-- Saturday, August 14, 1999
-- Approximately 11:30 am, deep in the Texas Hill Country
I'd seen what I thought was a good deal of Texas - the piney woods in the east, the flat prairie around Dallas, the scrubby cattle country east of San Antonio, the coastal plain from Houston down to the Gulf - but this country was something else again. As far as the eye could see, low hills covered with live oaks, and filled with exotic imported wildlife, stretched off to the horizon. The exotic wildlife puzzled me a bit, but it was later learned that the Texas Hill Country is home to numerous "exotic game" ranches, with imported species of deer and antelope brought in for whatever reasons imported species are brought in, and now running more or less wild on the ranches. Lots and lots of little towns, too, way more than I'd expected to see out in the hinterlands of Texas, with lots and lots of little local businesses with names like the Bluebonnet Diner. A different world entirely than the mad rush of Dallas, and Houston, and Austin. Quiet. Peaceable-like. Quaint.
And just to top it all off, unexpected signs start appearing alongside the road just outside Fredericksburg.
I hadn't even noticed this in the planning, and quickly glanced at the map. Yep. There it was, just down a little side road. The words of Waylon's hit started running through my mind:
"There're only two things in life that make it worth livin' Guitars tuned good and firm feelin' women"
Well, I'm not sure just what you were thinkin', Waylon, old chump (or whoever wrote that song). There's also racing, and that's what's on the agenda for today. Though ... them two aren't a bad start.
"Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys This successful life we're livin' has got us feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys"
Come on, racetrack. Hot, long drive, cranky tempers.
-- Approximately 11:40 am, Fredericksburg, Texas
Now this is an interesting little town, out in the middle of nowhere. Fancy old stone structures that would look more at home in some old European village, and some older places that would look right at home on the set of a Western movie, with the false fronts and 2nd floor balconies that one can just imagine bad guys crashing through and onto the street after getting shot in some big movie shootout.
This is also a very touristy looking town, and oddly, lots of German sounding shop names.
-- Approximately 1:00 pm, Gillespie County Fairgrounds, Fredericksburg, TX
Not hard finding this place after an adequate Mexican lunch in town, even one including a Dos Equis. Just a little bit south, down the road heading for Kerrville.
Parking in the gravel lot: free. Ambient temperature noted after opening the car door: ~150 F. Ah yes. Another one of those days.
The entrance to the racetrack part of the fairgrounds has a nice wrought iron sign over the entrance proclaiming "Gillespie County Fairgrounds", and another little banner type sign on the fence with fancily lettered wording in red reading "Willkommen to Fredericksburg! The feeling is parimutuel".
Admission at the little booth under the sign was a nominal $4.00, although the Texas owner's license quickly reduced that to a nominal $0.00. The program, however, rang in at $1.50. No DRF with Gillespie pp's was available, so, needless to say, the McChump party did not patronize the DRF on that particular day. (The McChump party has not been patronizing the DRF a whole lot this year, for similar reasons, at many tracks, though it must be said that not patronizing "The Sheets" for the very same reason is a much more common occurrence.)
Up a little walk toward the stands, and there's a nice little gift booth, with stuff available for a reasonable price, though for some reason it all reads "Fredericksburg Downs", which I have never in my career heard before. Learn something new every day on the McChump Tour. Part of the beauty of actually attending live races.
Most immediately noticeable to the trained McChump eye, however, right behind that gift stand, was what has to be one of the most interesting and varied fine cuisine concession offerings ever spotted at any track, and the big Mexican lunch sitting at the bottom of my stomach was instantly regretted. There under the big awning covering the concessions area were three or more large stands with big yellow concession stand type posters tacked all over them offering never-before seen items such as German tacos (German tacos?), turkey legs, grilled chicken sammiches, Texas taters, sausage (on a stick, or on a bun, but of course you all already know that any food on a stick is automatically supreme), grilled pork loin sammiches, catfish baskets, smoked sausage, German sausage, chicken reubens, and of course the usual stuff including cheez whiz nachos. Such a fine variety of interesting and mouth-watering sounding stuff, and there I was, filled to the brim with beef flautas and refried beans that probably wouldn't settle out for many hours, as is the wont of big Mexican lunches, and I didn't have room to try a single thing. This was one of the great tragedies, ever, on a McChump Tour outing. I vowed then and there, as God is my witness, to never fill up again before visiting any racetrack. As God is my witness, and tomorrow is another day!
Mexican lunches, by rule, do not, however, preclude consumption of concessions of the liquid variety, and so a trip down to the liquid concessions stand was undertaken, and as it turned out, the liquid concessions stand was located pretty much on the other side of the entry sidewalk from the food concessions, and conveniently close to the restrooms. For $2 a beer, and $1 a pop, one could purchase little color-coded beverage tokens from the nice ladies in the little cashier's window, and then trot the little color-coded beverage token right next door to where the nice gentlemen behind the beverage counter would reach into these big metal sink-looking coolers full of ice and beverage product on the back wall and present you with the beverage of your choice. And, unlike most tracks, there was actually a good deal of choice in the matter on the day, with Bud and Bud Light, Coors and Coors Light, Pearl and Pearl Light, Shiner Bock, Lone Star, and a couple of others as well. I determined that when one is in the Lone Star State one should at least try out the local brews, and my report throughout the day is this: Shiner Bock - good, but way too heavy for a ~150 F day; Pearl - ick; Lone Star - not too bad.
