-- Monday, July 31, morning time, Niagara Falls, ON
Now this is a town I can respect. It is unabashedly cheesy. Parts look as though it hasn't changed a bit since the Marilyn Monroe movie. And that fine architecture that's only a memory out on Route 66? They still got it here. Exquisite.
It's not such a good viewing day at the Falls, though. There's a bit of a southeast breeze blowing the spray right back into the faces of the crowd on the Canadian side, and many crowd members are sopping wet. Plus it's hard to see anything. But that does not deter the Japanese tourists, busily working on the other half of the world's film supply that wasn't consumed in Banff. Whirrrrrr! Click! And that was just a meaningless bronze plaque on the lawn commemorating some guy who built a power station three miles upriver in 1847. The real action is down at the rail. Whirrrrrr! Click! Clickclickclick!
-- Monday, July 31, noon or so, Ft. Erie parking lot (free)
I was here once before, two years ago, only never got around to writing about it. It's real obvious things have changed since the track got slots. For instance, there's some fancy new signs out front, and they read like this:
only the SLOTS part looks like something they might have stolen from a carnival midway somewhere, if only carnival midways had signs that said SLOTS! Well heck a picture of the track entrance does this thing far more justice.
The shiny green sheetmetal roof looks new, too, although I wouldn't swear to that, and I'm not sure I recall that big giant entryway, and the place has definitely gotten a coat of paint and some much needed repairs, and all over the outside structure there's rows and rows of little white Christmas lights so they can light up all the nice little racetrack spires and the roofline just like a ... well, like a casino. There's also something new in the (free) parking lot that wasn't there when I there last: A nice girl in a golfcart who asked if I needed a ride the 200 yards or so from the Rent-A-ChumpMobile to the front door. I didn't - I'm a horseplayer, dammit. But an older couple who looked like they were heading straight for the slot machines took her up on her offer.
They had me bamboozled. I walked right in the front door to what used to be the cavernous grandstand main floor and found myself surrounded by a thousand screaming slot machines. And I couldn't get out of there! Nowhere was it evident how to get to the horse racing part, and even the floor help at the casino couldn't tell me. In fact the floor help looked at me like I was plumb loco for asking such a thing. So I wandered and I wandered. And the patrons of the place, about half-full even at this early Monday hour, were a wonder to behold as they blankly carried their coin buckets around looking for that elusive machine that was ready to hit, or blankly sat pushing buttons, remaining blank whether the turn of the reels yielded nothing, or a small hit, or even the rare blinking light and thunk-thunk-thunk of the occasional big score. The cool part, though, was that they all had these little frequent player cards that they had to insert in a slot in the slot machine during play to get credit toward their fabulous prizes. Most players kept these cards attached to their bodies on a long, red, curly cord that looked sort of like a miniature phone cord, and they'd simply plug the card into the machine with the cord still attached, so there'd be these long red cords attaching player to machine, and it looked like nothing so much as an I.V. tube draining the players' blood directly into the slot machines. I thought that was pretty darn neat. Or hell, that might have been at the Woodbine casino where they did that. If indeed I did go in that. Who can tell these strips malls of the gambling world apart?
Then I saw a guy carrying a folded DRF under his arm getting onto a totally unmarked elevator, so I hurried up and followed him and escaped that place.
Where I'd escaped to was something called the Longshot Lounge on the 2nd floor overlooking the paddock out back of the place, and all it really was was kind of a long passageway between the real upstairs part of the clubhouse and what used to be the grandstand but was now the dreaded casino. So I found me some stairs and headed down to main floor clubhouse, where a program for the day was purchased ($1.50) and I could see the error of my ways - you're supposed to go in the little door there by the paddock for horseracing now, not the big fancy door out front. Silly me.
Big door: SLOTS. Little door: RACETRACK.
The wealth and opulence of the new casino end of the building had not yet made it to the projects of the horse racing end. This clubhouse facility was just exactly the same as when I was there two years ago. However, it does seem to have picked up a new coat of paint somewhere along the line.
