The 1997 McChump ??/365 Racing Tour

31 Exciting Tracks! 29 Thrilling Stories!

  • Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA, Feb 15-16

He: "I used to think I knew all the answers. Then I realized I barely understood the questions."

She: "Ah. So what ARE the questions?"

-- exchange from the movie "The Last Days of Man on Earth"

I was pretty sure I had all the answers on Southern California racing, too. After my disappointing trip to Del Mar two summers ago, and based on my dislike for betting the So Cal simulcasts McChump #2 is so fond of, and also influenced by the constant hammering So Cal racing takes on various Internet discussion lists, I was thoroughly prepared to dislike Santa Anita on my first ever visit to that track, the initial stop on the 1997 McChump Racing Tour. It was going to take a trashing in this report. I just knew.

Except for two things: I had a blast, and fell in love with the track.


  • Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA, Mar 9, 15, 16
  • Philadelphia Park, Bensalem, PA, Mar 17
  • Sportsman's Park, Cicero, IL, Apr 1
  • Golden Gate Fields, Albany, CA, Apr 5, 6
  • Turf Paradise, Phoenix, AZ, Apr 12-18
-- Prologue --

Thanks to the largesse - errrrrr heartlessness - of The Big Co., I was forced to miss the best part of the Sportsman's Spring meet (and the accompanying fine Chicago weather), as I spent most of the months of March and April On The Road, working my fingers to the bone at various grueling conferences and sales office software installs. As always, however, I tried to make work fun, and stopped by a track or two on the way.


  • Canterbury Park, Shakopee, MN, Jun 12

[caution: The McChump of The North Tour was undertaken by a trained professional. Do not try this at home.]

-- Thursday, June 12 --

Distance: 426 miles
Drive time: 7 hours
Construction zones: 8
Authority vehicles spotted: 8
Dead deer: 3
Times lost: 1
Most idiot infested stretch of road: Rockford, IL -> Beloit, WI


  • Assiniboia Downs, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Jun 13

[caution: The McChump of The North Tour was undertaken by a trained professional. Do not try this at home.]

-- Friday, June 13 --

Winner! The McChump Tour's 1997 "Podunk Track of the Year"!

 

Distance: 475 miles
Drive time: 8 hours
Construction zones: 5
Authority vehicles spotted: 1
Dead deer: 1
Times lost: 0
International border crossings: 1


  • Marquis Downs, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Jun 14

[caution: The McChump of The North Tour was undertaken by a trained professional. Do not try this at home.

-- Saturday, June 14 --

  • Distance: 485 miles
  • Drive time: 8.5 hours
  • Stretches of road that should have been construction zones but weren't, instead just labelled by signs that read "This road sucks; you might want to think about slowing down": 1
  • Authority vehicles spotted: 4
  • Times lost: 1/2
  • Gophers spotted in and about the vicinity of "Gopherville", Saskatchewan: 0
  • Stops made in order to view the world's longest bicycle and the world's tallest swing at "Gopherville": 0
  • Rude awakening events involving the high price of Canadian gasoline and Canadian cigarettes: 1
  • Find of the day: The sausage used in the Canadian version of McDonald's breakfast products is much tastier than what we get in the U.S.
  • If ever there was a question regarding where potash comes from now it can be told: Saskatchewan


  • Stampede Park, Calgary, Alberta, Jun 15

-- Sunday, June 15 --

Distance: 389 miles
Drive time: 7.33 hours
Construction zones: 0
Authority vehicles spotted: 0
Times lost: 1
Times almost ran out of gas out in the middle of nowhere: 1


  • Doncaster Ranch, Twin Bridges, MT, Jun 19

Distance: 543.6 miles
Drive time: 9.25 hours (Tour de France scoring)
Construction zones: 0
Authority vehicles spotted: 0
Dead deer: 1
Live deer: 4
Live coyotes: 1
Times lost: 0
International border crossings: 1
Continental Divide crossings: 2


  • Montana State Fairgrounds, Great Falls MT, Jun 22

Distance: 213 miles
Drive time: 3.5 hours
Construction zones: 0
Authority vehicles spotted: 0
Times lost: 0
Miles of road with no particular speed limit: > 200


  • Les Bois Park, Boise, ID, Jun 25

Distance: 536.8 miles
Drive time: 10.25 hours (Tour de France scoring)
Construction zones: 11
Authority vehicles spotted: 8
Dead deer: 1
Live deer: 4
Times lost: 0
Most idiot stricken stretch of road: US 95 south from Grangeville, ID


  • Arapahoe Park, Aurora, CO, Jun 27

Distance: 854.5 miles
Drive time: not quite 12 hours (Tour de France scoring)
Construction zones: 14
Authority vehicles spotted: 4
Dead deer: 5
Live deer: 7
Live antelope: 56 (I kid you not - Wyoming is swarming with them)
Times lost: 0
If ever there was a question where soda ash comes from now it can be told: Southwestern Wyoming
Continental Divide crossings: 2


