Suey", but the rest of the country refers to this fine dish simply as chili mac. On the premise that this is, after all, New England, I hopefully decided to go with clam chowder ($3.00). The verdict on this was "generic". But it did have more bits of clam in it than what we usually get in The Big Co.'s corporate cafeteria.
Later it was discovered that there's also a little BBQ stand down at the left end by the paddock that offers hot dogs for $2, burgers for $5, and kielbasa for some price I didn't write down, and this food looked a bit more appetizing than what was available in the Food Fair. But overall, I'd give the food selection at Rockingham a big thumbs down.
How quickly these races roll around! The 5th was upon me, and once again InstaCappin(tm) revealed the 4, Ante A Gold Penny, as the class-dropping horse of the moment. Ante A Gold Penny won paying $10.60/$5.40. I am the king. And this time I'd ventured $3WP.
Finally there was some time to do a little exploring, though not without a beer in hand. Would I find some taps pouring tasty New England Sam Adams, or other fine local product? Nope. Crud and Crud byproducts only. $4.00 for the big size, and as I dropped a tip for the bartender he wished me "chiz". Had to think about that one for a moment. Thumbs down on the beer selection, too, chiz or no chiz.
Inside on the first floor is kind of low, and dark, with a tired and ancient orange and white color motif, and linoleum tiles of a pattern probably popular in the 50's. Big bank of mutuel windows smack dab in the middle of the floor, and up front looking out through the glass onto the apron, rows and rows of seats with little work surfaces, that reminded me of nothing so much as grade school desks. A few small areas towards the back are set aside as simulcasting theatres, and have some banks of TV's. The clubhouse end of the first floor, down past the International Food Fair, is much the same, only with a different color motif. There's also a nice looking dining room down there named the Belmont Room, with white tablecloths and the whole bit, but no patrons were there on this day. The club end also has some big glass sliding doors that open to make this end "open air", and these were open on this hot, muggy, still day.
The apron at the clubhouse end is terraced concrete, with a bunch of steel mesh picnic tables on the terraces, while the GS end apron is sloped asphalt, and the seating here is a bunch of very ancient fiberglass benches in sun-bleached, red and blue colors. Off the GS end there's a little terrace area where the BBQ stand is located, overlooking the paddock area, which is a very nice, attractive paddock with covered stalls and lots of landscaping and flowers so that it'll look real nice on TV. There's also a big lawn area down here past the paddock, and a building that looks like a private party building or some such, with a big patio under a tent, but I didn't visit that.
The building itself is a long, low affair, glass enclosed all the way, with what seems to just be two levels, the first already described, and a 2nd that I didn't visit, which I think is actually the Clubhouse (it cost extra to go up there phooey on that). The outside color motif here is dirty white, with a red, flat roof. Big tower sticking up from the middle of the building, presumably for the racecaller and cameras and so on.
The track out front is very nice, well-maintained and groomed. Mile dirt oval surrounding a 7/8th's mile turf course with a chute for longer races, a "large expanse of lawn" type of infield, and lots of very nice and attractive landscaping around the toteboard, including two little hedges that were formed into the initials RP. Pond down in the club turn.
But aside from the nice paddock and infield, the general impression I got from the whole affair was "tired". The crowd seemed a little tired, too, mostly older folks of both sexes, and barely any kids.
In the 6th race I backed the wrong horse, it coming 4th, but in the 7th I WPS backed the #8 horse, Just Wave, an unraced maiden running against horses that had proved they could lose under any and all circumstances, and was rewarded with a nice $21.60/$13.60 P/S payoff. Handicapping was interesting, to say the least, at this track, as I have never seen a card so full of horses totally devoid of any early speed. Guessing which plodder of a bunch of plodders might accidentally find itself on the lead was a constant guessing game.
Today's card consisted of ten races, ranging from $4,000 claimers running for $4600 through $12,500 claimers contesting $10,500, to the MSW for $11,000, to the feature of the day, The Lou Smith Memorial Handicap, a handicap for 3^ going 1-1/16 on the dirt for $25,000. Most of the races, though, were of the low-priced claiming variety. Jockeys and trainers I mostly didn't recognize, although Taylor Hole seems to be the hot jock at the moment.
Speaking of the feature, I was beginning to think it might be time for me to craft my UPF bet, so I sat down to look over the Lou Smith. Something was bothering, me though. Even though I was up substantially for the day, and pickin' those winners, I didn't seem to be having a whole lot of fun or even a good time. I sat on one of the club end picnic tables and contemplated this conundrum, and listened to the sound of John Dooley's voice calling an Arlington race somewhere inside the clubhouse end behind me.
Suddenly it came to me as Dooley's voice rang clear: This was the deadest and quietest crowd I have ever encountered at any racetrack anywhere. No matter that there was absolutely nothing else going on at the track that day but racing, no band, no entertainment, no nothing - these folks should have still been showing a few signs of life. But they weren't. There'd be a thrilling stretch duel, and hardly a cheer or yell. The jocks would come back after a losing ride on a favorite to nothing but stone silence. The winning players, if there were any, never cheered or carried on when a photo was announced. No nothing. All they did all day was mumble along in low tones, with occasionally some Boston accented word leaking out. Even the announcer sounded like he was tired of life.
I finally removed myself to the far end of the clubhouse apron where two of the 7 children on hand that day were running around and carrying on, just so I could pretend I was at live racing. Plus there was also a honking flock of Canadian geese on the clubhouse turn infield pond, and some bold and raucous seagulls on the apron down there.
My choice for the UPF bet was Prolanzier, a horse who actually showed an early turn of foot. Unfortunately, he had an outside post, got artfully ridden way wide into the 1st turn, and that was that. He never got the lead, and finished 4th. The winner of the big handicap feature race came back to the Winner's Circle to no cheers, had his picture taken, and then nothing. No special presentation, no interview, nada. The fairly big but unenthusiastic crowd had ventured a whopping $22277/$6808/$2500 in the WPS pools on this competitive 11 horse feature race.
I ventured one more unenthusiastic bet on the 9th, and lost it, and then lost all enthusiasm for staying for the 10th. The crowd was a real downer, it was hot, and I had a ways to drive yet that evening. Final profit for the day a whopping $38.80, but no winnings for UPF.
I don't know as I'd make a huge effort to go back to Rockingham Park.
-- Sunday, July 30, 12:20am or so, Brockville, Ontario
I'd always kind of wondered just how "guaranteed" a guaranteed motel reservation is, and tonight was my opportunity to find out, as the McChump Tour had gotten just a bit aggressive about how far to drive from Salem. Even though Vermont was real pretty, and so was Montreal at night, it didn't really make up for the fact that a drive I figured at maybe 5-1/2 hrs had been more like 7. And sure, you can blame bridge construction in Montreal for a bit of that, as well as the fact that English-speaking Canada seems way more interested in posting French-language traffic signs than French-speaking Quebec does about English ones, but this was just mostly a plain miscalculation pure and simple.
"Hi. Reservation for McChump?"
The two employees behind the Super 8's desk looked real surprised, and then a guilty look came over their faces. No eye contact, though.
"Uhhhhh ...", stammered the male employee. "That was a 6:00pm arrival ....", and he just sort of trailed off.
"No", countered I. "That was a guaranteed reservation."
"Well ... uhhhh ... you're in luck", said he, "I just found a room". This as he pulled out my guaranteed reservation form, already all filled in and the whole shot. Still no eye contact.
Yeah, real lucky.
So I got a room, not what I'd reserved, but a room nonetheless, though I pity the poor slob who had actually reserved that room and came in even later than me. Bunch of slugs, anyhow, selling off my room, and probably intending to get double billing on it by charging my credit card, too. Brockville Super 8: Just Say No.
The pattern was becoming clear by now. The airlines' boondoggles. The rental car that needed an oil change. Now the motel double-selling the room. Boobs, incompetents, and crooks run the Travel industry. No wonder horseplayers stay home and watch races on TV.
Today did not rank high in the annals of the McChump Tour.
-- Monday, July 31, morning time, Niagara Falls, ON
Now this is a town I can respect. It is unabashedly cheesy. Parts look as though it hasn't changed a bit since the Marilyn Monroe movie. And that fine architecture that's only a memory out on Route 66? They still got it here. Exquisite.
It's not such a good viewing day at the Falls, though. There's a bit of a southeast breeze blowing the spray right back into the faces of the crowd on the Canadian side, and many crowd members are sopping wet. Plus it's hard to see anything. But that does not deter the Japanese tourists, busily working on the other half of the world's film supply that wasn't consumed in Banff. Whirrrrrr! Click! And that was just a meaningless bronze plaque on the lawn commemorating some guy who built a power station three miles upriver in 1847. The real action is down at the rail. Whirrrrrr! Click! Clickclickclick!
-- Monday, July 31, noon or so, Ft. Erie parking lot (free)
I was here once before, two years ago, only never got around to writing about it. It's real obvious things have changed since the track got slots. For instance, there's some fancy new signs out front, and they read like this:
only the SLOTS part looks like something they might have stolen from a carnival midway somewhere, if only carnival midways had signs that said SLOTS! Well heck a picture of the track entrance does this thing far more justice.
The shiny green sheetmetal roof looks new, too, although I wouldn't swear to that, and I'm not sure I recall that big giant entryway, and the place has definitely gotten a coat of paint and some much needed repairs, and all over the outside structure there's rows and rows of little white Christmas lights so they can light up all the nice little racetrack spires and the roofline just like a ... well, like a casino. There's also something new in the (free) parking lot that wasn't there when I there last: A nice girl in a golfcart who asked if I needed a ride the 200 yards or so from the Rent-A-ChumpMobile to the front door. I didn't - I'm a horseplayer, dammit. But an older couple who looked like they were heading straight for the slot machines took her up on her offer.
They had me bamboozled. I walked right in the front door to what used to be the cavernous grandstand main floor and found myself surrounded by a thousand screaming slot machines. And I couldn't get out of there! Nowhere was it evident how to get to the horse racing part, and even the floor help at the casino couldn't tell me. In fact the floor help looked at me like I was plumb loco for asking such a thing. So I wandered and I wandered. And the patrons of the place, about half-full even at this early Monday hour, were a wonder to behold as they blankly carried their coin buckets around looking for that elusive machine that was ready to hit, or blankly sat pushing buttons, remaining blank whether the turn of the reels yielded nothing, or a small hit, or even the rare blinking light and thunk-thunk-thunk of the occasional big score. The cool part, though, was that they all had these little frequent player cards that they had to insert in a slot in the slot machine during play to get credit toward their fabulous prizes. Most players kept these cards attached to their bodies on a long, red, curly cord that looked sort of like a miniature phone cord, and they'd simply plug the card into the machine with the cord still attached, so there'd be these long red cords attaching player to machine, and it looked like nothing so much as an I.V. tube draining the players' blood directly into the slot machines. I thought that was pretty darn neat. Or hell, that might have been at the Woodbine casino where they did that. If indeed I did go in that. Who can tell these strips malls of the gambling world apart?
Then I saw a guy carrying a folded DRF under his arm getting onto a totally unmarked elevator, so I hurried up and followed him and escaped that place.
Where I'd escaped to was something called the Longshot Lounge on the 2nd floor overlooking the paddock out back of the place, and all it really was was kind of a long passageway between the real upstairs part of the clubhouse and what used to be the grandstand but was now the dreaded casino. So I found me some stairs and headed down to main floor clubhouse, where a program for the day was purchased ($1.50) and I could see the error of my ways - you're supposed to go in the little door there by the paddock for horseracing now, not the big fancy door out front. Silly me.
Big door: SLOTS. Little door: RACETRACK.
The wealth and opulence of the new casino end of the building had not yet made it to the projects of the horse racing end. This clubhouse facility was just exactly the same as when I was there two years ago. However, it does seem to have picked up a new coat of paint somewhere along the line.
After my narrow escape from the jangling hell next door, I figured I owed myself a beer. This was found at a small stand up at the front of the clubhouse, ringing in at a substantial $5.15 for a real giant LaBatt's Blue. I will swear on some relative's grave that this exact same real giant beer only cost $4.75 two years ago, pre-slots, but the lady vending it said no.
As first post was approaching, I decided to take my new beer and new program out front and do some handicapping. Nothing real new out front for the horse racing public, either. Same old benches on the apron; same old apron. What is readily apparent is that much of the grandstand end has been totally walled off with these large unattractive sheetmetal walls that reach from what used to be the main concourse along the front of the grandstand seating, straight up to the roof. More casino, I guess, or perhaps offices or something behind there. It leaves about the 20 front rows of seats along the whole length of the grandstand end, and that's it. And of course the seats are all dusty and the big old roof with all its metal supports is still rusting and the blue paint is still peeling from the big I-beams supporting the roof. But since I had personal experience in the matter, I knew all that couldn't be seen from inside the casino, no sir.
