Breeder's Cup at Arlington Park, October 26, 2002

I had no real intention of attending the BC at Arlington this year. The whole seat selection deal, where the real grandstand was never available to the general public, and then a whole bunch of seating areas that had no paddock access, just rubbed me the wrong way.

Then they started cutting down all the trees which are an integral part of Arlington's ambience, and those "not available to the general public" seats up in the grandstand starting showing up on the black market - so long as you "knew somebody" - and the entire months of September and October at Arlington were a giant pain in the butt for the regulars (the few who actually showed up, that is - whose idea is it that Chicago racing fans want to be outdoors in October? Racing is supposed to be at Hawthorne in October), so I determined to boycott this BC and all future ones as well. The heck with them. The fact that my usual group had got skunked in the seat lottery had nothing to do with it.

And so, I just went out there each week, nurturing my incipient boycott, and watched them put up the seats on the club turn where there used to be trees, and on the picnic area and grandstand turn> where there used to be trees, and watched the hideous restaurant thing go up where there used to be a nice little party tent and a lawn and trees, and suffered through not having a decent place to sit on the apron while they built these tiny apron box thingies. But it didn't matter, you know, that they were ruining "my" track before my eyes, as I was just one of the folks who came out there a couple of times a week, all year, for years on end. For you see, the mighty Breeder's Cup! was coming to Arlington Park, and people who came to it were going to be dumb enough to pay $140 to sit where I normally sat for free. That, of course, is "good for business", and what's good for business is good for all, or so they say.

But, no personal plans to go to this BC notwithstanding, there was still the little matter of playing official "local" host to out-of-town guests this weekend, just for the sake of neighborliness, so an official unofficial meetup of Internet correspondents was hatched and plotted, for Friday afternoon before the Big Day.

Meanwhile, as it turned out, the plan of boycotting the BC in favor of playing Beulah and Turf Paradise from Hawthorne had one serious flaw in the ointment, which was that Beulah and Turf Paradise weren't offered on Saturdays in Chicago during Arlington's season. Curses. So, two weekends before the BC, when I got a hot tip on some "homestretch reserved" BC tickets which became suddenly available from an acquaintance of a friend, who turned out to be a guy with a ponytail wearing shorts in 45 degree weather and who had somehow got two sets of tickets in the Lottery, I said what the heck. Some boycotts last shorter than others, and I'm over the trees they cut down to make room for those seats.

That last minute availability of tickets in the Chicago area was hardly limited to me and the guy in shorts. In the final week, hot tips on all manner of tickets, from the lowest to the highest, had been floating around the place, at face or less. Up till Thursday night I was scamming up a deal to get Dave R. from England and his friend real grandstand seats, as opposed to the 1/4 pole cheapies the BC people had sold him.

When Friday rolled around, we got a pretty good crowd of Internet correspondents up there in the free seats of the AP grandstand in the cold (oh yes, a VERY cold weekend), all bemoaning the fact that for some reason the price of beer had gone up 50 cents overnight, or at least since Wednesday, which was the last time I was there. Stuart S. from California, Allan W. from New Jersey, Jeff D. from Tennessee, Tom W. from Maryland plus two friends, Tim S. from Massachusetts, Dave R. and friend from England, Ed L. and wife, Jan W., and me from the Chicago area, and I'm sure some others I'm forgetting, were all up there swapping stories and lies and whatnot, and generally having a great time. Big winner on the day was Dave R., who used the time-honored selection procedure of betting a jockey from his homeland, more or less, Mick Doyle, who promptly delivered Dave a $50+ winner, sending Dave howling down the 3rd floor concourse toward the finish line, waving his ticket in the air. Not bad. Hot tip of the day came in on Bull Market in the Juvenile. Supposedly someone had talked to someone in Baffert's barn on the backside, and they had high hopes for this one. He was, in the parlance, "comin' around".

After the racing, a large contingent of the grandstand crew repaired to Jimmy D's, the bar across the street from AP, for additional libations, gossip, and stories. Also joining were Janine S. and Mick J., Chicagoans who apparently work for a living and couldn't make it out to the afternoon races.

