What with it being a nice late winter day in Chicago on Sunday, and rumors of all the old gang going to be out at the track, I determined to make my way down to Cicero and check out all the fan friendly improvements Sportsman's has supposedly made to the Speedway. And of course to win some money, if possible. And what a day it was.
No major traffic delays or construction zones were encountered. There's a nice change.
The first fan friendly improvement to engage me was a $2 admission, as compared to last year's $1, and the prior years' $0. To be sure, you still get a program for that $2, and a slick program it is indeed. Of course I didn't look at it once throughout the course of the day, but whose fault is that?
My theory here was that somewhere over the past year, when Sportsman's management was talking to the fans about what improvements they'd like to see, someone raised the issue of the overwhelming crush of fans that came in last year for $1, and couldn't they do something about keeping the crowds down to a comfortable level. Why, I myself had to stand in line for a betting machine last year for upwards of 22 seconds this one time, so I could certainly understand where someone might want to keep the $1 riff-raff out by raising that admission to $2.
Having thus justified the admission increase to myself, I entered the grandstand with high hopes.
Well! As a simulcast parlor, this place is now 2nd to none, except maybe the parlor at Lone Star. Way better IMHO than anything else we've got in Chicago. Carrels, carrels everywhere - none of that cheap folding table stuff like at Arlington Trackside. Facing the TV's, too - what a concept! And new TV's out the wazoo, including a number of very nice, crisp, clear big screens. A few of these seem wasted, in odd spots, or down low, and no one was looking at them, but I'm sure they'll probably be relocated to better spots before long. Some nice colorful thingamabobs suspended overhead, so you could feel like you were in a nice enclosure of some sort, instead of just staring at the dark Spt rafters, and much of the ground floor refurbished, it seems, with spiffy new awnings by the teller windows, and spruced up concessions areas, and all sorts of groovy stuff for the simulcast players. And even, wonder of wonders, some areas marked No Smoking.
But the simulcast amenities were not why I was there.
I was there for the burritos, a value play at $3.00, and the beer, which seems to have also experienced a price increase since last year, from $3.00 to $3.25. On the plus side in the beer department, the downstairs concession areas now have little coolers with bottled beer offerings as well as the omnipresent Crud on tap. This is a good thing.
As long as I was there sampling the cuisine, I decided I might as well check and see what they might have done in terms of the live racing.
Item #1: You can now access the outside grandstand seats from the main grandstand floor! It's so true! They opened up one of those stairways that had been papered over by the car track makeover, and now you can go right on up into the stands! Will wonders never cease!
Item #2: You don't have to go up to the very tippy top for a clear view anymore! No you don't! They took down the concentration camp fence atop the auto crash retaining wall, at least some of it, so you can get a good view of the track from the seating area. Mind you, the stupid building is still there in the infield blocking the far turn.
Item #3: The dog food billboard on the backstretch wall - gone!
Item #4: An elevated platform down along the rail by the finish line, with some tables on it and stuff, so you can hang on the "apron" by the "rail" and actually see something for a change. Things like horses, and jockeys.
Item #5: A better toteboard than last year. Somewhat.
Item #6: Greenery! Yes indeed, there's some flowerpot kind of things around the Winner's Circle, and even a small shrubbery (temporary) out in the middle of the infield! It can never replace the late, lamented, little fake farm on the pond in the old Sportsman's infield, with the geese, and ducks, and the little barn and windmill, not to mention the old shrubbery like the nipple bush, but it is an attempt.
All in all, I decided, a distinct improvement from last year. Still a car track and still butt ugly, though.
The other area that had supposedly undergone some renovations was the third floor, so later in the day Ken K., Steve M., and I headed up for a scouting expedition. This baby is looking nice. For one, they put some window tinting in, so there's not such a glare up there on the TV's. The whole floor looks spiffy and clean, and quite bright, compared to the dark cavern of the 1st floor. Lots of TV's and tables. And there's a spiffy new Handicapping Center down at the end. You feel good for Scott McMannis about that. He had a nice little crowd of regulars on hand when we dropped in.