After my narrow escape from the jangling hell next door, I figured I owed myself a beer. This was found at a small stand up at the front of the clubhouse, ringing in at a substantial $5.15 for a real giant LaBatt's Blue. I will swear on some relative's grave that this exact same real giant beer only cost $4.75 two years ago, pre-slots, but the lady vending it said no.
As first post was approaching, I decided to take my new beer and new program out front and do some handicapping. Nothing real new out front for the horse racing public, either. Same old benches on the apron; same old apron. What is readily apparent is that much of the grandstand end has been totally walled off with these large unattractive sheetmetal walls that reach from what used to be the main concourse along the front of the grandstand seating, straight up to the roof. More casino, I guess, or perhaps offices or something behind there. It leaves about the 20 front rows of seats along the whole length of the grandstand end, and that's it. And of course the seats are all dusty and the big old roof with all its metal supports is still rusting and the blue paint is still peeling from the big I-beams supporting the roof. But since I had personal experience in the matter, I knew all that couldn't be seen from inside the casino, no sir.
On the positive side, there's some things about Ft. Erie that should never be changed, and they haven't either, luckily. First is the infield. Say what you want about any other infield in all of racing but you can't convince me that there is any infield anywhere more beautiful than the infield at Ft. Erie. How they managed to keep it so nice all those years they were struggling and near death (and believe me - the last time I was here it felt like the place was on its deathbed, just waiting for the miracle of the slots I.V. to come along and revive the patient) is surely a tribute to a loving groundskeeper.
The basic setup is 3 lakes in a nicely mowed grass infield surrounded by the turf course, but it looks a lot more like a nice park, with shrubs, hedges, and small trees (that don't really block any views) spotted liberally all over the entire infield. In addition there's a huge planting of flowers in beds all down the stretch - pinks, yellows, whites, purples, oranges, and I'm sure 17 other colors I neglected to note. Right of the toteboard there's a big horseshoe-shaped affair that may or may not be a stakes winner's circle (I kind of doubt it), outlined in nice hedge and flowers. As I recall there was similar to the left, but not so fancy. Anyhow, this infield has a lot going on.
Another thing that doesn't need changing is the very pleasant walking ring out back of the clubhouse, a big expanse of grass and flowerbeds with a bunch of big, old trees shading it. Covered saddling stalls are located behind that, closest to the parking lot. There's also a very nice, shady park area in the back there, with some picnic tables and benches to plop on and pass the time of day.
Something else that hadn't changed a whole lot, although I'd kind of expected it to, was the purses. Nothing at all compared to the dramatic increases noted at Woodbine, and Ft. Erie has had their slots in place for quite awhile longer. Perhaps it is because Ft. Erie has competition from the very nearby Casino Niagara, or perhaps the gambling public of the greater Buffalo area is just cheaper than their counterparts in Toronto, or perhaps ... something. Anyhow these purses, for a "real slots" track, weren't all that spectacular. But they did seem some higher than before (of course I am too lazy to look that up). Purses ranged from $5600 for $4k maiden claimers up through $8300 for $5k claimers up to the really big purse of the day, $15600 for an optional $20k claimer. I think if I was a horse owner in Toronto I'd sure give my horse every shot in the world at Woodbine before heading to Ft. Erie.
Of course, they did have racing here today and not just sightseeing, and first post was approaching.
The first race was 1-1/16 for $4k claimers. On paper, the #5 horse, Red Thrust, looked the one to beat. Pretty much the only speed in the race, just won his last (although in a $5k claimer so the drop was a bit troubling, but it was one of those nw2-y+ deals so maybe this wasn't really a drop), was owned by Bruno Schickedanz, the Crown Prince of Ontario racing, and was trained by a trainer who was 113-34-33-14 for the meet. I didn't like the low odds on Red Thrust, though, so I went out by the paddock to see what my fine paddock inspection skills might net me in the way of a horse to beat Red Thrust.
The #2 horse, Parental Pleasure, I wrote down "fat" about him. The #3, Curtmanouevre, "very scrawny". Obviously those two were out. Red Thrust looked okay, and besides had a real cute girl jock up by the name of Cory Clark. Lotsa nice freckles. But the horse I settled on to beat the favorite was the #4, Ray Poosay, who looked the best of a fairly scruffy lot and besides had been running pretty well his last few at the Fort, and seemed just about due. Ray Poosay also had a cute girl jock, Monique Dionne. I ran inside to make my bet.