On the positive side, there's some things about Ft. Erie that should never be changed, and they haven't either, luckily. First is the infield. Say what you want about any other infield in all of racing but you can't convince me that there is any infield anywhere more beautiful than the infield at Ft. Erie. How they managed to keep it so nice all those years they were struggling and near death (and believe me - the last time I was here it felt like the place was on its deathbed, just waiting for the miracle of the slots I.V. to come along and revive the patient) is surely a tribute to a loving groundskeeper.
The basic setup is 3 lakes in a nicely mowed grass infield surrounded by the turf course, but it looks a lot more like a nice park, with shrubs, hedges, and small trees (that don't really block any views) spotted liberally all over the entire infield. In addition there's a huge planting of flowers in beds all down the stretch - pinks, yellows, whites, purples, oranges, and I'm sure 17 other colors I neglected to note. Right of the toteboard there's a big horseshoe-shaped affair that may or may not be a stakes winner's circle (I kind of doubt it), outlined in nice hedge and flowers. As I recall there was similar to the left, but not so fancy. Anyhow, this infield has a lot going on.
Another thing that doesn't need changing is the very pleasant walking ring out back of the clubhouse, a big expanse of grass and flowerbeds with a bunch of big, old trees shading it. Covered saddling stalls are located behind that, closest to the parking lot. There's also a very nice, shady park area in the back there, with some picnic tables and benches to plop on and pass the time of day.
Something else that hadn't changed a whole lot, although I'd kind of expected it to, was the purses. Nothing at all compared to the dramatic increases noted at Woodbine, and Ft. Erie has had their slots in place for quite awhile longer. Perhaps it is because Ft. Erie has competition from the very nearby Casino Niagara, or perhaps the gambling public of the greater Buffalo area is just cheaper than their counterparts in Toronto, or perhaps ... something. Anyhow these purses, for a "real slots" track, weren't all that spectacular. But they did seem some higher than before (of course I am too lazy to look that up). Purses ranged from $5600 for $4k maiden claimers up through $8300 for $5k claimers up to the really big purse of the day, $15600 for an optional $20k claimer. I think if I was a horse owner in Toronto I'd sure give my horse every shot in the world at Woodbine before heading to Ft. Erie.
Of course, they did have racing here today and not just sightseeing, and first post was approaching.
The first race was 1-1/16 for $4k claimers. On paper, the #5 horse, Red Thrust, looked the one to beat. Pretty much the only speed in the race, just won his last (although in a $5k claimer so the drop was a bit troubling, but it was one of those nw2-y+ deals so maybe this wasn't really a drop), was owned by Bruno Schickedanz, the Crown Prince of Ontario racing, and was trained by a trainer who was 113-34-33-14 for the meet. I didn't like the low odds on Red Thrust, though, so I went out by the paddock to see what my fine paddock inspection skills might net me in the way of a horse to beat Red Thrust.
The #2 horse, Parental Pleasure, I wrote down "fat" about him. The #3, Curtmanouevre, "very scrawny". Obviously those two were out. Red Thrust looked okay, and besides had a real cute girl jock up by the name of Cory Clark. Lotsa nice freckles. But the horse I settled on to beat the favorite was the #4, Ray Poosay, who looked the best of a fairly scruffy lot and besides had been running pretty well his last few at the Fort, and seemed just about due. Ray Poosay also had a cute girl jock, Monique Dionne. I ran inside to make my bet.
Bettin' here is pretty cool - you can do it in either Canadian or American dollars, and you get paid off in whatever you bet. But if you must, they have a currency exchange booth there that really really rips you off way worse than even the ones at the airport and they are just about the worst, but luckily I had Canadian bucks in my wallet so I didn't mess with that foolishness.
Soon came the word that my horse had been scratched by the track vet. Well, okay, occasionally I make some inspection errors. But since Ray Poosay was the only possible horse that could have beat Red Thrust, obviously Red Thrust was now a four star Mortal Lock, and a great candidate for the UPF bet! So I ran back in and put $5 on Red Thrust's nose.
Cory Clark didn't take Red Thrust right out like I expected, but she did attend the pace fairly closely. Right until Red Thrust began backing up badly, that is, and by the time the race was over she and Red Thrust were about 70 lengths off the pace. The exacta came in fat horse/scrawny horse. Occasionally more than one inspection error, maybe. Behind me a punter spoke highly of Red Thrust to his buddy: "I KNEW that horse was a pig!". Well thank you - and where were your keen insights two minutes ago? You, sirrah, are no friend of UPF!
After that I didn't do so well on the rest of the races for myself, either, managing to drop $36.50 on the day. And there weren't any other real good race stories.
A few more observations and we'll wrap this up:
- Ft. Erie seems to be a friendly place for female jocks. There were no fewer than six riding on today's card. In addition to the two mentioned above, add Regina Sealock, Patricia Trimble, Helen Vanek, and Francine Villeneuve. Five of them were in the top 10 jockey standings as of this date, with 1999 leading apprentice (now journeyman I guess) Cory Clark leading all jocks in wins by a large margin.
The food selection seems to have picked up a bit since last I was there. Besides your standard hot dog ($2.95) and hamburger ($3.25) (outside prices, inside a bit less), there was also a stand where you could get carved roast beef, Montreal Smoked Meat (whatever that is), a burrito, fajitas, or a chicken salad sandwich, all for around $5. There was also something called a peameal sandwich for $5 on sale, but for $5 and with a name like that, I didn't risk it.
- Simulcast facilities, both on the ground floor and on the clubhouse 2nd floor, seem to have been upgraded. But then again, I didn't really look at them all that close two years ago.
- Bigger and more lively crowd. Two years ago there was this tiny little crowd huddled in one area, seemingly seeking the security of the group against the vast emptiness of the rest of the place. On this day there was quite a respectable turnout spread out all over the facility or at least what is left of it, with lots of kids and women , and everyone talking and laughing and having a good time. Probably everyone's spouse was down at the other end with an I.V. tube into a slot machine, but if it gets more people out to the races, great. And two years ago was a weekend crowd - this is a work day. At least across the bridge it is; I don't know about Canada.
- More amenities. For instance, a gift shop now! (In the casino, natch.) And also a nice free monthly magazine named "Live Racing News" with lots of features on races, horses, and personalities, and a nice photo of Ms. Clark on the cover. There's also brochures of every sort lying around the place. The one for the track has a guy with a cup full of nickles in one hand, a mittfull of mutuel tickets in the other, Ft. Erie cap and t-shirt, and a look of sheer joy on his face. I'm thinkin' he must be a better paddock inspector than me, the lucky dog.
Overall, a pretty nice place to spend an afternoon if you can avoid that accidental entrapment in the casino. Ft. Erie gets on the list of places that one must visit at least once, and should definitely stop by every other time one happens to be in the area.
-- Later on that same day, Peace Bridge
U.S. Customs officer: "Ya got anything to declare?"
U.S. Customs officer: "Okay bye."
Now there is a U.S. Customs Officer with some work to dispose of, efficiently, and disposing of it, unlike that busybody with all day on his hands up on the Alberta/Montana border.
-- Just a bit later, Buffalo
Naturally, it is beginning to rain.
-- Tuesday, August 1, morning time, Batavia, NY
Damn! It is going to be a hot one today! Hot and ugly, as it has rained most of the night, and now the morning sun is sucking all that moisture right back into the air. I remember being in this part of the country, many years ago, back in the bad old days, and the view is just the same - you can see the air, it's so humid. Yuck! Us western boys just will never get used to that. But still, I must soldier on, for this is the McChump Tour. And besides, quitting right now and going home isn't really much of an option.
There's a sign by the road for somewhere called Batavia Downs. Making Tracks says this is a harness track. It also says no dates in 2000. Harness doesn't seem to be what you'd call thriving in this part of the country. Buffalo Raceway also doesn't seem to spend a whole lot of time actually open for business, as I'd checked that possibility before departing. Oh well - I don't know that I could have stood the excitement anyhow.
-- Tuesday, August 1, late morning, Lake Canandaigua, NY
So you're in the Finger Lakes region, you may as well take a gander at a Finger Lake, just to say you've seen one, right? And thar she blows, stretching out to the south between the hills into the morning sun. Looks every bit a lake - kinda blue, with a watery sheen to it. Okay I've seen one.
-- Tuesday, August 1, a bit later, Finger Lakes Racetrack
Set off a side road somewhat south of the NY State Thruway and a few miles north of the town of Lake Canandaigua, Finger Lakes is real easy to find, since there's many a sign pointing the way. Parking in the big north lot is free, free, free.
From the lot the view is of a smallish, low building, an attractive gray in color, surrounded by a good grove of trees. Admission, however, is not free, ringing in at a cool $2.00, and the program gets you for another $1.75.
Just inside the gates, at the back of the building, clubhouse side, is the paddock/walking ring area, and it's kind of pretty, with lots of flowers. Not so pretty is the grandstand side of the ground floor, a dark yawning empty expanse that immediately put me in mind of the dark yawning empty expanse of the grandstand side at DRC (RIP), with absolutely no life at all, and just a few mutuel machines for taking bets if you wanted to spend your day over there. Which it appeared to me no one intended to do. I can't say as I blame them - the amenities consisted of a few big round tables scattered about with a few lonely TV's hanging here and there, on a white concrete floor, all in the midst of the most hideous color scheme - light blue, pink, and yellow on the walls - seen in the history of tracks painted up with whatever pastel paint was on clearance sale down at the Crafty Beaver (or other local hardware store) that fateful day 25 years ago when someone decided the joint needed a new paint job.
Yeee-OWWWW! I escaped onto the apron, pronto.
Kind of your generic apron. Asphalt with a slope, litle lawn down to the left end, populated by some metal mesh benches, with some even older ones made of hardwood slats. And, as this apron faces directly south, it was roastin' out there in the sun. No place to spend the day at all, in my book, so I stood back and took a look to see what I might want to do with myself on the day.
This is a medium sized grandstand, with a big sheet metal roof on stanchions and plenty of open seating on the grandstand end. There's also some open seating on the club end, and some enclosed areas up top of that, presumably the turf club or whatever. Basically your standard layout. I decided to cruise on over to the clubhouse side of the joint and see what I could see there, and the best plan seemed to simply go down to the front of the apron and cross the horse path via the gate by the scales, so that's what I did.
This side of the apron is the same as the other, only on this end the little lawn has some picnic tables. Unused on this day. The track itself seems quite a bit nicer than the rest of the place, a mile dirt oval set around a big plain grass infield with a few trees scattered here and there, a medium function toteboard set up a bit high or so it seems to me, lots of nice landscaping around that, and a couple of big flowerbeds to either side, one with red flowers spelling out a big FL, and then the entire backdrop trees except for some barns visible down off the left end. Perfectly acceptable, and probably looks nice enough on TV, which it seems is important to everyone these days (except of course for one of my local tracks that doesn't even care how it looks on TV much less to the few live patrons who bother to show up).
The 1st floor of the clubhouse had a bit more life, as it actually had some concessions, though not what you'd call much of a selection. Nothing but hot dogs ($2) and sausage. A giant Gennessee beer rang in for $3.65, once you could get the attention of the woman at the concession stand. No Genny Cream Ale to be found, and that kind of chapped me off, as Genny Cream Ale was one of the few good things I remembered from the bad old days when I had visited upstate NY in the past. This end's a bit friendlier than the GS end, with some actual seating areas and TV's, and the bank of mutuel windows right in the middle, and a small, very small, "Hall of Fame" hung on the wall leading back out to the paddock.
I was a bit disappointed, though. It was time for first post, and on the whole ground floor there were only maybe 150 people. Was this shaping up to be a dead day, or what? Sure it was Tuesday, and sure the heat and humidity were horrible, and sure the place wasn't air conditioned, but still, you'd think there'd be more people in the greater Rochester area than this who'd be out for the day.
Oh well! Time to attack that racing card!
Uh oh. This day was going to be a tester, for sure. Race 1: $4k claimers. Races 2 through 4: $4k claimers. Race 5: A powerful $7.5k claimer. Races 6 and 7: NY allowances (the really good kind, for purses of $9500 and $14700). Races 8 through 11: Open allowances all for less than $10k purses. Race 12: A $4k maiden claimer where I wrote down the comment "worst of the worst!". Yes indeed, all the best horses were here today, from tracks such as Ft. Erie and Mountaineer and Garden State and Philadelphia Park and other high class tracks not to mention Finger Lakes, and it was my job to pick the winners of these things. Another giant Gennessee beer seemed in order. Such races always appear far clearer with extra beer.