Out front of the third floor, the most popular live viewing area, they'd taken down the top row of seats so that if you were standing on the "skydeck" those wouldn't be blocking your view anymore. And also if you happened to be sitting at one of the window tables inside. There's also a nice little awning along the front of the windows, and covering part of the deck, so one could conceivably stand outside to watch a race in inclement weather.
However, thoughout the day, no one did much standing outside, or sitting outside, or even visiting outside, before, during, or after the live races. It was pretty pitiful.
Most patrons preferred to stay inside. They've even managed to whip Steve M., one of the Last Of The Chicago Live Racing Fans, as he too spent most of his day at a paddock-side carrel. Or maybe it was just because it was sort of chilly out. I have to admit, even I watched a race or two on the TV after coming in to handicap, and then being too lazy to make the long and arduous trip back outside.
This staying inside was not without its benefits, however, as it seems Sportsman's had arranged a free floor show for the benefit of the ground floor patrons. Oh, it wasn't strolling mariachis or anything like that; it was far better. It was The Passion Play of The Livid Patron.
I first encountered The Livid Patron before maybe the third race, when I went up to bet. The LP (an older gentleman) was apparently playing simulcasts from somewhere or another, and seemingly having a bad day. As I made my bets he was rooting the 6 horse in a race showing on one of the monitors over the windows. Very loudly. In fact I do not believe there was a higher top to his lungs to which he might have aspired.
"Come on six! Stay up there six! Sh*t!" (right here the six got passed, because I had secretly put the hex on it) "Oh you G*d d*mn six! You motherf*cker! I hope you die and get ground up into dog meat and go fry in h*ll, you f*cker! G*d d*mn MOTHERf*cker!"
Trust me, what he lacked in original vocabulary, he made up for in sheer volume.
The patrons in the vicinity, me included, regarded The LP quizzically, so he decided to address us. Still loudly.
"Did you see that motherf*cker six? Fifth G*d d*mn f*cking odds-on favorite in a row that's lost! How can you ever win in this game? You can't! Motherf*ckers!"
The patrons in the vicinity, me included, wandered away from The LP, with many a smirk, and many a low-voiced opinion about the wisdom of a steady chalk diet, not to mention speculation on whether or not such a diet might cause characteristics of the lower end of the digestive tract to somehow be expressed through the upper. I felt kinda sorry for a few moms with little kids there in the general area who'd been exposed to the tirade, though. The kids were wide-eyed.
However, sorry or not, this was way, way better than just the muttered cursing down at the Lone Star simulcast pavilion. This was true entertainment. I took the news that The LP floor show was in full swing over to the members of the Kelly Sampson Fan Club, so that they too could keep their eyes peeled for this remarkable gentleman.
He did not disappoint. Just one race later, there he was again, howling to high heaven, but this time he was engaged in a heated discussion with someone who was apparently one of his handicapping buddies.
"I TOLD you to include that f*cking eight! Didn't I tell you to include that f*cking eight!". All the time waving a fistful of tickets.
The response of the buddy was inaudible, but he too waved a handful of tickets angrily.
Suddenly The LP flung his tickets through the air at his buddy with a motion as if he was snapping a large and nasty booger off his finger. The buddy did the same, right back at him. I've never seen tickets tossed in quite such an artful and disgusted manner.
I thought I might want to try this myself, for future reference, should I ever attain the pinnacle of handicapping as these gentlemen obviously had, and asked the Vice President of the Kelly Sampson Fan Club if he would like to see a demonstration of my technique. He said he would. Unfortunately I had only one losing ticket to toss at that point, so it wouldn't be nearly as good as a handful, but I gave it my all. It felt real, real good, but one ticket fluttering through the air was just not the same. The VP/KSFC suggested that perhaps I could achieve greater effect if I was to throw my program angrily on the floor, as well. So I did, with a resounding and satisfying "thwack", and considered that maybe I'd got some of my money's worth out of it, after all.
Well now. I never knew what fun I've been missing by behaving at the live races all these years. This simulcasting stuff is way more fun. You can cuss, you can throw fits, you can shock little kids, and you can verbally abuse the other patrons. What more could you want?
With the improvements for the live racing, free shows like this, and winning a whopping $53.40 on the day, I'm most definitely going back to Sportsman's Park.