Who did I encounter just inside the door of Jimmy D's but longtime Chicago racetrack bugler Joe Kelly, who was retiring after this weekend. I took the opportunity to wish him good luck, and thank him for all the good memories. And, sitting at the bar, not the usual Chicago jockeys, but superstar Kieren Fallon, with a retinue of no mean size. Dave, being a countryman, more or less, which made it okay, walked up to Kieren and asked if Golan was going to fire in the Turf, as we'd read bad reports about his liking for the AP turf so far. Kieren's answer: "Yes". A man of few words. Gotta like that in a jockey. The brashness on Dave's part paid off, though, as later, when everyone in the place had consumed several more libations, one of Kieren's retinue approached Dave and, in a low and confidential voice, tipped him on Hold That Tiger for the Juvenile, as a horse they "really liked". And Dave himself tipped us all on a contender for the Mile, a certain Domedriver, who he really liked. So there we had it: All sorts of hot tips, and not a lick of handicapping. And sometime during all this, Dave and I took a little ride to pick up the pair of hot tip real live grandstand seats for him and his friend, thanks to Internet correspondent Gayle S., thanks very much. Whew! What a day.

Picture from Jimmy D's courtesy of Mick J.

Saturday morning came around pretty early for some reason, and the McChump Party had to hustle to get all bundled up in winter garb and then drive out to Des Plaines to meet friends Suntan Tommy and Cindy, who were going to occupy two of the seats purchased from Kenny, the guy in the shorts. We had big plans for getting out to Arlington, being the swave and deboner urban Chicago types we are, which was to catch the Metra train and ride on out there in style for a cheap price, eschewing the parking problems and high prices that mere mortals from The Land Beyond O'Hare were going to face. Metra had added trains for this event to handle the big anticipated crowd. It would be easy. What a great town, Chicago.

So, after a fabulous breakfast at the plush downtown Des Plaines Sugar Bowl restaurant, where I think we only got called "hon" maybe 30 times, we wandered over to the train platform and stood there, on what we hoped was the correct side of the track, and waited for like 15 minutes in the cold for the 10:12 train. Pretty soon there comes an announcement: "Metra commuters, the outbound train is totally full, no more room, so no passengers will be allowed on. You next option is [blah blah blah about some train that will be in Park Ridge about an hour later]." So much for the public and environmental benefits of mass transit, and the hot tip from the Arlington web page about stupid Metra and its "extra" trains, not to mention our urban hipness. Luckily, Tommy knew someone working in a business about a block from the Des Plaines train station, so we got a ride to AP in a car, just like a suburbanite, over surprisingly unbusy streets, and got dumped out right across NW Highway from the train station. Ha! Still better than those plebes fighting remote parking.

There were so many tickets for sale by that train station and in the parking lot it was totally unbelievable. It made the scalping action outside a late September Tuesday afternoon Cubs vs. Expos game look like puny. Little wonder so many seats appeared empty on the NBC telecast the day of the BC. I didn't even bother to take Dave's former 1/4 pole tickets out of my pocket. Here's my hot tip for the next time a BC sells out and you are worried about getting a ticket: Just show up; you'll be fine.

The much-ballyhooed tight security was actually quite a bit more lax than everyone feared it would be. Kinda looked at my camera, waved a metal detector wand in my general direction, and that was it. They did take a bottle of water away from this one guy. It looked pretty dangerous. Possibly it was from France.

The temp facilities, at least in this homestretch reserved section, were surprisingly not at all bad. We had a little tent with some merchandise tables and a couple of mutuel windows on the way in, a bigger tent with mutuels, and then a really big tent with mutuels and concessions. Also three restroom facilities. The seats themselves were comfy stadium-type seats, and plenty of room between rows. Way more personal space and legroom in these than down in the apron boxes, I suspect. Getting concessions was never a hassle all day long. Naturally, the prices were still jacked up for the occasion, as had started Friday. On the plus side we had strolling beer vendors. Never much of a line for the men's rooms, either, and the ladies said they never had a line at all.

Betting was another story. It was miserable, and I finally just gave up, as did many. Not enough machines, goofballs trying to use them, and some mutuel tellers who'd apparently been "trained" just that morning. Many complaints from the masses about this situation. Everyone had to clear out of their seats immediately after each race to run down and bet, which of course added to the impression there was no one in the stands. Also Tommy reported that he'd seen a guy lose a $70 voucher in a machine, who when he brought it to the attention of the mutuel staff, was told they had no radio or telephone to the main building so could do nothing about it. Too bad, so sad, tell your dad. All told, though, the betting situation was about the same as most other BC's I've attended, although folks out in the 1/4 pole section reported after that theirs was way worse, balanced out by the people who had been inside, who said it was no hassle at all.