In the first I convinced myself that the four horse had as much chance as any other horse. This after much soul-seraching. As it turned out I'd convinced myself wrong. The four under jock Joe Badamo never really got into the race and finished 4th. $6 right down the drain. I went back into the clubhouse to hang around there for awhile in the relative coolness of the shade, and after a short time chanced to overhear a conversation between two patrons who possibly also bet the four - or come to think of it, looked like they might have been some sort of track or racing officals or connections - and who were quite upset at the ride Mr. Badamo had given the horse. Something about "pulling", and all sorts of bad things, and 60 days, and an "unsatisfactory ride". I got the distinct impression they were of the opinion that Mr. Badamo had cheated! Well I never! But at least there was finally something interesting going on. So during the next few races I listened around some more.
This crowd has a really bad attitude! Everyone, it seems, suspects the outcome of every race, and harbors the deepest suspicions about any and all results. I was even beginning to get into the spirit, wondering what some horse was doing with with these strings tied around his hocks. And meanwhile convinced myself that a WP bet would be a good idea on the horse who eventually ran 3rd in the 2nd race. Rats! Cheated out of another $6!
I hadn't really thought about going up to 2nd level, but overheard a young lady tell her dad she was going up to the "gift shop", so thought I'd take a stroll up there to see what this gift shop looked like.
Whaddya know! So that's where all the people are! The 2nd floor harbored a much bigger crowd than the 1st, maybe 200 in all. Probably because the 2nd floor sort of felt like some air conditioning was involved, at least on the clubhouse end, and the color scheme is actually tolerable.
There's some stairs here on the clubhouse end concourse up to what must be the turf club, visible from outside as the enclosed area with restaurant tables and table TV's. Down grandstand end way (through some doors, that end the air conditioning experience) is a big bright concourse set up as a simulcast area, with some nice carrel areas set up at the back, a small gift shop that's actually a gift table, and an additional concessions area that mightily expands the concessions offerings, as here you can also get a chicken sandwich. There's also another little bar area. Plus there was a very welcome bit of breeze through the area and out front on the aluminum grandstand seats. I decided to do as the Romans do and spend the rest of my day up there.
Third race brought about my big chance for UPF. Favorite #8 Princess and Me looked a sure winner. And he was, taking an early lead, and winning easily by about 3-1/2. I'm sure some people felt cheated by that outcome, and harbored suspicions about the results, but I was happy enough with the giant $3.50 win price.
By this time I'd found the perfect place to sit: Way down at the left end of the stands a few rows in front of a group of 4 old gentlemen who'd brought chairs out and were sitting in the aisle, and who kept up a constant stream of disparagement, sarcasm, innuendo, insult, and accusation toward the track, the trainers, the riders, the horses, each other, and everyone involved in the whole operation plus probably a few who were innocent bystanders, all afternoon. They were absolutely hilarious. Who needs skydivers and so on when you've got that kind of free show? They were crackin' me up all day.
It didn't help my betting much, though. Another $6 down the tubes in the 4th. Way more than I shoulda down the tubes in the 5th. More in the 6th although I actually did cash but not enough to cover the bet. Wonder of wonders a winner, 1/2 of a crummy tri in the 7th. Gave $8 back in the 8th - in a race I'd written down "no clue!" on, to boot. God only knows what happened in the 9th, as I made a much bigger bet than usual for me and was rewarded with a $7.20/$3.90 WP horse. A big rain started just about the 10th, and all of a sudden 2 minutes to post magically passed in like 30 seconds as they hurried to get the race under way. I got shut out. Good thing. Then it really started raining in the 11th, where I managed to lose only $2.50. In the 12th I shot my wad on those worst of the worst maiden claimers, and was rewarded with what I deserved - nothing. Total bad effort for the day: negatory $61.65. Ouch. Needless to say I do not have any pearls of handicapping wisdom to impart from this particular day.
The rain had sort of stopped by the end of the card, although it looked like it might start up at any old time, and indeed you couldn't hardly tell from the sky what was rain and what was humidity, so I took the earliest possible opportunity to escape and hit the highway headed east.
Final book on Finger Lakes: Well, worth visiting once, I guess. Or maybe a place to go if you are stuck in Rochester with relatives and your mother-in-law is driving you batty. Even if it is hot and humid outside. The 4 old guys were just absolutely outstanding, however. Finger Lakes needs to package that attraction up and sell it.
Naturally, since the rain had come from the west and disappeared toward the east, and I was headed east myself in the super-fast Rent-A-ChumpMobile, in no time I was right back in the thick of the downpour. Almost all ... the ... way ... to Amsterdam. Stupid rain. Stupid upstate New York.
-- Wednesday, August 2, morning, driving the streets of Saratoga Springs
Okaaayyyyy ... I've been reading people's opinions of Saratoga Springs for some years now, and it looks about like advertised. Kinda touristy. Kinda quaint. Kinda little. Some really cool old houses. And all those businesses they've been raving about ... Parting Glass, Wishing Well, McDonald's ... yeah, they're there. So I'll admit - it might be an interesting place to spend a few days or maybe a week. People might be right about it.
-- Wednesday, August 2, 10:15 or so, National Horse Racing Museum
I probably shouldn't say this as it'll get some folks all hot and bothered, but I actually liked the British racing museum in Newmarket better. Dunno why, exactly - it's like there was just more of everything. Like more of the British racing nobility had coughed up more of their trophies and so on to fill the museum. But this is certainly no slouch of a museum itself. If I hadn't seen that other first, I probably wouldn't have known to be critical. And there were two things I really, really liked and spent a lot of time looking at.
The first was a display about the (I believe) Kelso Fan Club. Love letters and fan letters directed to a horse way back then, books and comic books about him, handmade fan posters, and blankets lovingly stitched and sent. The kids that run today's horse fan clubs have a lot to learn. And the other item I stared at was simply a conformation photo of Man O' War. What a magnificent animal! And what bone that horse had! His front legs look like those of a Clydesdale in comparison to today's spindly-legged product. No doubt in my mind the answer to the great debate about the cause of the fragility of today's thoroughbred.
-- Wednesday, August 2, 11:30 or so, the porch at the Casa McNiff
Internet correspondent John M. had kindly invited me to stop by his house, just a few short blocks from the track, park there, and walk on over rather than hassling with trying to get closer or paying. That was mighty kind. And so was the offer of a nice cold Tecate beer, and filling me in on all the changes and scratches for the day. As if I had done any prior handicapping from the $2.00 off-track program I'd picked up at a gas station on the way earlier that morning.
"Should I take my umbrella, do you think?", asked I as departure time rolled around, looking up at a sky that had potential to melt down in mere seconds, at least to my untrained Midwestern eye. But so far it hasn't rained on me yet today, and that's a good sign, right? Even if there is so much moisture in the air that my clothes cling and feel like they weigh 50 pounds?
"Nah. It should be nice today", came the answer from John. That's the answer I wanted to hear! No more supid rain! And so my umbrella stayed in the car.
-- Wednesday, August 2, 12:30 or so, Saratoga Racecourse
Nice walk over, through the neighborhoods with the big old houses, past the famous Siro's (a big old rambling white place with a huge outdoor seating area) just west of the track, past a huge line of street vendors like you'd see outside Wrigley Field, selling all sorts of unauthorized Saratoga type of junk, to the west gate, a big dropoff/valet parking circle with a big flowerbed in the middle featuring a nice fountain and a whole slew of colorful lawn jockeys painted up in the silks of the owners who'd won races the year before, and there it was, Saratoga Racecourse, the subject of many a story and fable.
Admission on the day, clubhouse, was, well gosh, I forgot to write it down. But it wasn't a whole lot, or I would have remembered that.
John took me on a short walking tour of the place before we headed up to the seats, showing me where everything was out back in the huge, huge tree shaded picnic park behind the stands, as well as all the changes NYRA's been making recently, like the jockey silks room, and the tasteful new administration buildings out back that fit in quite naturally to the whole scheme IMHO. My personal feeling was NYRA had done a good job making the new fit in with the old. John also showed me the location of the Big Red Spring so I could come out and try it later, as I'd read earlier in the week on the Internet where someone named Clocker Bob had said if you go to Saratoga and don't try that water you may as well have gone to Delaware Park, so I didn't want to fall into that crowd, much less invoke the wrath of the infamous Clocker Bob.
My first impression of Saratoga from this little tour was this: There was no way I could write down enough notes about this beautiful place in one afternoon for a proper McChump writeup. First of all it's too big, and secondly there's way too much going on in the line of food stands and beer stands and nooks and crannies and staircases. I'd come out a little later and at least give it a try, for I am after all, a trained professional. But for now it was time for racing!
John's seats were located in a good spot on the stretch, pretty close to the clubhouse end and the hereditary boxes, pretty close to beer stands which were presently patronized, and had a real good view of the proceedings. The only thing I could fault was the roof stanchions that are down front and partially block the view, as well the the TV monitor on our particular stanchion, which seemed to be on the fritz. But those are minor quibbles. I hadn't been quite sure what to expect of a wooden grandstand structure, having seen a few of those in my day, but this one is definitely deluxe, with boards that actually fit together, and no warps and slivers, and everything. No air conditioning, naturally, being an open stand, and it was still a hot and humid day even all these blocks from John's house, so that was a bit uncomfortable. But all in all a deluxe, beautiful, comfy old grandstand.
As it was a not-so-busy Wednesday (an intentional plan, btw, thank you), there were plenty of empty seats around John's so I could sit up there awhile even without a seat pass. The ushers weren't checking too close.
The view out front is deluxe, too, with the two turf courses set up inside the dirt, huge old trees everywhere in the background, and a plush green well-landscaped infield that I failed to write down anything about or take a picture of, but it's a nice one, take my word.
All the regular grass races were taken off for the day, but the first race on the card, a steeplechase race was still on. John announced to his wife and me that he was going with the favorite, I think Perfect Match, who he expected to run away and hide. I personally thought the #4 horse, Homage, had a great chance based on his saddlecloth number, and went with that one. John's horse did exactly as expected, while mine labored around the course and over the jumps until finally just past the 1-1/2 mile point on the backstretch, he did not reappear after going over a jump. The ambulance and the horse ambulance went over to that general vicinity while the rest of the race finished out. What became of Homage and his jockey Carl Llewellen I do not know.
[ It should be noted here, for the edification of those concerned about the NYRA Boycott, that the McChump Industries board had conducted an emergency meeting prior to this trip, and after much soul-searching had reached the conclusion that a one day suspension of the boycott probably wouldn't hurt anything, as the principle of betting on live races going off in front of your face is a much higher principle than anything involving NYRA.
In the 2nd I also thought the #4 horse, Quick Sez Me, had a real good chance, while John favored another. John's horse won; mine did not finish in the top four. I was beginning to develop a healthy appreciation for John's handicapping abilities and beginning to harbor doubts about the venerable 4 methodology.
The 3rd brought about a 7f dirt allowance event, and I jumped off the 4 train and onto the 2 train, as the #2 horse, Hemline, showed his best runs at 7f. IMHO. Plus he showed that greatest of all physical traits - leading in the post parade as they stretched out. "Lead in the post parade; lead at the end", that's what I sometimes say. And for some reason even though he was the 5-2 m/l 3rd choice before the scratch of the favorite, the crowd was letting him go off at 7-1. A horse on sale. That's three separate handicapping factors in favor of this horse. John favored another, and questioned my integrity for jumping off the 4 wagon so quickly, but I stuck to my guns and at least regained a shred of dignity when Hemline won paying $16.20/$7.00 WP and got my head back above water.
Same old story in the 4th, though. John's horse won, and my WP horse finished 3rd.
It was time by then for me to do some further exploring of the place, however, so I thanked John for everything including the beers, bid his wife and him adieu, and headed on downstairs, with John's UPF best bet, Bourbon Belle in the featured Honorable Miss stakes, safely circled in the program.
First stop was downstairs, and out onto the apron, to get a good square look at the place from the front. VERY impressive. Much bigger than what I'd expected, at least lengthwise, and a huge nice apron with plenty of freebie bench seating. Good looking, too. What's more, down here on the apron, you can see the NYRA tractors real close up as they groom the track, and they are some real groovy tricycle type tractors, real big ones, as befit an important state like New York. The apron, however, did not help my handicapping any, as my 5th race horse did not even hit the board. Damn!
