Right after I was involved in an Internet discussion about why people actually go to the track and I was on the side of "lots go for fun" while others held firm for "people don't go for any reason but to gamble", I all of a sudden realized what they meant when I came down with a case of the Gamblin' Fever, real bad. Real bad, squirming around like an Oktoberfest patron waiting in a long line outside a port-a-potty. I needed to go a-gamblin'.
But of course everyone knows the gamblin' is much finer out-of-town, as are most things, so that's why I planned to do it at dinky little Western tracks instead of the much more convenient local track or the various local OTB's. And I made some real elaborate and finely tuned plans to squeeze the maximum possible amount of gamblin' into my itinerary.
-- Saturday 6/3, early am
I am so mad at United Airlines! They pooched me again. Screwed me over!
First they called about a week ahead of time and told me my 6:00am flight was cancelled and I'd have to take a 7:15am one instead. Naturally, that put the kibosh on my connection out of Denver, too, meaning I'd have to take later flight to Salt Lake City. So already I was looking at being 1:15 late. Okay, so maybe I'll miss one race. Maybe I can forego that much gamblin'.
So finally the plane's #1 for takeoff in Denver, and actually makes the turn onto the runway and the engines start to whine, when all of a sudden they rev down, the takeoff is aborted, and we pull off onto a taxi way. We sit there a few minutes, then the captain comes on: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've got an equipment problem, and we'll have to go back to the terminal to get it repaired".
Well, phew! Glad they discovered that malfunctioning engine or stripped horizontal stabilizer screw or whatever it was that was going to crash us into the Rocky Mountains now, rather than later, because if I was crashed I doubt I could do much gamblin' at all. Except that's not quite what the problem was: it was a bad seatbelt in the cockpit. Yup. The sumgun wouldn't buckle. So we sat at the gate, and they tried to fix it, and later flights to Salt Lake left on time, and then it was fixed but wait! it wasn't fixed, and then finally it really was fixed and it was safe to depart, so we were a mere 1-1/2 hrs late(r). "Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen. Here's a free drink for you." Yeah - I'll bet you're sorry. You ain't the one missing out on gamblin'.
I am so mad at United Airlines!
-- Saturday, 6/3, 12:30pm, Salt Lake City
I've now got 30 minutes to drive the Rent-A-ChumpMobile about 200 miles to Pocatello, ID. Think I'm going to make it? Well, no. The freeways of Salt Lake City are a crawling construction mess, almost all the way to Ogden.
-- Saturday, 6/3, 3:20pm, Pocatello Downs, Pocatello, ID
The directions I'd got to this place were excellent: Exit 71, right, then left at the light and up the hill. And there it was, a dinky little grandstand in front of a dinky little track just up the street from the semi-dinky soccer field. And there were still cars in the parking lot!
Parking: free. Admission: no one on duty, thus FREE! Program: none to be found for sale.
Immediately upon walking in I asked a passerby where he got his program. "Out at the admission booth, on the way in. But you won't need one - this is the last race anyhow." Rats! One stinkin' race. Stoopid United!
However, there were still a few minutes before the race went off, which gave me some time to scout the horses in order to make a bet to satiate my gamblin' lust, anyhow a bit. So I looked them over, and they looked like some horses all right, and I quickly bet the three best looking ones of the nine all to win. This left a couple of minutes to purchase a beer ($2.50 for a can of Coors) and to do a quick scouting job on the place.
This really is a dinky little joint, maybe one of the dinkiest I've encountered, a small I-beam and corrugated tin kind of place with a small concourse below and maybe 20 rows of wooden bench seating out front under the overhang. Down below on the concourse there were a few betting windows at the back, along with a concessions window that sold a variety of items with dinosaur names like the Tyrannoburger (this being fossil country and all), the beer window up front, a few picnic tables scattered about, and a couple of TV's hanging from some support beams that showed the current odds. That's about it. Out front was your basic asphalt apron, a 6f dirt track with really really tight corners and a long quarterhorse chute, and an au naturel infield that featured a complete rodeo setup (this was the Bannock County Fairgrounds, after all), and a toteboard-on-wheels that displayed odds, results, and pools in rotation (the pools for this race, the 7th, were about $400/200/150 WPS). Rest rooms down to the left in a separate building, and a paddock somewhere, I assume also down to the left. All the barns and so on are located out back of the grandstand somewhere.