  • Saturday, June 28 - Nebraska State Fair Park, Lincoln, NE

Distance: 520.8 miles
Drive time: 9 hrs (Tour de France scoring)
Construction zones: 8
Authority vehicles spotted: 1
Dead deer: 2
Times lost: 0 (damn! I'm getting good)


  • Fairmount Park, Collinsville, IL, Jun 29

Distance: 470 miles
Drive time: 7.75 hrs (Tour de France scoring) + Wild guess
Construction zones: 5 including some really ugly ones
Authority vehicles spotted: 3
Dead deer: 1
Times lost: 1/4 (it really didn't count)
Most idiot stricken stretch of road: St. Louis


  • Arlington International, Arlington Heights, IL, Jun 30 & Jul 4

Distance: 286.8 miles
Drive time: 4.75 hrs
Construction zones: 8
Authority vehicles spotted: 4
Dead deer: 1
Times lost: 0 (I would certainly hope!)


  • River Downs, Cincinnati, OH, Aug 16
  • Ellis Park, Henderson, KY, Aug 17

I don't know what it was come over me. Maybe all the hype on the Internet and in the DRF come mid-summer. Great racing. A stakes every other race. The best breeding. The best people. No maiden claimers, ever.

But anyhow there I was one day at lunch just squooshing my mashed potatos (potatoes?) into interesting shapes like Richard Dreyfus modeling Devil's Tower, when suddenly one of the piles of potatoes remined me of the peaked roof of a certain racetrack grandstand and a chill of deja vu all over again shot down my spine. The siren call of The Spa started resonating through every fiber of my being:

"Sar-a-tOOOOOOga. Sar-a-tOOOOOOga. Sar-a-tOOOOOOga."


  • Prescott Downs, Prescott, AZ, Labor Day weekend

O the pageantry! O the tradition! O how special I felt being at Prescott Downs for getaway weekend after yet another fine meet at this historic track! O the raindrops I got on my head as the roof leaked during the fairly constant rain! O the beer me and McChump #2 polished off!

The dent Tanya Laib made in the storm fence down by the men's room when she ran that quarter horse into the fence last year instead of making the turn is still there. But sadly, this historic men's room is now closed, and you have to use a trailer out back. They should quit messing around with Tradition!!!!


  • The Woodlands Racecourse, Kansas City, KS, October 12

** The World-Renowned Podunk Track of the Week Tour **

The Podunk Track of the Week Tour had its genesis in a discussion on the Internet that pretty much bashed podunk tracks and posts about them. Immediately I decided that Internet needed way more podunk track material. In fact, it needed a big long post about a podunk track each and every week. And I knew just the guy to do it.


  • Portland Meadows, Portland, OR, October 18

Internet correspondent and honorary chump Scott Little saves my cookies, and the Podunk Track of The Week Tour, by pitching in with a guest commentary for a weekend I was sick.


  • Keeneland Racecourse, Lexington, KY, October 25, 1997

Oh sure. There's probably the purists out there - Pat - who'll say "hey chump this ain't a podunk track", but my answer to that is "Hey chump, I'm writin' it".


  • Bluegrass Downs, Paducah, KY, October 26

Cheesy foreign-built travelalarm, anyhow. Failed to go off. As I hustled to hit the road from my fabulous Elizabethtown, KY, Super 8 overnight accommodations ($38.20, single) I reflected back on the late, lamented Captain Travelalarm (aka "Rusty"). Now THAT was a good travelalarm. Why don't they build 'em like that anymore? Stinkin' cheap foreign model - now I'll never make it to Paducah on time!


  • Hoosier Park, Anderson, IN, November 9

" The Big Giant BC Weekend Gatherin' "

After much consultation, it had been decided that getting together at HOO on the day after the BC was much preferable to trying to get together on BC Day itself, which unfortunately meant some folks missed out on this gala event. But for those of you who were unable to attend on Sunday, maybe we'll try it again next year, when the BC is held within easy striking distance of the mighty Chumpmobile.


  • Hawthorne Racecourse, Stickney, IL, November 16

The scene: McChump HQ, Midwest, Thursday night, 11/13, a little after 10pm.

Me and the Chumpmobile, relaxing on the ChumpCouch(tm), enjoying a tasty Rice-A-Roni dinner fit for a king, washed down with PBR (can). The local Channel 5 weather chump, Andy Avalos, waving his arm over a big nasty winter storm heading our way, and projected to cover the entire upper Midwest by the weekend.