The time had come to wander out back, and that's where I'd been dying to explore ever since I saw all the little stands and festive candycane tenting when I first walked through the gate. This big park out back is a chump's delight, for sure. Or, it would be, had it not started to rain. However, all that candycane tenting serves a mighty fine purpose, as it provides cover to walk from here and there out back even when there is rain. I suspect that they have experienced rain at Saratoga before. The candycane tenting does tend to obscure some of the really nice architectural details of the track, like for instance the beautiful copper roofing, but I kind of appreciated being dry.
First stop was a beer stand, and there are more than plenty of these, serving up a wide variety of tasty selections, like Molson, Fosters, Labatt's, Guinness, Bass, and who knows what all. Very very big points in this department for Saratoga, although I must admit, again, I didn't write down a price. I think they were maybe a bit expensive.
Next stop out back was a trip to the fabled Saratoga paddock to see all the big trees and so on. Unfortunately, due to the intermittent rain, the horses mostly stayed close to the saddling stalls in the back, while a tasteful but sturdy white fence kept the crowd at bay, so it was a bit difficult to see much up close, which was kind of disappointing.
Right about then I wandered back up front, through the crowded little area under the clubhouse (crowded because everyone was inside), past the little semi-outdoor dining area there, onto the clubhouse apron, and watched in the 6th as a horse I'd bet only to win came in 2nd. Ah yes.
Back out exploring the park I came upon the Big Red Spring. The water spewed out into the bowl, staining it a dark rusty red. Very small paper cups were there, very small, about the size you put ketchup in at McDonald's. I watched as a gentleman took a wary sip from his cup. I watched his face crinkle. I watched him toss his 7/8th's full little cup at the trash. I watched him walk away. I turned to the Spring and contemplated it. No, Clocker Bob will not be calling ME a chicken! I filled my cup, put it to my mouth, and sipped gingerly.
Those of you who live or have lived in an older building, one without a water softener - you know how when you come home after being gone like maybe a week and you first turn on the water and all that brown rusty nasty looking water comes out and you just say "yeee-uuuck!"? Well now, imagine if you took some of that water and added a Fizzy to it, not a good-flavored Fizzy or anything, but maybe a roofing-nail flavored Fizzy. That's about the best I can describe the taste of the water from the Big Red Spring. 7/8th's of my cup hit the trash, too.
Following this pleasurable event, it was necessary to find something else to stimulate my tastebuds, and fast. What I found was a nice little food stand right back there close to the Big Red Spring that sold some very tasty, melt-in-your-mouth, pork barbecue sandwiches for like $5, and it was worth every bit of it.
Seventh race, if I'd been thinking about it, would have been the spot to make my UPF bet, as Debby d'Or was a standout, and far from her 6-1 m/l, was a heavy favorite. But I couldn't bet her at a price like that! So I took my lumps, choosing the horse that finished 3rd behind Debby.
More exploring out back. What a treasure trove of concessions this is! Something for everyone, and a wide wide variety. Somewhere along the line I also inhaled a tasty sausage thingy with all sorts of grilled peppers and onions, also $5. Excellent. Even one stand selling wine, champagne, and shrimp. Definitely high marks for variety, and all set in a beautiful, beautiful picnic park. Although most of the picknickers were scrambling to pack up and run for cover by this point, as the rain had returned, with a vengeance this time. The only type of concessions that were disappointing were the gifts in the NYRA Store booths. Way better t-shirts and stuff outside.
Eighth race, time to make a UPF bet. I went with the favorite in that, Flirtatious, who returned a cool $3.60 to win, plus a $17.20 exacta I'd made for myself.
By this time pretty much everyone was staying inside, down under the stands, and I can't say as this was real pleasant, as it was hot, humid, close, and crowded. The featured 9th came around, and John's choice, Bourbon Belle, was the easiest of winners at $7.20. Good day for UPF.
A lull in the rain. A chance to escape, dry, which I'd been cursing someone about who told me to leave my umbrella behind. So I did, skipping the 10th in favor of a dry walk back to my car, and also so I could get to the Albany airport on time.
All in all, I think we'll give Saratoga a huge two thumbs up, from every angle except weather, and put it on the list of places to come back and visit again some day. Some day with a lot more time. In fact, I'll go that a bit further. This is, IMHO, one of the world's great race tracks, and I did myself a disservice by avoiding it for so long, simply due to the outlander's natural (but well-founded) hatred of anything New York.
The book that was along for plane rides and motel nights on this trip was "Main Street", by Sinclair Lewis. There's a little introduction to it, right up front, which I found oddly appropriate, and it reads as follows:
|"Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jensen the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider.
Such is our comfortable tradition and sure faith. Would he not betray himself as an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths?"
Good night, Gracie.
-- Wednesday, August 2, 6:30 or so, Albany airport
The monitor says my United flight to Washington is delayed. Delayed how much? Oh, we don't know, maybe an hour or so. You might miss your flight out of Washington. I have my doubts: no United flight EVER takes off on time. Blank stare. Okay so fine, I'll go out front and hang out a little. And after the hanging out, wander back in to find it wasn't delayed at all and loading, and if I'd hung a few minutes longer I'd have missed it entirely. Nice.
-- Wednesday, August 2, real real late, some airport, Washington, D.C.
Now this, THIS is what you call a delayed flight. 3 hours. And it wasn't even mine. Mine was cancelled. This was someone else's delayed flight. The cleaning crew is closing the terminal down. We're the last gate with any people, and some of the people are very cranky people, probably because their tired kids are bawling, kicking, and otherwise carrying on. Hope they're in the "No screaming kids" section of the plane so I can sleep. What a joy this flying business is, especially when one has been away from home for the better part of a week. What a great flying summer so far.
-- Thursday, August 3, real real early, Chicago O'Hare
Mmmmmm ... nice crisp, cool, relatively dry air here. Especially at 2:30am. Not too much traffic at this hour, either. Glad to be home.
A writer from the Twin Cities "City Pages" for some unknown reason wanted to write a story about The McChump Tour when it stopped at the Claiming Crown. So these are those.
(This story has disappeared off the City Pages site so is hosted here now.)
-- Thursday afternoon, August 10, a drone cube at The Big Co.
De-dee-de! De-dee-de! De-dee-de!
"Good afternoon, The Big Company, Building F2-N, Floor II-12, Workspace 127-C. 'We collaboratively value the intellectual capital of the human resources comprising our proactive synergistic teams'. Can I help you?"
"Uhhhhh ... Hello? Mr. McChump? This is Madge? With United Airlines?"
Uh oh. "Ye-e-sss?"
"Mr. McChump -- am I pronouncing that right? -- we have you booked on a flight out of San Francisco next Monday morning at 7:00am, but that flight is overbooked by 50 people, and we're calling to see if you'd be willing to take a later flight in exchange for $300 in travel vouchers."
"Umm ... how do you overbook a flight by 50 people?"
"I don't know sir, but we did. Can you travel later? 10:30am?"
And as it turned out I could, and would, as I was taking the whole day off anyhow for I had learned my lesson about not keeping an entire day open to fly anywhere on United. Easiest $300 I ever made. But 50 people? Man that's a mystery.
-- Friday, August 11, afternoon, Arlington International Racecourse
Ah what the hey, it's a nice summer afternoon, so I think I'll run on out to the local track and see if I can do an emergency makeup track for the lost Marias County Fair (aka "The Great NorthWest Airlines Screw-over") at the beginning of this affair. What's more, there's supposed to be a bunch of ownership partners out there for the annual get-together, and maybe they'll have some keen insights for additional UPF bets.
Well ... my own UPF bet was a total bust, and I couldn't get a one of these chicken-heart partners to make a UPF selection (before a race, that is - several good ones after the fact), so it was pretty much a lost afternoon from the UPF standpoint. However, the weather was beautiful, the beer was cold, the company was good, and I hadn't been to a racetrack in over four days. Time well spent.
-- Saturday, August 12, late morning, San Francisco airport
Ladies and gentlemen, a miracle has occurred. A United flight has both departed and arrived on time. How or why is unknown.
-- Saturday, August 12, early afternoon, Bay Meadows Race Course
Correspondent J. Dave had provided excellent directions for getting from the airport to Bay Meadows, and since these were only ignored just a little bit, only a small gettin' lost incident was recorded. The McChump Party arrived at Bay Meadows with mucho time to spare before first post. Mucho time for exploring, eating, and possibly handicapping that day's card for the San Mateo County Fair meet.
Parking: $6 (fair price); admission (clubhouse): $6; program: $2.
You know, every time I visit a California track I can almost sympathize with those who complain about the high cost of even getting into a track. Almost.
Since there was hardly anyone on hand yet, and it looked like there was something going on in the infield (the part of the infield that isn't filled with horse barns, that is), the McChump Party, totally oblivious to prominent signage that said "Infield Reserved For Private Parties Only" strolled down through the tunnel and out to the infield. What was going on out there, as it turned out, was some sort of Volkswagen convention, The Loyal Order of the Friends of the Volkswagen or the Lower Peninsula Chapter of Hell's Volkswagens, or something like that, and what they were doing was painting up a bunch of Volkswagen beetles with water paints in all sorts of semi-creative and semi-interesting color schemes. The McChump Party lasted about two minutes in the midst of all that excitement and headed back, noticing the signs that had said "Private" on the way out. Oh well. The Secret of the Volkswagens is out now!
Action Item #2 on the day was food. There was plenty of this to be found on the lower floor of the grandstand, all sorts of tasty stuff from hot dogs to sandwiches, and I went with a big beef burrito, that was $4.75, and okay, but I would recommend in the future springing a bit extra for the "super" that has all sorts of additional fillings like for instance vegetable matter, and ask them to leave out the rice. IF you are in a burrito mood, that is. They also had a very good selection of beers for sale, MGD (yes! and hardly any crud to be seen), Fosters, Anchor Steam, some other Anchor brew, and several others. A big Anchor Steam rang in at $4.25.
No races had yet been run, nor bets laid, and $23 had been expended, for those of you scoring along at home.
A little exploring generated the impression that this is a pretty nice racetrack, one that will definitely be a loss when it is gone.
Grandstand side, the ground floor is an interesting maze of concessions stands, mutuel windows, a little gift shop toward the back by the indoor paddock, and some high-ceilinged, black-curtained, secret dark rooms in the back that serve as simulcast areas. These have some carrel seating. On this day a lot of the ground floor doors up front were open to the spacious asphalt apron, creating an impression of this being an open air area.
Above, there's a mezzanine area of open box seating, and above that a large open grandstand seating area under a roof supported by spidery yellow metal trusses and steel I-beam stanchions. There's also a large enclosed area of seating which isn't really clubhouse proper, just more like the ritzy part of the grandstand. I never did get off floor one of this plant, so can't really tell you anything about what's going on in the upper levels.
The indoor paddock separates grandstand from the real clubhouse, and leads out to an outdoor walking ring set in the apron area. The view beyond is the crowded and fairly unattractive infield, with big new office-looking buildings in the backdrop where the backstretch used to be before it got moved into the infield.
On the clubhouse end, where the McChump Party was to spend the day, was a nice bar/restaurant area (with more tasty beers) inside, a small apron with tables, a sort of private party area behind the apron (and behind a fence), and then a deck of outdoor seating. I'm sure there was much more, but I didn't do much further exploring, as it was time to meet up with Internet correspondents.
Today's group of Internet correspondents included J. Dave and Walt A. from the Bay Area, Soren B. and friend, up from Los Angeles for the weekend, Jan W. in from Texas, and in addition, J. Dave's family, and some local friends of his. As always with groups of Internet racing fans, these turned out to be great people with whom to spend a nice day at the track, compare notes with, and just share a beer or two. Thanks to all of them for coming out. And of course, thanks for the beers.
Once the group had met up, more or less, and claimed a prominent spot on the clubhouse apron it was finally time to settle down to making some money on the day.
What we had, here, to make the big bucks on, was a card of 12 live races here at Bay Meadows, all interlaced with a bunch of simulcasts from down south and out-of-state in the true California simulcast style, and whatever simulcast they was carryin' that you wanted to toss your cookies at. In short, if you were a bettin' guy or gal and intended to bet the whole enchilada this particular Saturday, your card, as spelled out in the program, consisted of 25 races spread out from hell to gone, east coast to west. And in addition, if you were inclined, you could take a chance at the real class races up in Humboldt County, and so on.
My immediate thinking here was "probably not". But I didn't say nothin' to no one around me, because, you know, they're all adults, after all.
The live program was a bit more comprehensible to me personably: 12 of 'em, racewise, kind of spread out on a laid-back basis all afternoon, the way us backwater slugs in Chicago are used to, and it pretty much looked like this:
A race, and then a race, and what do you know - a RACE!