Pretty quick it was time for the race, and the horses came zooming out of the chute and past the stands for the first time, this race being a 7f affair for thoroughbreds. The jocks in their color-coded silks were all taking their horse back pretty strongly going into that sharp first turn, and then doing the same through the 2nd, and finally there was one of my horses, the #1, with his head in front at the wire. Woo-hoo! A gamblin' winner, a giant winner, I feel the rush! Upon cash-out, I'd made a cool profit of $2.70, which pretty much meant I'd got free beer. And the winner had set a new track record, 1:28.0 for the 7f.
As the crowd, which had been a respectable one, was thinning out to head home, a gentleman made to toss his program in the trash, but missed, so I rescued it for him (and me). The program revealed there'd been a seven race card on the day, four quarter horse events, one of the fabulous 870 yard mixed breed dashes, and two thoroughbred races. Field sizes had ranged from 7 to 10 horses, with most in the upper range. Purses were fairly respectable as well, ranging from a low of $1275 for some maiden quarterhorses up to $8025 for some good quarterhorses, and $7000 in the thoroughbred race I'd witnessed, the Wade Snapp Memorial Thoroughbred Derby, no doubt named in honor of the heir to the Snapple empire.
This being the next to the last day of the four weekend, nine day meet at Pocatello Downs, I knew I wouldn't be coming back, so thought maybe I'd check out the simulcasting facilities for a little additional gamblin' activity. These facilities were located in the 4H building behind the stands, and pretty much consisted of a few tables sitting around in the middle of the floor and a few TV's and maybe one teller. And all they were showing was Hollywood and Golden Gate. Dang! I wanted Arlington, and Lone Star. I'm a horseplayer; I deserve unlimited choice whenever and wherever I want it. So I left that joint without making a bet.
I'd been on the grounds maybe 45 minutes.
A most unsatisfying visit to a track, thanks to stoopid United Airlines. I had to content myself with the scenery along the freeway north, which included a dead badger by the side of the road, a big sign for the Potato Expo grounds which promised "Free taters for out-of-staters", a giant grain elevator complex which apparently collected up all the barley for the making of that horrible brew Budweiser and all the silos were painted up like Bud cans, and then the sign indicating the nearby presence of the mysterious "U.S. Sheep Experimental Station". I believe the latter has been the subject of one or more X-Files episodes. Plus there was a radio commercial for BeerFest 2000 in Idaho Falls, but tragically I could not stop.
-- Saturday, 6/3, 9:00pm, the Derby Bar, Harrison St., Butte, MT
My gamblin' fever was reaching a fever pitch. I convinced a friend in Butte we needed to stop into the Derby Bar, which is the Montana Simulcast Partners outlet in Butte, to see what might be on the tube that was fit to gamble upon. Nothing was on the tube. Simulcast action there is limited to four tracks, the two California tracks, plus Emerald and whichever Maryland track it was that was running that day. No evening action. No Great Lakes, no Penn National, no Evangeline, no whatever other fine tracks run evening cards. And they only do this four days a week, Wednesdays, and Friday through Sunday. How can these people even stand it?
Well since there wasn't gambling, we simply enjoyed large glasses of Moose Drool instead. And then later down at the Town Pump gas station we took out the gamblin' urges in the little keno/video poker casino behind the place which it seems every bar and restaurant in Montana has become in this day and age. I won $2.70 at keno and quit. The guy sitting next to me probably should have quit four hours earlier. He was losing and not happy about it. Free beer there. Free snacks, too.
