I ain't gonna kid you, chump.
The main reason for making this particular Independence holiday trip to Montana and the great beyond was to visit the Millarville Races. But it didn't hurt any that I got to visit friends in the meantime, and also drop in on a small Western meet that's continually threatening to go belly up any year now.
Charlie Russell Downs, Great Falls, MT, June 30, 2001
It's a sad damn situation, this racing in Great Falls. Each and every year since the City failed miserably in its own attempts to run a profitable race meet at the fair grounds, it's tried to kill subsequent racing by finding some way to screw whomever is leasing the facility. Rumor is they want to do something different with the ground the barns sit on. So this year they found the way to screw up the lessee was to come down hard on the bad condition of the barns, even though the city never did a damn thing to fix up the barns when they were running the meet, and even though the city is responsible for maintenance at the fair grounds. So that lessee went right out of business, and the City and its manager were dancing with glee that they'd finally killed horse racing in Great Falls.
But wait! Cascade County owns the fair grounds and just leases it to Great Falls. Supposedly there is some sort of stipulation in the lease that says certain agricultural activities at the fair grounds, like racing, shall not be terminated. So suddenly Cascade County, in grudging partnership with the City of Great Falls, is putting on the meet this year.
We'll see. A money losing race meet won't be any more popular with the taxpayers of the County than they were with the taxpayers of the City. Here's hoping their experiment is a success, but I'm guessing the City will find some way to screw this up, too.
Meanwhile, however, I got to spend at least one last, glorious day at the little track where it all started for me.
So what's new since that last few times I reported on this one? Not much. Admission is still $2, but now it includes a program. Beer is still dirt cheap at $2.25 the can, and a nice selection of northwest products at that, like Olympia, Rainier, and Lucky, plus all the standards like Coors, MGD, and crud. BBQ pork sandwich $3. A display of NTRA stuff under the stands.
Ten races all told, four for quarterhorses (and paints), and six for thoroughbreds (at distances up to 5f+80!). Big purse of the day $1800 for a mixed breed allowance, and bottom $1300 for mixed breed maidens. Mostly eight horses per race, but one seven. Familiar faces in the irons, like Joe Coversup, Shannon Wippert, and "banned in Oregon but not Montana", Mark Boag. Betting pools were pretty whoppin', too. At post time before the 6th we had $638-427-284 WPS, plus $867 in the quinella pool and $2029 in the tri.
Three events of note, all in the same race, the 2nd:
1) A runaway pony horse, of all things, that led the other outriders on quite a merry chase,
2) Two horses scratched out while in the gate, reason unknown, and
3) The most elaborately turned out horse I have ever seen anywhere, Road Class, trained by Lisa Cano. This horse had a dreadlocked mane, a tail that had been braided and then loosened so it had that "just unbraided" look going on, PLUS three colorful little decorative bobs fastened into the tail, and then, to top it all off, glitter sprinkled over the horse's haunches. It was some sight, but of course I had no camera. It would have looked great in the Winner's Circle, too, if only it hadn't gone and finished third.
On the betting front, I was not exactly the king. It was one of those days where I could honestly say "Can you believe that? I bet the 2-3-5 and it came 8-6-1!" I cashed one ticket, a $7.40 winner. It was not a good day at the windows.
But you know what? It didn't matter. The weather was wonderful, the beer was cheap and cold, my fellow race-goers were friendly and fun to talk with, hosses were running races right in front of my face, and I was experiencing it all at the same little track where I saw my very first horse race, 30 odd years ago. Doesn't get any better than that.
(Subsequent note: The City did manage to ensure the meet was not a financial success by refusing to pay certain funds the County claimed it owed. When all was said and done, the summer 2001 meet ended up $90,000 in the red. In early 2002 the Cascade County commissioners voted not to run a meet in 2002. Horse racing in Great Falls would appear to be finally dead. The fallout will be interesting to watch, as well. Great Falls has historically been the training center that feeds short meets like Missoula, Kalispell, and Shelby.
In recognition of this fact, the McChump Racing Tour hereby declares a boycott against Great Falls and Cascade County. When I visit my relatives there, I vow to spend as little as humanly possible with any business located in Cascade County. In my case, that's three to five trips a year where a visitor with the Big City income will be refusing to spend money in that town, and indeed moving a lot of his tourist time to other cities like Billings. I urge you to do the same. In fact, bypass Great Falls entirely if you can. That town is no friend of racing.)
Millarville Racetrack, Millarville, AB, July 1, 2001
One may well ask, "What's so special about Millarville that you'd go all the way out there to see it, chump?" Well chump, I'll tell you. It is a one day meet. That's right, one day a year, every year, on Dominion Day, or whatever they call it now. I figured it would be quite the feather in the McChump Tour's cap if could manage to hit a one day meet in a small town in Alberta. So there I was.
Well, there I was after a very long morning drive from Great Falls, Montana, up to this small town sort of in the foothills of the Rockies south and west of Calgary. I only got lost once and even that not too serious, and had fun at the border.
"How long are you going be in Canada?"
"Just one day? What are you going to be doing?"
Betting horses at Millarville.
"Is that so?"
"I see." Pause. (Secret border guard code for: Please continue, this is going to require a more extensive answer.)
Yes, I've visited every other racetrack in your province, and now I'm going to see this one, too.
She just smiled, rolled her eyes, and waved me on through.