Fields weren't real big all day, mostly on the small side, but a few big money-makin' opportunities. First race was for Arabians, and 2nd for"mixed", but all the rest thoroughbreds. (A point here: The BRIS Premium pp's didn't have any for these two races. What's up with that?)
$6500 starter allowance paid $11,000. $3200 claimers paid $5500. $6250 claimers, n2l, $7000. $25,000 claimers, $26,000. Cal-bred MSW $28,000. The big race of the day, the Floral Fiesta Stakes for 3yo fillies, $40,000. Kinda cheap on the low end, but very nice prices for the better horses, and especially for a fair meet. It struck me here's a fair meet in a state with no phonebet or casino support of racing paying better purses than some regular tracks in the mid-Atlantic that take in lots of phone bet dollars. No telling what those places are doing with their money, I guess.
On the betting front, I did okay, despite the small fields. Unfortunately the payoffs are small on small fields, so by the end of the day, even though I'd been winning money on a lot of races, the grand total ahead was a mere $12.80. I did do good for UPF, though, picking the #5 horse in the 6th, Induction Day, to win a 6f clm6250n2l, based on quite a dropdown in class coupled with a poor last "wide" race which I always like as the "license to steal" angle. Induction Day paid $10.00 to win in an 8 horse field. Not too bad. The only other Internet correspondent who ventured a UPF bet on the day was J. Dave, selecting a long-priced maiden horse based on a trainer angle, but that didn't work out. My bottom line here is that I made $$$ on the day, had a great time, and whupped J. Dave. :) What could be better?
As it turns out, however, a twelve race card, spaced 1/2 hour between races, consumes a considerable portion of an afternoon, and even works its way into the early evening. When the 11th came up, an unbettable five horse affair, and it was close to 6:00pm, the McChump Party, with far to go yet that evening, bid adieu and headed north, winding through the streets of San Francisco dodging beggars at every intersection, across the Golden Gate Bridge and north through the Wine Country.
-- Saturday, August 12, just about 10:00pm --
The Rent-a-Chumpmobile has just pulled into the lot of the night's scheduled luxury lodgings in Ukiah, heart of the dope-growing county of Mendocino.
"Hi. I've got a reservation. McChump?"
"Oh. We're so glad you're here. We were just about to give your room away. I even called your house and asked if you were coming tonight."
"What? That room was guaranteed!" (Thinking, at the same time, geez that's nice they'd call Illinois to find out if I was going to be there in Ukiah, California, within the next hour or so.)
"Ah well ... you see ... every room all the way up to the Oregon line is booked tonight, and there's a lot of people out looking for rooms. Sometimes the owner will release the rooms after 10:00."
About this time a very pushy Oriental man entered the lobby and interrupted the conversation, demanding a room because it was now after 10:00pm and he'd been told that they might free up some rooms after 10:00 but oh! said the registration lady this man just came in to take a room and he had a reservation so there's only one room left and that's reserved too so I don't know if we can give that away I'm going to have to talk to the owner but it's after 10:00pm said the pushy man they said I could get a room after 10:00pm and
"Excuse me", said I. "I'm tired and I'd like to get checked in here".
The Pushy Oriental Man seemed genuinely taken aback that I would interrupt his interruption. The registration lady seemed a little embarrassed. She really was a nice registration lady. She completed the registration, gave me my key, and off I went, really glad I was not the party with the remaining reservation now that it was 10:07, as the Pushy Oriental Man resumed his harangue, trying to pressure the nice registration lady into screwing over someone who had made a reservation in favor of a brainless schlub like himself who hadn't bothered to make one for one of the most popular of summer California destinations. I mean, if it was me there at that desk I'd just have said "ShuuuUUUUUT UP!!!" to the Pushy Oriental Man, but that's why I'm not in the service industry, I guess, and besides which, at The Big Co. we'd find a spectacularly more syllabic way to say it, which is one of the things that makes working at The Big Co. so great.
So consider this your warning about doing business with the Super 8 Motel in Ukiah, CA. Get there by 10:00, or call them from the road, because apparently in the heart of dope-growing country (as in small towns in Ontario), the definition of "guaranteed" is just a bit different than we expect in the Midwest, and you might end up sleeping in your car in the parking lot.
-- Sunday, August 13, early morning, northern California
What started out as a nice four lane freeway kind of petered out last night south of Ukiah, and now there's just a terribly twisty, turny, mountain type of road heading north toward Eureka. Challenging driving, and maybe a bit slower than I'd planned, but pretty country all the way.
The turnoff to the Avenue of The Giants was right there where the handy map said it was going to be, and now the going is slow, slow, slow as the narrow road twists through the redwood groves, but it's just as pretty as can be. I hadn't been in these parts since but a wee chump, when the entire family and an old Forester travel trailer had been hauled all the way from Montana in/by a most groovy '60 Chevy wagon, the long way, across Washington and down the coast through Oregon, to this very spot. To my surprise, I remembered it all, or most all. The General Sherman tree and I resumed an old friendship. Right there was where we stopped and paid money to tromp around in some hollow fallen trees. There's the rest stop we visited. Right there I don't quite remember this particular cheesy attraction. Perhaps they have cheesed the redwood forest up a bit in the past 35 years for the benefit of more recent visitors.
-- Sunday, August 13, 1:30pm or so, Humboldt County Fairgrounds, Ferndale, CA
The map was a little unclear on the concept of just exactly where it was one wanted to turn off the highway to Eureka in order to get to Ferndale, or perhaps it was the interpretation of the map that was a bit unclear, but this turned out to be one of those rare occasions when the random exit chosen turned out to be the right one. Soon Ferndale loomed boldly in the windshield, and even better, a sign announcing the turnoff to the Humboldt County Fair. I mean, how lucky can you get in one day?
*** Winner! The 2000 McChump Podunk Track of the Year! ***
Parking, in a nice green cow pasture out behind the fair: $1. Admission to the fair: $6 (and don't think this wasn't worth it, as right there by the admission gate you could see that they had Tilt-A-Whirl, The Zipper, Gravitron, and all the other really cool rides which makes $6 seem like a real pittance when you think about it). Additional admission to the horse racing: $2. Program: $1 (no pp's). $10 total, finally.
What we've got here is a medium-sized older all-wood grandstand structure, open to the elements, with seating above a small wooden-floored concourse down below that featured the "Turf Club" bar, lots of mutuel windows, a sandwich stand, and a beer stand. Interesting "wood panel" graphics on the front of the GS, and an asphalt apron out front that a good portion of the very laid-back crowd had brought folding chairs to occupy.
Down off the left end there's a fairly good-sized lawn area that features a big tent with lots of TV's and mutuel windows, as well as a few more food stands, and way down at the left, a nice little open paddock area featuring a walking path of groovy wood chips. Lots of wood in this part of California.
Out front, the track is a 4f one of very dark dirt with a substantial rock population, wrapped around a mostly grass infield featuring a minimum function toteboard with some nice landscaping around it, two softball diamonds, and a running track. The backdrop is barns, and in the distance the roofs and steeples of the "Victorian Town" of Ferndale, and then some very picturesque hills beyond that. Add some big trees down on the right, and some more trees and town to the left, and what you've got here can only be described as an A-1 little track set out in a A-1 pretty location in a A-1 pretty part of California. Well worth the price of admission.
I don't recall buying any track food on the day, but track beers I did: For $4.50 you could get some interesting microbrews such as "Great White" and "Organic Amber Ale" in the large size, and they were very tasty. I tried them all at least once, and had no complaints.
The card on the day was an interesting one, a true fair card, featuring, in order, a "mixed race" at 660 yds, a mule allowance, an Arabian maiden, another mule allowance, an Appaloosa starter allowance, an Arabian stakes for the princely sum of $6000 added, and then two thoroughbred events. Field sizes were generally small, and so were the purses. That Arabian stakes purse was the biggest of the day.
Luckily I was prepared to bet this card, having picked up a DRF insert for Ferndale from the nice DRF lady at the BMF the day before. Unluckily, that didn't do me any good, as I was sure I could make big money on the mules, mixed, and Arabians early, and that turned out to be seriously wrong-headed thinking. In no time I was down big - big by my standards, anyhow.
It was time to take a break from the races. The McChump party headed out back of the grandstand to see what was happening at the fair. Animal barns were happening, and crafts barns, and most of your usual fair type of activities which were quite interesting, and I think some fair food might have been consumed at this point which I don't remember exactly but probably something on a stick because stick food is the best food.
And there was a nice little stage back there, for special fair type of presentations, and on this particular day at this particular time the presentation was a bird show. Birds were doing amazing tricks. They were doing loop-de-loops on a big swing, racing other birds up smooth stainless steel poles, cheating other birds out of the bird snack, and talking up a storm on various and sundry intellectual subjects. These were some smart birds. The McChump party, or at least the half writing this, was enthralled.
However, the birds must have got tired after awhile, because eventually the bird show ended. After that was a quick trip down to a small souvenir stand on the midway where various mule racing souvenir items, like for instance a Black Ruby hat, were on sale at reasonable prices, and then back to the races, where the announcer could still be seen up in his booth watching a TV and announcing the races off the TV instead of the classic "binoculars" method, and another "Great White Organic Amber Ale" or some such could be purchased.
No UPF horse had stood out on the day, so when the 8th and final race came around the pressure was on. The #4, Mosconi, was selected, for reasons which are as lost to posterity as the DRF insert which might have provided a clue, but he came 2nd. No dough. Story of my entire day - $30.50 down the tubes at the windows.
But, overall, not a wasted experience, not a bit. In fact, a high point of the year.
-- Monday, August 14, mid-morning, San Francisco airport
How or why is unknown, but once again a United flight departed on time. The pilot even expressed his surprise - "Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to be early into Chicago. Usually we don't get out of SFO that quick!" Perhaps the bad days are past. Perhaps the rest of the United flights this summer will go smoothly. Perhaps I will never again spend endless hours in some airport somewhere between "there" and Chicago. I promptly fell asleep, and dreamed nice dreams of United's on-time departure and arrival record.
-- Saturday morning 3 am, August 19, McChump HQ Midwest
De-dee-de! De-dee-de! De-dee-de!
zzzzzzzzzmmmmmmmmpf yawwwwn ... (Really, Nastassja, just let it ring.)
De-dee-de! De-dee-de! De-dee-de!
... (No! Don't get up I said. Just let it ...) crap.
"Hello? Mr. McChump? This is Madge? With United Airlines?"
Uh oh. Her again. "Ye-e-sss?"
"Mr. McChump, we have you booked on a flight out of Chicago this morning at 6:40am to Denver, but that flight is canceled because of mechanical problems, and we're calling to tell you you're just plain f*cked and the best we can do is get you to Denver much, much later in the day, and Billings even much, much later than that. Is that okay with you?"
"Umm ... Do I have a choice?"
"No you really don't sir. Can you travel later? 4:30pm?"
And as it turned out I could, and would, as it was that or nothing. The planned trip to Lewistown on Sunday for the Cowboy Poetry Festival got scratched off the mental agenda. How do I hate thee, United? Let me count the ways.
I slowly fell back asleep, and instead of returning to Nastassja in dreamland, dreamed evil dreams of United's on-time departure and arrival record.
-- Saturday afternoon, O'Hare International Airport --
This just goes to prove there's a silk lining in every sow's ear. Had I come at the earlier hour I might not have noticed this. On the apron in front of the Air National Guard complex at O'Hare two menacing B-1 bombers are parked. I am in ecstasy. It can only mean one thing: Chicago's long anticipated attack on Wisconsin will surely commence this week I am gone, and when I return that land of evil will be bombed back to cheese.
If you saw someone on the PeopleMover from remote parking that afternoon hop into the air and click his heels, that was me.
-- Saturday evening, lawn chair discussion of Montana forest fire situation --
"Lookin' kinda smoky out tanight."
-- Sunday, about noon, Billings, MT --
It isn't easy raising the friend's hibernating bear family from sleep, but after awhile a couple of the kids have managed to stumble out to the rent-a-ChumpMobile with me, and the racin' part of this story is fixin' to commence.
-- Sunday, 1:30pm or so, Crow Agency, MT --
The advance knowledge about exactly where it was that horse racing was supposed to take place this afternoon was a bit lacking, other than somewhere in or near Crow Agency, in conjunction with the Crow Fair, one of the biggest damn pow-wows anywhere in the West, or so had said what little was available on the World-Wide Web. The white Swedish homesteader-heritage family drove around the reservation a bit, trying to find things on their own, and finally decided that wasn't going to work. Two nice young gentlemen manning a street barricade finally provided the directions: "Go around this corner, then another left, and then park wherever you can."