-- Sunday 6/4, 11:00am or so, U.S./Canada border at Sweetgrass
The Canadian border guy is bored.
"Where ya goin'?" Lethbridge.
"Why?" Gamblin' fever.
"Where ya comin' from?" Butte.
"Have ya been up ta Canada before?" Yes.
"Are ya bringin' in any liquor, tobacco, or firearms?" No.
"Have a good day." Okay.
Like there was any other type day to have when it's a Gamblin' Fever day.
-- Sunday 6/4, a bit after noon, Whoop-Up Downs, Lethbridge, Alberta
On the way up I'd heard a radio commercial for Whoop-Up Downs touting all the fabulous dining choices available at the track, so I knew this was going to be a more substantial operation than tiny Pocatello Downs had been. And also on the way up I'd stopped at a tourist information booth that sported a large dinosaur replica out front, this apparently being dinosaur country as well, and scored a map of the greater Lethbridge area so I knew exactly where it was I was headed: To the Lethbridge & District Exhibition grounds out on the agricultural east side of town, easy to see and get to just off 4th street N.
And yes, this was a more substantial place indeed, a medium sized grandstand constructed of sturdy concrete and cinder block, with outdoor seating covered about 1/2 over by a roof and a glass enclosed area up at the top which it turns out is known as the "Top of the Grandstand" area. Parking out front was free, as was admission, and there were two pretty, youngish ladies all gussied up in tuxedos and hair ribbons greeting patrons at the door. Another pretty, youngish lady gussied up in a tuxedo and hair ribbons vended programs just inside the door, at $2.50 (Canadian) the pop, GST included.
Down on the main level we had a rather large room where the teller windows were located, including two actual mutuel machines, with lots of tables for people to plop on, some TV's for watching the live and some simulcast races, a hot concessions stand (your generic kind of stuff like for instance a hot link sausage which had some nice greasy clumps of fat in it and I forget how much that cost [Canadian]), a cold concessions window which never opened for business, your restrooms, and down on the left end an establishment known as "Bully's". Bully's was a nice little pub kind of place featuring a real rustic Western type of motif with a bar and food service and TV's for watching simuls and a special little simulcast room in the back, and loads of real live slot machines that were about 1/2 busy, and this cool little Sega horse racing game called "Royal Ascot" to which we will return later. Draft Molson Canadian from the Bully's bar was $2.50 (Canadian) the glass, and it was good. There was also this powerful big giant sized beer you could get for $5, but no barware was allowed out the door, so that was right out.
Out front was a good sized asphalt apron with some pretty ornamental benches on it, with umbrellas for shade. Down at the left end was a little enclosed gazebo-type area (can't say "structure") where the Rocky Mountain Dixieland Band, featuring the track bugler, would sit and entertain us between races, and no one ever clapped except the one time I did and shamed everyone else into it as well. Down at the right end, past the Winner's Circle enclosure, was the paddock, a rather plain affair, but sporting a very nice central floral arrangement.
The track itself didn't quite live up to the rest of the facility, though, being a very narrow little 4f affair with a long quarterhorse chute, between low rails, with some steep banks on the corners to keep the horses from flying out into space. The infield, once again, was au naturel, except for all the rodeo chutes, a minimum function toteboard, and a big pile of dirt inside the clubhouse turn that partially blocked the view of the races. The backdrop was barns, 4th Street, and a set of railroad tracks that featured some very noisy trains.
A good crowd had showed up on this perfect clear, cool, 20 degree (Celsius) day, maybe 250 people out front and another 100 inside Bully's, and then who knows how many up in the snooty section. Folks of all ages and persuasions on hand, including lots of kids, one of whom, about 5yo, after a race, asked me the most unique question I've ever had to field at a racetrack: "Ninja Turtles aren't real, are they?" (Answer: I don't think so.) Another set of little boys sported the MacKenzie Brothers hats with the earflaps, and I told their dad I thought those were pretty cool. This was a very friendly bunch to hang and talk with, answering all my questions, such as for instance "Why do those pretty, youngish ladies all gussied up in tuxedos and hair ribbons run down and stand in every Winner's Circle picture?" (The answer: So that the Rocky Mountain Turf Club can show a "classy presence".)