The basic setup at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds racetrack is an older, large open air, elevated, metal construction covered grandstand, with covered patio area named "biergarten" off to the left end, small grassy paddock area (covered saddling stalls) and jocks quarters off the right end, mutuel windows set in the open "concourse" area under the stands, facing both front and back, and the aforementioned gift stand, concessions area, and beverage stand located to the rear of the grandstand structure, under cover. The flooring of the stands is constructed, thankfully, of wooden planks so that kids cannot run up and down stomping like they do on all metal stands, and there's lots of free aluminum bench seating available, plus some small box seat areas down at the front of the stands. Down on the small asphalt apron there's big stacks of folding chairs available for the patrons to take and arrange any old whichaway they feel like arranging them, and that's what they did, mostly in the areas shaded by the grandstand, and mostly in the way of ever getting to the mutuel windows or through from the apron back to the concession area. Kind of the Ellis Park theory of chaos seating, and the Ellis Park type of crowd that seems to have no compunction about sitting in the way.
Out on the frontside there's a 4f dirt track, with a chute coming into the stretch so the quarterhorses can run some nice straight races up to about 350 yards. Big green field for an infield, with a very small copse of trees off in the upper right corner, a flagpole, and the green trees and hills of Fredericksburg in the background. Very small toteboard - odds all the time, and different pools in rotation. In effect, a perfect McChump type of track.
The card on the day consisted of 12 races, 11 quarterhorse races, and one thoroughbred race at 6f, a nice 2 turn affair. Field sizes ranged from 8 to 10, so there was always some value going on, just so long as you could handicap quarterhorses. Which, of course, the McChump Tour thinks it can. Top purse on the day was $3,300, in the TB overnight stakes, and ranged on down to the princely sum of $700 being offered for several of the QH Futurity Trials, the actual Futurity itself to be run on the actual Fair weekend two weeks hence.
What a great crowd of folks out on the apron! And a pretty big one. I learned, for instance, that all of the German stuff I'd been seeing was because this part of Texas had been settled by German immigrants and it was all German over to San Antonio. And I also learned that a lot of these horses allegedly running their 1st career races had actually been running at small tracks down in "The Valley" (Rio Grande), and you'd see these 1st time starters with nothing showing bet down to zilch, and run off and win, and it was tremendous fun trying to figure out which were "Valley" horses, even though I proved not so good at it, and it was quite an outstanding day of racing and interacting with the friendly local folks and just enjoying the show. Even though it was ~150F and I had to go and sit up in the stands in the breeze quite a bit.
The Gillespie County Fair advertises itself as the oldest continuously running fair in Texas, with the 1999 running to be the 111th. Parimutuel wagering in Texas, of course, dates back to considerably less than that, like the late 1980's. The official history up in the front of the program says the first race track site was that of old Fort Martin Scott back in the 1880's, and then moved to various spots in town in the late 1880's including the "old Fair Grounds" which lasted from 1892 through 1976, with racing down courses laid out on city streets. So that's like 100 years of racing at this site with no support whatsoever from the parimutuel system and parimutuel bettors. Hard to believe, but true.
Then, that evening, it was time to dawdle on down to Selma for an evening's racing at Retama Park, but since Retama Park has already been covered here, we'll skip that. Very interesting drive back to Kerrville from Retama, with zillions of deer lining the sides of the road, just waiting to jump out in front of the vehicle and make the night a miserable one. But none did.
-- Sunday, August 15, 1999
Quiet, still morning in the wilderness outside Kerrville where the McChump party had spent the night, and an early morning walk yielded up sightings of exotic deer browsing in the trees.
First class dive breakfast in a dive Kerrville reatsurant just past the freeway, and time to head back north. North, through Fredericksburg, and off and away on the scenic route and ...
Uh oh. Someone forgot to check the gas.
Back to Fredericksburg on fumes to get gas, and a quick check of the map yields up the fact that - Hey! There's Luckenbach, if we just head a little east.
"Between Hank Williams pain songs, Newberry's train songs and Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain, out in Luckenbach Texas ain't nobody feelin' no pain"
Well, feelin' no pain sounds like a great idea, so it's off to Luckenbach. Just a bit of a gettin' lost incident, and suddenly there it is, Luckenbach in all it's glory, ancient weatherbeaten post office building with a couple of outbuildings, a big empty looking weatherbeaten dance hall building, and all tucked into a dusty little square covered over by big ancient shade trees.
Time warp. Old post office turned into a kind of tourist trap with lots of "Everybody is Somebody in Luckenbach" trinkets, and old license plates, and old old old wood, and in the back, a bar, maybe not really an old bar but looking old, that's selling Luckenbach lager. And outside, after buying a beer, picnic tables in the still dust, with some big old leghorn roosters scratching around, big un's they looked just like Foghorn, and some local folks dropping by to jam on guitar, and it's still ~150F but it's shady and there's cold beer and chickens scratching and good company and the guitar jammers are playing some Waylon Jennings songs, and it's real, real easy to just space out the afternoon and forget all your grouchiness and petty little conflicts.
"I don't need my name in the marquee lights I got my song and I got you with me tonight Maybe it's time we got back to the basics of love."
Everybody is Somebody in Luckenbach, chump. Don't have any idea what that means, but it seems mighty appropriate.