Turns out that was smack dab in the middle of the biggest concentration of teepees you ever saw, just a short distance from the Little Bighorn River.
There wasn't any horse racing immediately in view, and it was getting darn close to 2:00pm, the nominal post time, but there was some sort of an attraction sort of thing in the middle of all the teepees, so the white Swedish family headed on over there, quite aware that everyone else they met on the way was of Native American extraction, and also quite aware that maybe sometimes the good citizens of Billings aren't so hospitable to the Native Americans when they visit town.
The attraction sort of thing turned out to be this huge circular grandstand sort of affair where there was a dance contest of some sort going on, with a collection of the fanciest costumes you ever saw in your life, and dueling groups of drummers and singers providing the music, and everyone was having a great time. Around the circular grandstand was a circular midway of sorts, with food booths, and merchandise booths, and all sorts of attractions. We all went with an excellent Indian taco, consisting of fry bread covered with beans and meat and lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and so on, with hot sauce, that was in the $4.00 neighborhood if I recall correctly. Naturally, neither of the kids had any money on them. No problem; that day they were blessed with a fabulously wealthy host.
The 2:00pm post time came and went, however, with no sign of the racetrack in sight, and soon it was necessary to actually ask where this might be taking place. A very nice lady in the Indian taco line described the route, down through the pow-wow, up the hill on a dirt road, and then maybe a mile south down the gravel road at the top of the hill. We hit it. The road.
The racetrack was right where it was supposed to be, south of Crow Agency a ways, the next freeway exit south to be exact, right close to the casino and several governmental-looking buildings, up on the bench above the Little Bighorn. Parking was free behind the rather institutional looking grandstand built of finest concrete.
Admission on the day was $5 for adults and $3 for kids. The gentleman collecting the tickets was quite a character, as he immediately "lost" the two kids' tickets when I handed all three to him, and winked at us as we finally talked our way past him.
Finding a program was another matter, as, while rodeo programs were readily available at the gate, horse racing programs were a horse of a different color altogether and could only be purchased down at the betting windows. A bargain these were, it turned out, $2.00 for a slim package that when opened revealed a veritable wealth of information about the day's contestants, such as horse name, owner name, trainer name, horse age, and horse sex. And oh yes - the name of each of the day's six races. I had, some years earlier, taken this particular kid to Arlington when he was in Chicago, where he amazed me by picking several nice winners based on paddock inspection alone. I informed him we would be leaning heavily on his skills this particular day.
The program revealed a card of six races, starting with a 350 yd. affair for "non-winners of Crow Fair 2000" for a $500 purse, proceeding to the "660 Millenium Classic" for horses of all persuasion and purse of $2000, to the "Princess Stakes", 5-1/2f and $2700, to the Crow Bred Futurity, 350 yds and a $5800 purse, then the "Crow Derby", 1mi70yds and a $4000 purse, finishing up with the "non-winners of Crow Fair 1st, 2nd, and 3rd" for a purse of - well, no purse was printed, and oddly, neither was the distance. With field sizes ranging from five to ten, it looked to be a challenging day of handicapping. Particularly without pp's.
Even though the McChump Family had arrived a bit late, there was no problem, because apparently the published post time of 2:00pm was bit on the approximate side. There was still plenty of time to get a bet down on the 1st race. Which meant there was time to lose money, as the $3 WP bet returned some paltry amount as the horse of choice finished 2nd at a horrible place price. Dang!
Meanwhile, the real attraction on the day, the thing you paid that $5 for, the rodeo in the infield, was going whole hog. Unlike at the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show earlier in the summer, at the Crow Fair they never really stopped running the rodeo while the racing was going on. So the day would normally go like this: The rodeo would be running in the infield with much loud Garth Brooks music pumping over the PA, while a whole passel of kids rode up and down the dusty track on their ponies raising a big cloud of choking dust, or maybe held the Crow Shetland Relay Derby which kicked up even more dust, and then sooner or later time for a race would roll around and the track announcer would start talking at the same time the rodeo announcer was still talking, and then there'd be lots of PA talking while the horses paraded and the steers got rassled, and then suddenly the race would be off with the announcer telling folks to get off the track because there were always folks out there wandering around, and it was quite the show.
In the more than adequate meantime between races, there was plenty of time for wandering the facility and scouting. The grandstand revealed itself to be a crumbling thing but with a nice view of the sunburnt Eastern Montana landscape. An equally sunburnt paddock, with an attempt at a small flowerbed, sadly parched in this fire summer, occupied the left end of the apron in front of this 5-1/2f bullring. Down below, on the concourse, food and soft drinks were for sale at a reasonable price, as well as some commemorative Crow Fair t-shirts also at reasonable prices.
And did I mention it was hot? Well, it was. At one point a small weather front came though, and I was encouraging it to drop some rain, but it did not cooperate. It just blew on east toward the homestead lands and kept going.
On the betting front it was not a spectacular day. Lousy, in fact, for me and the girl kid. The paddock-inspection kid did manage to pick one winner. For instance, in the 2nd, the 660-yd race, there's a really thoroughbred-y horse named Jumpin' Jan Flash running, but can I bet it? No. I put my money and UPF's on the paint horse Crow Colors. Do I know better than to bet paint horses in mixed company? Yes. Can I ever lay off if they're looking good? No. Jumpin' Jan Flash wins in a rout, and my choice is well, well back there. Or consider the Crow Derby. For some reason, maybe paddock inspection, I like the #10 horse on a 5-1/2f track. How stupid is that? Pretty stupid, as it turns out. Cowboy Poet wins the thing, and is triumphantly introduced as the former winner of the Yellowstone Futurity at Billings. Well shoot - how could I have failed to take that into account other than of course there was no mention of it in the program? I should have seen it in the horse's eyes. Not one of my great betting days. When all was said and done there was like $22 down the drain, not counting what I bet for the kids.
On the owner/trainer front I did not recognize any names, other than Cleo Medicine Horse, Jr., who I believe runs his horses all over the state. Jocks I knew none - on the race occasions you caught their name over the rodeo noise - but a Mr. Nick Sanchez won his 8th race of the meet on this day, not a bad accomplishment for a 4 day meet, one of two yearly non-sanctioned meets run on the Crow reservation each year (the other being Little Big Horn Days).
Following the last scheduled race, if one was willing to brave the heat and dust any longer, not to mention the rodeo noise, there was an Indian relay race scheduled (no sanctioned betting), but the kids and their uncle were getting cranky, and surely someone somewhere was wondering where their kids had got off to, so the Swedish family departed. Quite an interesting day at a track like you don't see just every weekend. In my humble assessment.
-- Sunday, evening, Billings, MT
All day I'd been wondering why the Crow Fair program had this picture on the front of a 1975 Winner's Circle presentation, with this one white guy in buckskin fringes and bellbottoms off to the left. I thought I had it figured out, though. I presented my evidence to my friend, just before the commencement of the cribbage championship of Eastern Montana.
"Yup. That's Marlon Brando."
Later that evening on the news we saw where the small weather front had started a new forest fire out by Ekalaka. Sure been dry, man.
Skip travelogue; go right to racing;
wonder about that picture above for the rest of your life.
-- Monday afternoon, August 21, Billings, MT --
What with not going to Lewistown and the big Cowboy Poetry Festival therein, there was an extra day to hang out with the friend in Billings. This afternoon, he is engaged in a ritual that my dad engaged in when we were kids - driving around town, paying bills. Stop at the electric company. Stop at the gas company. Stop at the bank. The conversation, of course, is about the smoke in the air. I don't think it's all that bad myself, maybe you can't quite see the Absarokas, and you can barely smell the burnt wood smell well maybe just a little, but for someone used to crisp clean air all the time, it's quite irritating to him. And then, said he, changing the subject
"There's one more stop."
"Oh yeah? Where's that."
I know I promised 0-stinkin-casinos on this McChumpalooza Tour when it started, but this is the real story of how it happened that I broke my promise. It was my friend's doing. Honest and for true.
A bit of background.
Back in the 70's the good citizens of Montana legalized (non-parimutuel) gambling in a referendum. Only it wasn't quite clear what it was they'd legalized, so that was tied up in courts and the legislature for awhile. Finally, after these great men of the lagislature had ciphered on the problem for a spell, it emerged that what the people had really wanted to legalize was simply poker games and such. There would be no big Vegas type casino stuff in Montana, no slot machines, no craps tables, no roulette wheels. Just some friendly poker games in the back rooms of taverns. However, some folks who had worked on behalf of the gambling referendum weren't sure that the great men had interpreted their wishes entirely correctly, and so more court action ensued. What finally emerged from this round of the people's will getting sliced and diced by the lawyers and legislators was that probably keno machines and electronic games like blackjack machines had been in people's minds when they voted, too, because by some odd technicality these equate to poker. And so the big Montana casino rush was on.
Over the past 20-odd years that the new gambling law has been effect, the entire state, every bar and gas station in it, has been transformed into a huge glittering mass of keno machine casinos where you never EVER see a live poker game in progress. You can be out in the middle of the most desolate section of Montana, and if you run across a crossroads gas station, you can believe there'll be a room with at least 8 or 10 keno machines in it. And to drive down the main street of a bigger town like Billings or Great Falls, you'd think you were in the middle of some Outer Limits vision of the Las Vegas strip ... which, in fact, you are.
Which brings us back to Hudson's, a fairly typical little keno casino on the north side of Billings, with a small bar and a small restaurant, and a nice big keno room.
My friend likes this place because it has a screaming deal in the afternoons before the "crowds" get there at 5:00, and the screaming deal is this: If you put $5 into a keno machine, Hudson's will also put in $5, and the only rules are you have to play at least 5 nickels at a time and you cannot cash out before 1/2 hour is up (to prevent you from playing one spin and walking out with their $5). So you start out with 200 credits, you're playing 5 nickels at a time AND, and this is a most important AND, they are bringing you free beers. Not real big ones, and you have to take house brands like for instance Crud, but free all the same.
Keno is a really stupid game, when it comes right down to it, but we hung out there for about an hour, downed three free mini-beers apiece, and I cashed out my voucher for $20.40, a cool $15.40 profit, while my friend had made close to $50. Isn't this what living is really all about?
Later that night on the news we learned that there was a big new range fire out on the Crow reservation, some miles south and west of where the racing was yesterday. More smoke for the air. And I listened in vain for news of back home, of the all-out assault by Illinois on Wisconsin.
-- Tuesday, August 22, on the road, Billings to Great Falls
Normally this country north of Billings is a great place to see antelope, but not this year. The fields and plains are burned dry and so brown they couldn't support wildlife of any variety. A little further on, as the road turns west into the Musselshell River valley and we begin to follow part of the very last of the trail of the Nez Perce on the flight to the Bear Paws, the missing wildlife begins to show up. The entire critter countryside is crowded down into the narrow valley, the river just a slow muddy trickle, but still able to support some green vegetation, and of course the farmers' haystacks are there for the nibbling. Farther, north of Harlowton, the Minuteman missile silos sprout to the side of the road, and the rent-a-ChumpMobile whizzes on by at a nominal 70mph, oblivious to the fact that it is passing within 200 yds of a hydrogen bomb, for it is merely a machine and its consciousness is somewhat limited. North of Judith Gap, the town with the least excuse for existence of all the towns, the Judith River basin country that Charlie Russell cowboyed, and later painted, is a bit greener than it had been south, not much, and there's actually water in the Judith River. Not so lucky is Belt Creek, Portage Creek in the journals, further on, just east of Great Falls. All the time I lived in Montana, and all the times I've come back, it's always been a sparkly rushing stream. Not this year. It's bone dry. My parents' back yard is a lush, green oasis, with a busy sprinkler in the garden, and it's not such a bad smoke day. Only stinks just a little, and the haze isn't all that bad.
-- Wednesday, August 23, Great Falls, MT
There's some bad news waiting. Seems the city isn't going to renew the horse racing lease next year and is going to tear down some barns at the fair grounds. It looks as though horse racing may be kaput in Great Falls.
This is bad news for racing all over northern Montana, as Great Falls is the primary training center feeding meets such as Kalispell, Missoula, Shelby, and presumably, Helena. It's the same old story as everywhere: Goofballs running the show.
When last I wrote about the racing program in Great Falls, there was a fairly professional group named the Race Track Management Group running things. However, when they went back to the Montana State Board of Horse Racing to ask for dates the next year, they asked for a slightly reduced meet. The Racing Board, at the instigation of the horsemen, decided this was bad for Montana racing, and awarded the dates instead to a different group, the Great Falls Horse Racing Association, that lacked experience and a basic business plan, not to mention the bond that had been demanded of the prior group.