Bettin' here is pretty cool - you can do it in either Canadian or American dollars, and you get paid off in whatever you bet. But if you must, they have a currency exchange booth there that really really rips you off way worse than even the ones at the airport and they are just about the worst, but luckily I had Canadian bucks in my wallet so I didn't mess with that foolishness.
Soon came the word that my horse had been scratched by the track vet. Well, okay, occasionally I make some inspection errors. But since Ray Poosay was the only possible horse that could have beat Red Thrust, obviously Red Thrust was now a four star Mortal Lock, and a great candidate for the UPF bet! So I ran back in and put $5 on Red Thrust's nose.
Cory Clark didn't take Red Thrust right out like I expected, but she did attend the pace fairly closely. Right until Red Thrust began backing up badly, that is, and by the time the race was over she and Red Thrust were about 70 lengths off the pace. The exacta came in fat horse/scrawny horse. Occasionally more than one inspection error, maybe. Behind me a punter spoke highly of Red Thrust to his buddy: "I KNEW that horse was a pig!". Well thank you - and where were your keen insights two minutes ago? You, sirrah, are no friend of UPF!
After that I didn't do so well on the rest of the races for myself, either, managing to drop $36.50 on the day. And there weren't any other real good race stories.
A few more observations and we'll wrap this up:
- Ft. Erie seems to be a friendly place for female jocks. There were no fewer than six riding on today's card. In addition to the two mentioned above, add Regina Sealock, Patricia Trimble, Helen Vanek, and Francine Villeneuve. Five of them were in the top 10 jockey standings as of this date, with 1999 leading apprentice (now journeyman I guess) Cory Clark leading all jocks in wins by a large margin.
The food selection seems to have picked up a bit since last I was there. Besides your standard hot dog ($2.95) and hamburger ($3.25) (outside prices, inside a bit less), there was also a stand where you could get carved roast beef, Montreal Smoked Meat (whatever that is), a burrito, fajitas, or a chicken salad sandwich, all for around $5. There was also something called a peameal sandwich for $5 on sale, but for $5 and with a name like that, I didn't risk it.
- Simulcast facilities, both on the ground floor and on the clubhouse 2nd floor, seem to have been upgraded. But then again, I didn't really look at them all that close two years ago.
- Bigger and more lively crowd. Two years ago there was this tiny little crowd huddled in one area, seemingly seeking the security of the group against the vast emptiness of the rest of the place. On this day there was quite a respectable turnout spread out all over the facility or at least what is left of it, with lots of kids and women , and everyone talking and laughing and having a good time. Probably everyone's spouse was down at the other end with an I.V. tube into a slot machine, but if it gets more people out to the races, great. And two years ago was a weekend crowd - this is a work day. At least across the bridge it is; I don't know about Canada.
- More amenities. For instance, a gift shop now! (In the casino, natch.) And also a nice free monthly magazine named "Live Racing News" with lots of features on races, horses, and personalities, and a nice photo of Ms. Clark on the cover. There's also brochures of every sort lying around the place. The one for the track has a guy with a cup full of nickles in one hand, a mittfull of mutuel tickets in the other, Ft. Erie cap and t-shirt, and a look of sheer joy on his face. I'm thinkin' he must be a better paddock inspector than me, the lucky dog.
Overall, a pretty nice place to spend an afternoon if you can avoid that accidental entrapment in the casino. Ft. Erie gets on the list of places that one must visit at least once, and should definitely stop by every other time one happens to be in the area.
-- Later on that same day, Peace Bridge
U.S. Customs officer: "Ya got anything to declare?"
U.S. Customs officer: "Okay bye."
Now there is a U.S. Customs Officer with some work to dispose of, efficiently, and disposing of it, unlike that busybody with all day on his hands up on the Alberta/Montana border.
-- Just a bit later, Buffalo
Naturally, it is beginning to rain.