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.
Pesky little drive from Chicago to Houston, especially that last 300 miles or so that's not interstate but rather a local highway where one minute you're doing 70 and the next 40 through some East Texas Podunkville, not to mention when it's raining all the way from Little Rock to just north of Houston. But I did learn there's one state that actually is proud of Bill Clinton, namely Arkansas - "Little Rock: Bill Clinton's FIRST Capital!", "Hot Springs: Home Town of President Bill Clinton!", and "Hope: Birthplace of President Bill Clinton!" - but that was somewhat tempered by the fact that, from the Interstate at least, Arkansas is a state of trailer parks, much standing water that reminds one of summer mosquito heaven, and very interesting smells. And a hitherto unknown racetrack was discovered in the piney woods of eastern Texas, namely Piney Woods Downs somewhere north of Nacogdoches, so that right there was a bonus.
Some 1100+ miles and 19 hours of drive time later, I managed to pull into the Sam Houston parking lot in time for the 2nd race on the night's card. And I would have been on time except for two embarrassing McChump getting lost incidents, one in the farm fields east of Kankakee, IL, of all places (note to self: do not get off the Interstate at Kankakee), and the other involving a high speed freeway tour of downtown Houston in late rush hour traffic.
The first impression of Sam Houston at night is of a brightly lighted festival tent, as the whole structure is a big, airy sheet metal place with lots of banners and other brightly colored gewgaws and lights, did I mention lights?
Admission: $2.00, track program $1.00, and this track program was a combination of the "old" programs on the left page and the newer Equibase pp type program on the right page, and was actually pretty decent, especially for a buck.
Inside, the big festival tent motif continued, as the ground floor is a big, open, airy space with lots of banners and multicolored plastic seats surrounding dozens and dozens of free tables throughout the whole ground floor, and the inside supports are bright red, spidery, tube steel thingies holding up the rest of the place, and overall you think right off the bat "Yup, Houston", but after a very short while you come to realize that it isn't too bad at all.
The ground floor has lots of concession stands selling all sorts of tasty food items, like pizza, and pasta, and soup, and ice cream, and BBQ, and chicken, and Philly cheese steaks, and Mexican items, for prices ranging from $1.50 for the standard hot dog up to $4.95 for the cheese steak, and the whole lower level was heaven, smell-wise. Teller windows along the front kind of blocking the view out onto the track, and plenty of machines, the cool "faux slots" kind, along the back. Couple of bars selling draft Bud for $2.75, but also a large selection of imported beers in bottles for $3.25, and one that had draft Heineken for $3.25 which was unfortunately flat.
As I'd arrived just before the 2nd, I let that one go off without betting it, but applied the principles of InstantCappin(tm) to the third and scored a nice $16/6.20 WP horse in the 3rd using an angle I got from an unlikely source on the Internet, then lost in the 4th, and got a nice $11.60 winner in the 5th, and then it was time to head up the escalator to see what was shakin' on the 2nd floor.
Meanwhile, popular C&W tunes, and I knew them all by heart after all that drivin', believe me, entertained us all over the PA between races. Tres kewl!
2nd floor is pretty much a carbon copy of the 1st, except all the chairs up there are a subdued blue, and the seats up front looking over the track all cost money to plop your butt in, for prices ranging from $1.00 on up, and of course the McChump budget doesn't allow for this kind of expenditure, so sittin' there was none. A couple of decent bars on the 2nd floor as well.
6th race was the first division of the Cash Over Texas starter handicap series, and I crushed this sumbitch, with a nice $46.60 quinella, putting me way ahead of the $40 cash voucher I'd purchased on the way in.
Nice feature at Sam Houston: Before each race they'd dim the lights inside - the better to see the race outside, my dear.
The racing on the night consisted of 11 races, starting with 9 $5k claimers running for a purse of $4620 (including Accredited Texas Bred funds), through 10 2yo maiden claimer running for $5670, up to $5800 for $25k maiden claimers, to $7k added for the starter hcp's, to $9500 for straight maidens, up to the high purses of the night, $11000 for n2l allowance horses. Smallest field of the night was the aforementioned 9 horses, and in general these races were going off with 10, 11, 12 runners. Big fields and decent prices. Woo hoo!
Unfortunately, the good residents of Houston hadn't realized there was all this eaaaaasy money available just up the road, and mostly what was on hand was the typical old coot crowd, although some younger folks were spotted on occasion.
The weather wasn't exactly cooperating, as it was cold and windy, so the trips out to the apron were quick and few, but it is a nice apron, with inlaid brick and lots of free tables and benches to park on if you were so inclined, and the infield was fairly generic, with a couple of ponds, one on each end, and a full feature toteboard, but since it was night I can't report on this aspect of the track nearly as well as if I'd seen it during the day.
Back inside, as the simul crowd was playing Penn National, and Balmoral, and Maywood, and Australia, I was crushing the 8th, the 2nd leg of the Str series, for a nice $49.80 exacta, but then giving some of it back in the 9th and 10th, and my original cash voucher was just about doubled. As it was getting late I decided it was time to hit the gift shop down by the GS entrance, where there was a very nice older lady working, and I don't know what it is, but I must have a horsey look or something, as she asked if I had an owner's license, which I just happened to, even though she thought the Illinois license was "odd", so I got a nice horseman's discount again. And then she popped the question:
"You got a horse running tonight?"
Well, yes, I was forced to admit, but she isn't likely to win.
"What's her name?", she asked, so I told her, and she wished me good luck, and I said I certainly needed it.
Finally the 11th, the reason I was at Hou in the first place, when it comes right down to it, and I wandered out back to the saddling area, which is an okay but no great shakes saddling area BTW, and finally I found my Texas partners who I'd been looking for all night, as trainer Gilbert Ciavaglia was saddling our horse for her effort in the 11th, originally a turf race but now taken off due to all the rain. I didn't hold out much hope for Nat, as we'd seen her fade on the dirt in similar situations in Chicago.
With the horse saddled and on her way, me and the boys and Gilbert hung for awhile and chatted, and I allowed as to how I didn't think we had much of a chance, while Gilbert was a good deal more positive. And pretty soon it was race time, and me with no post parade pictures.
Jockey Terry Stanton took her out quick from her 10 hole in this 1m70yds event and grabbed the rail before the 1st turn, and had an easy lead through the 1st turn and down the backstretch. No big deal, thought I, I've seen it before: she'll die in the stretch. But she hung on pretty good thru turn 2 and came into the homestretch with a nice lead. All of a sudden the partners I was with, rookies they, were up on the benches and yelling for her to hang on, and she was, and about the stretch call even this old jaded owner was hollering at the top of his lungs for this horse to hold on, and wonder of wonders she did, winning this allowance event by open lengths, and then there were 3 very happy campers and Gilbert grinning their brains out in the Sam Houston Winner's Circle as OUR HORSE came back a 13-1 winner in our first, of hopefully many, races in Texas. Yeeeeeee-HAW!
Final total on the night: cash voucher more than tripled. I told you it's often a surprise when your own horse wins. ;-) This sure was one of them times, 'cause if thought she was going to win at 13-1 I sure would have had a lot more money on her.
The Budgetel Houston North gets high marks for being a nice place, cheap, close to the track, and having rooms still available at midnight.
The chain restaurant/bar that me and Cary and Darrell closed up gets low marks for closing as early as it did. Man - you schlubs coulda made a ton more money offa me, especially since I wasn't driving by then.
Sam Houston: Two big thumbs up!