Toss in the City of Great Falls, which leases the fairgrounds property from Cascade County, and which has failed to spend one cent of the taxes taken in for fairgrounds improvement on any of the backside facilities, not to mention the money the State and Montana Simulcast Partners were paying the city for stalls which had been demolished to construct a quarterhorse chute, which money apparently the City had been merely been pocketing instead of constructing new stalls or fixing old ones. So suddenly, this year, after the three year lease with the GFHRA is up and it hasn't been a screaming success, the city decides they aren't making enough money off racing, that the backside is a disaster that the GFHRA hasn't fixed, and that the barn area property would be better off developed as something else as its taking up 1/3 of the entire fairgrounds. Never mind that the lease with fairgrounds owner Cascade County stipulates that "The City shall not suspend the major activities at the fairgrounds inclusive of ... Horse racing ..."
Plenty of blame and stupidity to go around on this one. The one hope is that the County, which seems committed to horse racing and actually owns the grounds, will step in and say "No way, Jose" to the City.
[They did. There will be racing in Great Falls in 2001, though a reduced schedule. Visit while you still can. June 23, 24, 30; July 1,4,7, 8, 14, 15, 28 and 29]
-- Thursday, August 24, at the Great Falls of the Missouri
Since Governor Racicot had declared the entire state, or at least the forested parts, a disaster area, closed, no visitors, there would be no trip to the cabin in the Rockies this go round. So I had prevailed upon my parents to take a day trip a short distance down the Missouri, to Ryan Dam, which sits atop the Great Falls of the Missouri.
There's an island there, in the middle of the river just below the falls, where Captain Meriwether Lewis had first viewed the falls, June 13, 1805, calling it "the grandest sight I ever beheld" and a "sublimely grand specticle". That, of course, was when there was water running over it.
There's a park on the island now, and the rock that Capt. Lewis carved his name into is all defaced, but there's still spectacular viewing of the falls. Well usually. This year there is so little water in the river that every gallon of it is being diverted through the electricity-generating turbines, and the bare, dry Great Falls of the Missouri is a sad sight indeed.
That evening brought a strong west wind, up, and over the mountains, and back down onto the plains, bringing with it a generous measure of smoke from the fires in the western part of the state. The whole world smelled of burnt wood, eyes watered, lungs itched, and the bright Montana stars failed to materialize in a cloudless sky.
-- Friday, August 25, the road north, into the heart of darkness
This is it. Today's the day. The McChump Tour is a goin' in. Damn the forest fires, full speed ahead. There's racin' in them thar hills.
The fields and pastures along the Rocky Mountain front are nearly as dry and lifeless as their friends in Eastern Montana. Maybe a bit yellower, rather than brown. The mountains, usually right in your face, are hazy, and distant, hiding behind the veil of smoke. The farmers have given up on this year's wheat crop and simply rolled it up into huge yellow round bales that dot the foothills up to the Rockies. As the car tops a hill at the south end of the Blackfoot reservation, two huge steel mounted warriors rise up at the side of the road, and then are gone. What was that? I've never seen that before. The road turns west, into Marias Pass, the old North Pass of the fur trapper days, and skirts along the southern edge of Glacier Park. The pass is filled with smoke, probably from the fires just south in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Breakfast is calling, and though I'm a few minutes past the 11:00am cutoff, the dining room staff of the wonderful Izaak Walton Inn at Essex accomodates me with a nice omelette. (This Inn is highly recommended as a place to stay, btw.) The Flathead Valley? Also filled with smoke. So much smoke you can't even tell where it's coming from. Looking at the NOAA satellite maps before embarking on this trip, I'd have thought to be able to at least see one or two of these fires, as it seemed this whole northwest corner of the state was burning down. But no. Whitefish, Olney, Stryker, Trego, Fortine - still lots of smoke, still no visible fires.
-- Friday afternoon, August 25, Eureka, MT
Having arrived rather bright and early at my lodgings for the weekend at an ultracool house in the woods, and with a whole afternoon free, I was offered the opportunity to go into town to see their fair, the Lincoln County Fair, or maybe the Tobacco Valley Fair, or something like that. Being always agreeable to fairs, I agreed.
On the way into town, I asked where all these fires were. "Oh, there's a big one to the west, on the other side of Lake Koocanusa, and one a little bit south of town, and then there's the Lydia Fire, maybe six miles from here, just over that ridge." Now mind you, that's six miles downwind from here. It was fairly still and calm in these parts on this particular day, and I could see it, I really could! Well not any flames or anything, but the smoke rising up from the Lydia Fire, a column of smoke distinct from the rest of the general haze. Kewl!
The fair was a pretty cool one. Maybe it didn't have Tilt-A-Whirl, or The Zipper, or Gravitron, or any of the required rides, in fact no rides at all, but they did have a horse showing competition that was going on when we were there, and a big exhibit of quilts as well as a bigtime vegetable and flower competition, and there were some pens with elk in them, and some animal barns and to my surprise my host knew the names of all the different breeds of rabbits, and some crafts booths. There was also this huge giant long picnic table that some loggers or more likely ex-loggers from around the Eureka area had built, probably of wood taken from National Forest lands, and sent as a show of support down to Nevada or wherever it was that the local citizens had "taken back" National Forest land from the US Government by opening a road the Forest Service had closed. Only after the road had been successfully liberated so that the people could continue to freely cause erosion in the canyon where the road led, as was their God-given right as Americans, there was the problem of what to do with the giant picnic table, so here it was back in Eureka. It occupied a central spot of honor on the Eureka fair grounds, demonstrating the local population's solidarity with workers everywhere whose livelihood depends on free access to, and exploitation of, Federal lands as if they were their own. Later that night, and the whole town seemed to be abuzz about this, the fair's big attraction, "The Bull Thing", was to take place. My host wasn't quite sure what transpired at "The Bull Thing", other than that bulls were somehow involved.
The best part about this fair, though, was that my host knew absolutely everyone there, and it was a treat listening to all the conversations all afternoon. Mostly they went like this:
"I thought you'd retired from working at the fair!"
"Well I did, but Joe's out on the line at [name fire here], so I'm filling in for him."
A large portion of the male population in those parts was out on the fire lines, it seemed. It was like being in a town on a war footing. The menfolk were away, and all the talk was about the war. In fact one of my relatives was out there fighting fire, on the other side of Lake Koocanusa.
-- Saturday morning, August 26, Whitefish, MT --
My host had informed me of an attraction that was not to be missed, and since it was right on the way to the horse racing anyhow, I decided to stop in, and well that I did. For you see, in the tradition of the Cows on Parade in Chicago, and the whatever horses in Lexington, the citizens of Whitefish were not to be outdone. They had organized "Moose on the Loose", a parade of painted and decorated full sized fiberglass mooses in the village square, and these were some exotic moose, indeed. When you choose to live the McChump lifestyle, things like this just come to you. Excellent.
-- Saturday afternoon, August 26, Kalispell, MT --
Well, here we were, a week of exceptional adventure behind us, ready to plunge back into the world of racing again. A crisp, clear day with a stiff wind had cleared the Flathead valley of smoke, my wallet was full of money begging to be wagered, and I was lost in Kalispell. Oh not really lost, mind you, it's not like you couldn't get out of town and start all over in about 5 minutes, it was more like can't find the fair grounds, despite explicit instructions from the host.
And it's not like it was total loss, because I got to listen to more of the local radio station from Kalispell, where, if you could get by the affected mannerisms of the Paul Harvey wannabe commentator, one learned that the primary story in the news was ... forest fires! Imagine! For instance, there had been several traffic stops for people tossing cigarettes out their car window. The Forest Service was running out of firefighter equipment. The local heavy equipment owners were complaining to the Forest Service that "outsiders" were working on fires down in the Bitterroot Valley and getting paid for it, instead of the "locals" from Kalispell, and other locals were complaining that they weren't getting hired, even though there were no immediately local fires and the Forest Service was already short on crew bosses. Some candidate for political office took the opportunity to show up at the meeting with the Forest Service and take the side of the voters, expressing his view that yes indeed they should be sharing in the wealth. The Flathead Indian tribe was offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of whomever had intentionally started a fire on their reservation, allegedly so that more work would be available fighting fires. The burning of the National Forest and the subsequent infusion of Federal fire-fighting money seemed to be the biggest economic boon to these parts in some years - can't get paid for cutting it down anymore, might as well get paid as it burns. Governor Racicot, self-proclaimed un-candidate for Secretary of the Interior, blamed the Clinton Administration for the fires. Environmentalists blamed the Forest Service, and loggers blamed the environmentalists. No one bothered to blame the fact that the entire state was simply tinder try because it hadn't rained, except for the Forest Service, and everyone was mad at them so the lack of rain was undoubtedly their fault, too.
Finally, though, I'd had enough of that, seen the sights of Kalispell, like the groovy courthouse in the middle of main street, and still hadn't found where I was going, so had to stop and ask directions. I hate that.
"Oh you're almost there. Just go another three blocks. But our fair was last weekend."
D'oh! Could I have made a fatal error? The Racing Journal had sworn up and down that this was a racing weekend!
-- Saturday afternoon, August 26, Northwest Montana Fairgrounds, Kalispell, MT --
Whew! The Racing Journal was right. There was racing, the 2nd weekend of a two weekend, 5 day meet that started with the fair.
The Flathead County Fairgrounds, where the Northwest Montana Fair racing was to take place, turns out to be located on the northwest side of Kalispell, kind of down the hill and off to the right of US 93 as you're coming into town from the north (a miserable busy road, as this entire section of Montana is getting seriously overpopulated by fruit loop transplants from California). Parking in the lot out front was free free free, as was admission, but the program rang in at $3.00. Compared to the Crow Fair program, though, $3.00 was a screaming bargain, as pp's were included.
What we had here is your basic fairgrounds setup, pretty deserted on this day except for the grandstands, and a few concession stands out back of it on what looked to be the midway. The vendors in business on this day were all of the public service variety, such as your Elks, and your Jaycees, and your Shriners, and your Boy Scouts, and so on. Tragically, none of these seemed to hold a license to sell beer, not even the Shriners and this defied belief because how on earth can you drive around on those little scooters if no alcohol is involved - now really, think about it - and no beer was to be found. Anywhere. Now I could understand no beer at Crow Agency the previous weekend, but this was about intolerable, especially since I had been behaving myself for an entire day. Just goes to show you that when you get too many California fruit loops in your midst, things start going right down hill in no time. Hmmmph! I mean, where is the Sheriff's Posse when you need them?
There were, however, flying wedges of Boy Scouts roving the facility and selling bottled water, and one flying wedge had what seemed to be a little sister in tow, a precious little blond-headed girl who the boys were employing as a "water pusher", and when they came around and asked if you could resist this little girl selling water, you really couldn't. So I bought a plastic bottle of water from her ($1.00), steeled myself for a handicapping experience that would be unique, to say the least, and entirely without "inspiration", to tell the truth, and hunkered on down.
There were also flying wedges of "Little Miss Rodeo" queen wannabees selling 50/50 tickets to the crowd, and they wandered the apron singing out, in unison, and 4 part harmony, "Get ... yer ... 50/50 ... tickets!", but I have had extensive experience in the world of 50/50, and know that the wise do not invest in the 50/50 market. So the Little Miss Rodeos wandered the apron without acknowledgement from moi.
The basic setup is a wooden grandstand in primarily red and white color motif, of venerable ancestry, medium size, with wooden seats and a wood roof held up by some steel I-beams, and a big section of wooden bleachers down to the left. Plenty of seating for a far bigger crowd than the maybe 400 who showed up on this racing day. Narrow asphalt apron behind a high chain link fence in front of that, including the mandatory losing ticket barrel, where you could throw your losing tickets in, and maybe later in the day win a drawing and score big with some $25/$15/$10 consolation prizes. I knew better than that, too. Down at the left end of the whole affair was a dinky little paddock area with the saddling stalls set up against a rusty corrugated metal building, and a small, dusty, dirt walking ring.
Out front was a narrow 4f dirt track, with a QH chute down to the left end, enclosing the county rodeo ring which made up that part of the infield which was not bare grass and languishing heavy equipment, a small "toteboard on wheels", and a very nice view of the Rockies in the background, where the Bob Marshall Wilderness was currently in flames. Barns down to the left, and a residential neighborhood immediately behind the fairgrounds.
