-- 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.