  • --- Ladbroke Detroit Race Course, Livonia, MI, November 21 ---

I'll tell ya - this whole McChump business is sure a lot easier when the weather's warm. No need to worry about what sort of nasty ugly driving conditions you might encounter between here and the far-flung outposts of the podunk racing kingdom. So when the weather chumps predicted a relatively quiet, if cold, weekend for the upper Midwest, I decided it was time to go for broke, took a day off from work, and headed off for Detroit as the first stop of a long weekend of podunking.


  • Thistledown, North Randall, OH, November 22, 1997

Okay, so there was sort of an embarrassing McChump "forgetting to set the alarm" incident early on in Livonia, but it wasn't all my fault: Road construction in Toledo, it was, road construction and the goofuses on the Ohio Turnpike - have you ever met a bunch of slower drivers on a nice well maintained toll road? Bottom line: Arrival in the greater Cleveland area with no chance to make 1st post. But 2nd post - okay.


  • Mountaineer Race Track, Chester, WV, November 22

What a handy deal this is: Hit the races at Thistledown in Cleveland in the afternoon, jump on the highway down to Youngstown and then south from there, and in a mere two hours you're in West Virginia, just in time for the night card at Mountaineer. The last few miles to Mountaineer aren't exactly Interstate - in fact they're mostly like winding, dark, country road - and then you're suddenly blinded by the lights surrounding Mountaineer, but still, it's not bad. Quick stop at the Mountaineer Lodge right out front of the track - well not too quick as the lot was jam packed with the cars of the gamblers patronizing the casino on the left end of the Lodge, so it was difficult to find a parking spot - to secure a room for the night, and they were very nice and found me room at the inn even though I didn't have a reservation and it was Saturday night, which was good, because there wasn't much else in the general vicinity except some trailer parks and I doubted they had rooms for rent, and then I was off to the track for an exciting evening of wagering action.


  • Beulah Park, Grove City, OH, November 23, 1997

Seeing the Ohio River valley in the vicinity of Mountaineer Park in the daylight is somewhat of a surprise when you've arrived after dark. Huge old nasty steel and petroleum factory after huge old nasty steel and petroleum factory scrunched right down on the river, which at that point is flowing through a narrow valley flanked by pretty good-sized hills, made the drive down to Steubenville seem like a trip through the Twilight Zone, but I lived through it and was soon headed west.


  • Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY, November 29

It's always something about Chicago that makes the beginning or end of these little road trips a little less enjoyable than a racin' road trip really should be. If it isn't rush hour traffic on Lake Shore Drive slowing things down on the way out of town, it's a sudden snow storm late at night after you've been driving all day under perfectly clear skies, or maybe the northeast wind whipping Lake Michigan into a frenzy till it spills over onto the Drive and closes it to traffic, so you have to do the last 45 minutes at a crawl up Clark Street with all it's stop lights and double parkers.

This morning it was fog, thick and cold, limiting vision to about 300 yards, and slowing traffic to a 35 mph crawl all down Lake Shore and I-90/94, that made getting out of town an agonizingly long ordeal. Of course, just a short distance into Indiana there was no more fog. Go figure.

But I did learn something interesting - you can pretty much tell where you are on the south side of Chicago simply by the smells.


  • Turfway Park, Florence, KY, November 30

Not a bad drive at all from Louisville to the greater Cincinnati area, accomplished in about 2 hours through pretty northern Kentucky landscape. Florence itself is an odd little burg, kind of a big truck stop, with lots of chain restaurants, and chain motels, and the Ramada Inn cannot be reccommended as it was a tad on the expensive side at $70-something, and was kind of rundown, but on the plus side there were rooms available when I arrived at 7:30 or so.

For a smaller racetrack town, DRF's were surprisingly hard to come by, and at the liquor stores and so on where I asked, the people who actually knew what I was talking about invariably directed me to another place that didn't carry DRF's, but finally I found someone who knew what they were talking about and directed me to the BP gas station on Turfway Road, where I scored me up a DRF and then went back to my motel room where I promptly went to sleep after 'capping just two races. A most worthwhile search.


  • Sam Houston Race Park, Houston, TX, December 26

Well originally the CD/TP weekend was going to be the big grand finale of the Podunk Track of the Week Tour, but I couldn't very well let 1997 go out on a vaguely dissatisfying shrug of the shoulders like Turfway Park, could I? Plus The Big Co. kindly gives us the week between Christmas and New Year's Day off, so I thought maybe I might as well put it to good use.


  • Fair Grounds, New Orleans, LA, December 28 & 29

Cheesy foreign-built travelalarm zapped me again. Or maybe it was the Bushmills-and-sodas at the Houston bar that closed too early. Whatever. Fact was, a day that was supposed to get started at 6:00 am didn't get underway till 9:00 or so. There was no way of making the day's destination according to schedule. Time for Plan 9.