The card on the day consisted of 10 races, with between 5 and 8 horses per race, 66 entrants total. Not huge, but bettable. Five quarter horse races and five thoroughbred. Mostly the purses were not huge, like for instance mostly in the $1400-$1700 range, but we did also have the big race of the meet on this day, the Charlie Russell Quarter Horse Futurity, 350 yds of burning speed for a purse of $45609.
On the jock front I recognized a few, like for instance my buddy Roger Buening who had screwed me at Evergreen and I vowed not to bet him, for which vow he immediately burned me in race 1, and Shannon Wippert, and Mike Phillips, Holly Gervais, Rita Ekins, and that was about it. Trainers were mostly a mystery to me, except for the Birdrattler clan, whose name I recognized from previous visits to Montana.
Betting wise, I didn't do too horrible - put a whopping $67 through the windows, and got back a whopping $64, in between inhaling a $1 corndog from some public service organization or another, and a $2.75 giant cheeseburger from the Shriners. And getting nicked for another $1 water by the tiny, but adorable, water pusher. On the UPF front I managed to pick a 2nd place horse, yet again, Silver Chaffee, in the 6th. Lately I'm not doing so good.
Otto Tac, trained by Chuck Lindsey and ridden by David Brown, won the big race. I got the longshot 2nd place finisher in that one for $12.20/$6.60 PS. Don't be telling me I don't know my quarterhorses, chump! Me and the crowd had managed to put $1586/$431/$335 WPS into this race, the feature and betting event of the day, along with Q $1053, X $352, and super $3634. It was some big pools. We kicked booty. We made money. We came. We saw. We conquered. We drank water. While so doing, we managed to generate one of the lowest daily handles we've generated all year, at least on the McChump front anyhow. Duh.
And just like that, it was over.
But at the end of the regular racing program, there was, once again, an Indian Relay Race scheduled. This time, I thought I'd stay to see what this was all about.
Several teams were entered in this event, and I made the immediate favorite Team Birdrattler, as Team Birdrattler had cool uniforms, and also, I thought, probably a good pick of horses from the Birdrattler racing stable. The other teams didn't seem to be nearly so professional.
The object of the Indian Relay Race was three laps around the track, each lap on a different horse, bareback. Assistants stood at the outside rail holding the 2nd and 3rd lap horses, while the contestants stood on the track holding their 1st lap horses. Some Indian music started up on the PA, and suddenly the race was off! The riders leaped onto their horses and tore off down the stretch and into the turn. Team Birdrattler was lying 2nd. As they came back into the stretch, the riders guided their horses at high speed toward their assistants, leaped off into the dirt as the horses about crashed into the rail, grabbed another horse, leaped on, and took off again. These pit stops were crucial, and a bad one could cost a team many lengths. The field was beginning to get strung out a bit by this time, and you could see that some teams were definitely more professional than others. The crashing, leaping, and grabbing was repeated a 2nd time, only this time around one leap wasn't so successful, as the rider bit the dust and his horse took off alone. One team down. It was clear that this was a runaway by this point, and it wasn't Team Birdrattler winning. The margin of victory for the winning team was about 75 lengths, and another 75 back to third. When all the dust had cleared, I would have lost money, had there been any betting. This was quite a spectacle.
There was to be another heat on the morrow, to decide the ultimate championship, which I guess had started the previous weekend. I'm not exactly sure on the scoring of Indian Relay Racing. Perhaps it works on the chuckwagon racing plan, an overall points sort of thing. Anyhow, the sun was setting, and I wanted to get to the other side of Glacier before it was gone completely, so it was time to leave before learning any more.
A definite thumbs up for racing at the Northwest Montana Fair, with the exception of the no beer part. That was kinda bad.
-- Saturday evening, August 26, Blackfoot reservation, just east of Glacier Park
My host had cleared up the mystery of the metal warriors. It seems an artist from Kalispell had enlisted a bunch of little kids from the reservation to help him collect up some old junk car parts, and then he had welded them all together into pairs of mounted warriors to guard (at least two of) the entrances to the reservation. There was one pair I had previously missed at the west entrance just outside the Park, and then the the original pair at the south entrance above the Two Medicine River. You do not see things like this just every day.
-- Saturday night, August 26, highway north of Great Falls, MT
It was dark, so I never saw it coming. That stiff wind from the west that had cleared the Flathead Valley of smoke was also bringing a river of smoke from somewhere down onto the plains again. Only this time it was the worst. The headlights shone into a yellow haze. Sometimes the visibility was downright dangerous. And the smell! I imagine this must be what hell is like.
Finally settled in Great Falls for the night, I'm told there's a couple of new fires to the west, and that an old one, close to the cabin, is acting up again.
-- late Sunday morning, August 27, Billings, MT
My friend's hibernating bear family is once again hard to rouse from slumber, yet my friend is mysteriously absent. Finally, though, his paddock inspection kid is persuaded to roll out of bed and accompany me for the day's racing activities.
-- Sunday afternoon, August 27, Yellowstone Downs, Billings, MT
No gettin' lost incidents on this day, as the paddock inpsection kid proves a reliable guide to the MetraPark fair grounds on the east side of Billings. I suspect he maybe has been there before.
Parking here was free, admission was $2.00, and the fabulous program rang in at $2.50. And sadly, or maybe gladly, that's about all I wrote down about the entire day, as there was so SO much to do with a youngster in tow to teach the arts of handicapping, plus at this track they were selling beer in a nice little bar area just inside the door. It was like $3 for a big giant Fat Tire. Something like that. I was forced to go back again and again, trying to remember that price.
The grandstand at MetraPark is a considerably bigger affair than the job at Kalispell the day before, as befitting a powerful city such as Billings. A real entry, a real concourse, and a real indoor paddock down under the left end. What kind of bit the big one was that everything of a racing nature was located on the ground floor, and if one was silly enough to go up into the stands for a seat, one soon found oneself coming downstairs anyhow to place a bet or whatever. One soon found the apron most accommodating. Being as how this was a most pleasant Montana summer afternoon, that wasn't all that objectionable.
Out front was a 4f track with mandatory QH chute, which also seemed destined to double as a car track during Big Doin's, a mostly grass infield except for the running track inside, and a minimum function tote. Nice view of the south rimrocks of the Yellowstone River in the background. We had 10 races on the card, 3 QH on the front end and then all the rest TB (where surely my fortune would be made), 6-8 horses per race, and purses from $1400 all the way up to $2000.
I was determined to teach the paddock inspecting kid all there was to know about handicapping, as so far he had been simply incredibly lucky so far as I was concerned. We went in to the paddock. I explained to him how the #7 horse in the 1st, No Brakes Needed, a paint horse and surely a paint horse was due in my life, especially with regional legend Kym Espy up, had it all over these other nags. No Brakes Needed was the sure winner. I would back him up with a powerful $2 across. The paddock inspecting kid opted to back the #3, Buggy Rebel, the stinkin' 5/2 m/l favorite (with my money of course). Ha ha, loser kid, you are goin' down.
Tragically, I inadvertently backed a 4th place horse and the kid backed a lucky $11.80 winner. Surely, an anomaly. Pure luck.
In the 2nd neither of us won, as I was only betting win for the kid and his horse stunk out the joint in 2nd, while my WP horse suffered no end, no end, of bad luck to finish 4th.
In the 3rd race I got my chance to really shine.
"Note here, kid", said I, "What do you notice about this race?"
"Uhhhh", answered he.
"No, that's not it", I said. "Look here. See that horse's name? Jumpin' Jan Flash, the same horse that just won that 660 out at the Crow Fair last weekend, and look here, there is no mention of that race whatsoever in the pp's! We know something the crowd doesn't!"
The kid duly noted it, and then we both duly noted this was a 300yd race and JJF had never done a thing in races that short. Both of us decided to ignore our special knowledge and back different horses. This kid picked the wrong horse altogether, and I chose a $12.20 winner. Ha, ha.
Round about the 4th the mystery of my friend's earlier absence from the homestead was explained, as he and his other kid showed up at the track. It seems he had experienced a $350 winning night at Hudson's the evening before, and, feeling lucky, had gone back early this morning to try it again. This time he'd won a mere $850. You loser! Don't you know you'll never win at keno?
Now, of course, I had two rank rookies to teach how to win $2.20 a shot at racing, plus the paddock inspection kid to impress with my prowess. Little wonder no notes were taken!
In the 5th I accidentally lost money while the paddock kid picked a $6.60 winner. It was because I was explaining handicapping to my friend. My friend swore his horse betting career was over. I asked, sagely, did you quit the first time you lost at Hudson's? He was forced to answer "no". I nodded, knowingly.
In the 6th the paddock kid picked a $3.80 winner, while somehow my horse ran out again, but the friend and 2nd kid were forced to admit that it was indeed possible to pick winning horses. Progress!
In the 7th, someone managed a $14.40 winner, only it was the pesky paddock again, but then finally, in the 8th, I showed my friend how it was done by scoring a $5.60 quinella. He was hooked. The 9th would be his opportunity to strike.
"Now look here", I explained, "This 2 horse, Cowboy Poet, he just won last weekend at Crow Fair and there is no record of it in these pp's!" This was indeed news to him, as he'd been working while me and the kids had been at the Crow Fair, but he decided to include the #2 in a bet he'd recently learned about, oh I don't know where, the $1 tri box, with the #1 and #4. Meanwhile, I decided to bet the 1 entry for UPF, and box the both of them up with the #4 in a quinella. We were going to clean up on this one, and contribute to charity at the same time, for sure. Paddock kid took the #6. My friend and I visited the beer stand, just for luck, leaving the kids in charge of the apron for the time being.
Ha ha paddock kid! A cool winner for UPF, $8.80 Q for me, unknown but "good enough for an all day profit", like about $42, for the friend, and nothing for you!
Tragically, when all was said and done at the end of the day after the 10th, the paddock inspection kid had made a nice profit, and I was substantally down, as substantially as you can get when you're betting big like this, like about $39.80 down out of $78 bet. Damn that hurts!
-- Monday morning, August 28, Billings Logan Airport
You wouldn't hardly think there'd be any problem getting a flight out of a little 4 gate airport like Billings on time, would you? But of course, this is United Airlines we're talking about. The 8:00am flight to Denver finally manages to leave at the fashionably late hour of 9:00am, and it is going to be tight if not impossible for me to make my connection in Denver now. Stupid, stupid United.
The Billings Gazette has news of a new fire to the south of Billings, up in the mountains near Red Lodge. Someone crashed his motorcycle and the cycle set the forest aflame. They're calling it the Willie fire, after Willie Nelson, who'd been doing or had just done a concert up thereabouts. Maybe the rider was leaving the concert, or something. I don't recall all the details. I was having trouble keeping all the fires straight by this point.
And you know - there was no mention in the paper of a devastating airstrike on Wisconsin. That is particularly disconcerting. That miserable excuse for half a state will likely be discovered to still be entirely intact when the plane arrives at O'Hare. Assuming THAT ever happens.
Oops! We're pretty lazy here at McChump Industries,
and this story is not yet available online
Meantime, here's Mr. Peanut doing the hot cheese mambo
for your dancing and dining pleasure.
Oops! We're pretty lazy here at McChump Industries,
and this story is not yet available online
Meantime, here's Mr. Peanut doing the hot cheese mambo
for your dancing and dining pleasure.
Kentucky Downs Party 2000
Click large image to start full screen slideshow with any captions
Hosts Deborah L. and Jeff D. Jeff hasn't bet yet.
The essentials - excellent work, Jeff!
Cal J. and family
Deborah with friends Elaine, Jodie, and Dave
L to R: David E., Maury Wolff, Larry L., McChump., Todd B., and David's sister
Jeff with friends Nick S. and Leon T.
Last fence, MSW over hurdles, leaders
Second to last fence, Bison Capital G2
Jeff with friends Nick, Leon and Jon W. Jeff just lost a bet.
Jeff and Jon. The pain oh the pain.
Jeff and Jennifer B. - Jeff the helpful handicapper
Maury, Larry, Cal
Maury Wolff with friend Larry L.
McChump and Todd B. with Cal and family in background. Can there be anything as serious as these two clowns are discussing? I doubt it. Unless it is an honest disagreement over microbrews.
Paddock Master. Don't be crossing her.
Jose Santos on Honor Glide, Turf Handicap
Eddie Martin on Dixie's Crown, Turf Handicap
Robbie Albarado on Down the Aisle, Turf Handicap
Ben's Quixote, Ky Cup Mile
Smolderin Heart, Sprint
Marion St. Julien on Blueprint, Turf Handicap
Caro's Royaly, Sprint
Turf Handicap start
Turf Handicap winner, Down The Aisle. Jeff scored a $953 tri. Jeff not shown.
Finish line and paddock