The viewing wasn't too bad there from the former Park, and we had a nice bigscreen to watch the parts of the race we couldn't see in person. I only had one complaint, which was that our seats were first on a major aisle, and groups of people would just stand there in the way of the viewing and the walking, so that anyone who wanted to walk down the aisle pretty much had to clamber over us in our seats. Two "crowd control" characters down at the end did nothing. Finally we took to standing around in the way as well, just as a defensive measure. Plus it made it easier to huddle to keep out of the wind and to stamp our feet to keep warm.

It was a pretty good crowd down there which also appeared to have some extra time on its hands. I'm not a big Durkin fan, as he is waaay to dramatic for my tastes. In the Mile, when he uttered his now-infamous "AND ROCK OF GIBRALTAR IS LAST!!!!!" the whole crowd around me spontaneously burst into a chorus of mocking "Ooooh!s" and "Ahhhh!s", and we had a lot of fun with that and various Durkin impressions for some time after. There was also a cameraman on a hydraulic lift down front of us, and when he raised it up way high before the start of the Turf and blocked our view, he got booed quite lustily, then cheered as be lowered it, booed again as he played with us and raised it back a bit, and then got a good round of applause when he finally took the thing all the way back down. The beer guy had been coming by our section quite often.

I wondered if Kenny was wearing shorts today, down there in his apron seats. And if so, I wondered, did he get a tan during the three whole minutes the sun peeked out from the clouds all day. I wondered how Dave and his friend were doing up in the real grandstand. (Fine, as it turned out. Way warmer than us, and much shorter lines. I wondered if the beer guy would come by any time soon. I probably wouldn't have had time to wonder all this stuff if I'd been still betting, but I wasn't.

Lots of excellent racing, especially the Juvy Fillies. What a comeback by Storm Flag Flying. High Chaparral was very impressive. Rock of Gibraltar was impressive in the post parade, anyhow. When Volponi won the Classic, you could hear a pin drop in our section. Either people hadn't even bothered to bet the race and didn't care who won, like me, or didn't have him on their tickets.

Lowlight of the day, of course, was the Landseer breakdown which happened during the Mile right in front of us. One woman behind me was quite shaken by this event.

Bettingwise, I didn't do a whole lot so only lost $12 on the day. My only hit was the Mile exacta featuring tip horse Domedriver. The rest of the hot tip horses disappointed. So much for hot tips. My buddy Tommy made out quite well, having hit a couple of tris.

All in all, my only real complaint was the betting lines, and the cold, but of course the latter wasn't anyone's fault. Good job by Arlington getting the place set up for this, at least my section, and a great day at the races. $60 didn't seem too bad for those tickets, though $5.25 was way too high a price for those beers.

Getting back to Des Plaines by train was another adventure, with a nasty, shoving crowd of idiots on the track platform who just HAD to get on the first available train. But we waited for the next and the ride was nice, plus I think maybe Metra felt bad about earlier, as we all got to ride for free. As we left the AP station, there was still a long, long line of people waiting to get on the buses for the remote parking lots, so at least we could feel temporarily superior.

So we did, temporarily.

Had to come out one last time on Sunday, the last day of the season, because two days of racing in a row is just never enough. Still a big crowd of out-of-towners on hand, and Arlington still gouging them the inflated beer prices. Just inexcusable to treat outtatowners like that. However, it turned out, it was somehow "fan appreciation day", at least for the regulars, so Tommy and me got our beers for a "greatly reduced rate", let us say. We tipped the vendors generously. Ran into Internet correspondent John M. and wife Jane upstairs, hiding inside to keep warm. John related the sad story of missing the Santos-Santos double at the end of the previous day's card, betting Jose on Volponi but somehow leaving out his horse in the finale.

It was also bugler Joe Kelly's last day, which had played no small part in my decision to go out. There was a nice retirement ceremony for him, with a well-produced video highlight film, the effect of which was somewhat spoiled by an untimely sound failure which lasted approximately the exact same length of time as the film. Mr. D. also presided over a nice ceremony, which included the presentation of a large check from AP to a charity cause close to Joe's heart, plus an all-expenses paid trip for Joe and wife to the Caribbean. Nice gesture. We will all miss you, Joe.

One last hot tip, though! Some owner had tipped his horse as a sure winner in one of the later races, and the word was out, all over the park. The vendors were making bets, the concession help was making bets, and everyone from the backside seemed to be up there making bets.

Unfortunately, the horse had not been let in on the tip.