The card on the day consisted of 7 races, a maiden appaloosa event for $2000, two quarterhorse events at $2200 and $2400, and then four thoroughbred races for $2000 and $2200. (All purses Canadian). After Pocatello, these purses seemed kind of crummy, especially considering this track had slot machines and there were way more people on hand and this was a much fancier track with way more simulcasting. Perhaps this is why most of these races only drew 6 and 7 horses. I recognized one jockey's name, Roger Buening, who has ridden the Montana circuit at times when I've visited those tracks. One nice item I'd never seen before was a quarter horse entered in a 6f race. The quarter horse did not win. Just as one should not bet thoroughbreds in the quarter horse events, I guess one should not bet quarter horses in the thoroughbred events.
My gamblin' skills on the day were a little on the shaky side, so I started wandering into Bully's between races to see what might be happening in there, plus that's also where the beer was. One discovery here was that Canadian tracks are not to be outdone by their American counterparts when it comes to putting babes as analysts on the air, as Northlands Park from Edmonton had an attractive face by the name of Dawn doing the pre-race picks. Another discovery was the attraction of the Royal Ascot game, and this game is truly a boon to the man with Gamblin' Fever.
For you see, Royal Ascot is kind of like one of those bar room hockey games, with a clear plastic bubble over the playing field, except instead of little plastic hockey guys, there's little plastic horses on wheels (but their legs move) that run around an Astroturf-looking racetrack, and you can make bets on them via a coin slot! For $1 (Canadian) you can bet one of the six plastic horses to win, or on a quinella, and while the race is running there's a nice animation of the race up on a TV screen in addition to the little plastic horses under the bubble and it is all quite exciting. These races go off about one every 90 seconds, with the plastic horses lining up behind a little plastic starting gate, and a little video screen in front of you by the betting apparatus giving you some basic pp info about every plastic horse, like their "lifetime" 1-2-3 finish record, their last five finishes, their run style, and a fine analyst comment, such as "Don't disregard this one", and "Disregard this one". It was all so exciting! The Canadian dollar coins fairly leapt from my pocket. I was frothing at the mouth. Now THIS was gamblin'!
I should have known that Royal Ascot was a fix when I first walked in and saw Bold Ruler get beat by a bunch of no-name horses, but I could not help myself. In addition to the $20 (Canadian) I dropped on the real horses, Royal Ascot nicked me for another $12. Oh well.
On the way out I told the pretty, youngish ladies all gussied up in tuxedos and hair ribbons that they had looked real good down in the Winner's Circle, and they blushed.
-- Sunday 6/4, 6:00pm or so, Canada/U.S. border at Sweetgrass
The U.S. border guy is a clown.
"Where ya from?" Chicago.
"Oh, yer a U.S. citizen?" Yes.
"What were ya doin' in Canada?" Gamblin' fever, up at Lethbridge.
"Ya drive all the way to Lethbridge from Utah?" (Apparently the U.S. Government's Secret Squirrel surveillance equipment has detected the presence of a Utah license plate.) No.
"Then where'd ya drive from?" Butte.
"Ya drivin' back to Butte?" No, Great Falls.
"Why aren't ya drivin' back to Butte?" Don't wanna drive that far.
"Oh. That makes sense. Did you buy anything in Canada?" Just losers.
"Are ya bringin' in any liquor, tobacco, or firearms?" No.
"Okay, drive safe." Okay.
Like there was any other way to drive on the long, deserted stretch of interstate between Sweetgrass and Great Falls.
With the Gamblin' Fever temporarily chilled, it was time for some visiting with friends, and relaxing in the cool of the Montana Rockies in the week to follow. Well that, and these little tracks don't run except on the weekends.