I almost got there on time, too. Actually I did get there on time for the 1:00pm post, but too late for the big Millarville Stock Horse Sprint Challenge that took place before the regular races. So that's not too bad, eh? 330 miles or so before lunch, and I arrive just in time for first post. Yeah, I'm the king.
Parking: Out in a field. Not too bad on a beautiful sunny day like this, but from what I understand pretty much a mud bog if it has been doing any serious raining. Parking/admission combination: $4, Canadian.
The racetrack at Millarville is located in what looks to be a multi-use facility that's kind of combination racetrack, fair grounds, rodeo grounds, and whatever other use they might feel like pressing it into, like for instance a farmer's market or flea market. It's actually located up the road and around the corner from Millarville, which itself isn't real easy to find on any standard map. Lots of trees and other greenery, and low hills surrounding.
The entire complex is a pretty good size thing, with a number of permanent structures out behind the track that apparently get used for different purposes at different times. For instance there's a substantial "hall" behind the paddock area labelled "Hall", and a steel quonset hut where the beer was served and a nice little shady garden behind it, and this one is labelled "Quonset". There is also a low shedrow of wagering windows, and a concession hut, and I think maybe one other building out back, and these all had labels, too.
The centerpiece, however, is the racing grandstand, a long two-part wooden affair of uncovered bleacher-type seats with nicely peeling white paint. Down below in back there is room for small commercial ventures, such as additional concessions, and alternative "games of chance". Grassy infield with some big trees and additional bleachers seats, plus a picnic area (well attended this day), a rodeo layout in the center which doubled as the Winner's Circle, clumpy dirt bullring track, au naturel paddock down to the right (grass and dirt, surrounded by a fence), and finally a combination judges/announcer/camera "terrace" on the right end of the stands. Pretty cool layout, overall, and way more substantial than you'd expect for a place that only races but one day a year.
With such a multi-purpose facility, you'd hardly expect there to just be horse racing going on on Dominion Day, would you? There wasn't. There was everything going on. Foot races for kids were run between the regular races, with money and chocolate bars for prizes. Bingo was taking place in "hall", a farmer's market or maybe a flea market was happening in "arena" (another quonset hut out back), games of chance, specifically a couple of roulette wheels, were spinning away under the back of the grandstand (all for charity), there was a big pile of dirt with money in it for kids to dig through, the permanent wagering shedrow along with the wagering trailer did brisk business taking hoss wagers, the concessions stands served up tons of tasty food cheap (Hungarian sausage $3.75, very tasty!, as well as bratwurst and hot Italian sausage, burgers $3.25 to $5 depending on the frills, buffalo sausage $4.50, beef on a bun $4.50, and trusty jumbo hot dog $2.25), thirsty race-goers crowded the beer garden (Molson Canadian or Coors light $3), and the big gravel concourse connecting it all was jammed with a big holiday crowd all day long.
In other words, racing day at Millarville was a big event. This was a huge damn crowd, prolly in the 5,000 range. And they were enjoying themselves, immensely. That included me, and Internet correspondent Paul L., who'd driven down from Calgary for the day to enjoy the races and meet up with the McChump Tour.
Oh yeah. Racing. There was that too, starting with a $2.50 program.
The Millarville Racing & Agricultural Society had put together a nice little card for the afternoon, consisting of nine races, with from five to eight horses per race. One Appaloosa Stake ($3300), one Arabian Stake ($3500), and seven tbred races from 5f to 1-1/8 mi., with purses from $2500 for claimers, MSW, and allowance horses, up to the big purse of the day, $3850 in the 96th running of the Millarville Derby, 3^ going 1-1/8th mile (which was quite a few turns, considering this is a 4f bullring). Most of the horses had most recently competed at the just concluded Lethbridge meet, but there were also a few from Hastings and Stampede Park, and the surpise horse of the day, Dr. Sardonica, who'd been stakes placed in Southern California, but laid off for four years before making his comeback attempt today in the Millarville Sprint Stakes ($3300). He won, paying reasonably well, despite jock Amber Dickinson hanging him very wide in the first turn.
Jocks and trainers were mostly unfamiliar to me, except for the aforementioned Ms. Dickinson, who I'd seen earlier in the year at Sagebrush Downs. It's actually good for me when I don't recognize any of the people involved - then I pay attention to the horses. Maybe one of these years I'll learn to apply that philosophy at my home tracks.
On the betting front I did reasonably well, hitting a fabulous $8.20/$4.10 WP bet in the 2nd, a fantastico $40.70 quinella plus $6.80/$3.60 WP in the 5th, and a super duper $9.20 quinella in the 8th. All in all a groovy $29.80 profit on the day (Canadian). I hope Paul was duly impressed by my prowess.
But, since there was still that 330 mile drive back to Great Falls to go, and a big crowd that would be jamming the single lane out of the parking lot, and the day was dragging out just a bit, I decided to skip the big Arabian Stake and bugged out without betting the 9th. Probably a good thing. Arabians are not good to me.
Thanks much to Paul L. for coming out - it was great meeting you, and the beers were much appreciated. And thanks much to Millarville! I had a fantastic day at your track and enjoyed every minute. Big thumbs up for Millarville racing.
It was kind of cool coming back across the border, too.
"When did ya enter Canada?"
"Ya went to Canada for just one day?"
"What were ya doing in Canada for just one day?"
Betting horses at Millarville.
"Where?" (Secret border guard code for: Please continue, this is going to require a more extensive answer.)
Millarville. It's this little town.
Eventually he just rolled his eyes, and waved me on through.
Horse players seem to amuse border guards.