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Back in my rookie days, horse wagering meant going to the track. Living downtown, it's easy to get to Arlington, location-wise, but other factors make it a real excursion. (I assure you I will get to those factors in a future column.) Why is it that sports management never really makes it easy on the fans?
One day, a solution literally dawned on me: Go to the OTB, the off-track betting "parlor." Duh! I tried the Mud Bug: See below. I walked in to State Street and immediately walked out: Yecch. Then I ambled down to Jackson Street: The rest is history.
Today, more wagering is done off-track than on-track. Used to be if you wanted the action, you had to go to the track, which is why racetrack attendance rivaled any other sport in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Satellite transmission of racing pictures developed in the late 1960s - thanks in large part to Merv Griffin. Off-track betting came to New York in 1971, Illinois in 1987, and California in 1988. Here in the Prairie State, as always, the OTB pie was split among a handful of companies. Inter-Track Partners LLC, basically associated with Maywood Park, and Trackside Illinois OTBs, firmly associated with Churchill Downs Inc. and Arlington Park, are the two main operators in this area.
I've spent some time at the three OTBs that are conveniently placed in my world, one in the Loop, one in River North, and one on the Near North Side. They all offer wagering and food, but I was taken at how different the three really are. At the same time, a constant is the horseplayers. Good people with a common goal, happy if the other guy wins, and coming from all different backgrounds.
Some things are the same: the County Tax to get in is $2, up from $1 at the same time the sales tax skyrocketed. A Daily Racing Form is a full-retail $5.50. The wagering menus are the same. 21 or older only.
Here's my take.
* Trackside Chicago, the Mud Bug, 901 W. Weed St., operated by Trackside.
If you were to ask any civilian on the street to name an OTB, chances are they would name the Mud Bug.
I have to admit at the outset that I'm not enamored with the place. It's big and can get very crowded. My first experience there was on a Derby Friday years ago, and it was not good. Jammed. Since then, the traffic hell that is the North and Clybourn wanna-be-just-like-a-suburban-shopping-strip burns red-hot. You used to be able to see the place from North Avenue. Now a huge retail building blocks the way and the place was damn hard to find.
Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, but the place sure looks like it used to be an old roadhouse. Mechanical bull back in the day? As a result, the sightlines are not that good, especially when its crowded. Sure, they have plenty of TVs, but you have to be in just the right place to get a good view of all the tracks you want to see, and the regulars know where those places are. The TVs behind the bar are high, so you look like a tourist eyeballing the tall buildings.
But where I was sitting off the bar, there was an 8-by-10 of Monkee Davy Jones in full '80s big hair in the winner's circle with Pat Day at Arlington. So I do have that to remember.
The machines are good, new like they have out at Arlington Park, and they include the $3 bet. They didn't have my brand of beer, so I had to settle for the one from St. Louis. I wasn't happy.
It was a Sunday filled with very unbettable cheap races. I did run into a couple of characters from my OTB, and it was good to see them. I can't really tell you why I think they moved on to the Mud Bug. I didn't eat and I didn't see anybody else eating. I lost $40 and left, knowing that Saturdays there must be a zoo. Fine. I'll let the Mud Bug be.
* Jackson OTB, 223 W. Jackson Blvd., operated by Inter-Track Partners.
The entrance is between two doors of a Giordano's, and you are immediately taken by a long escalator - which has been known to be out of order for two months at a time (that pesky part from Germany they can never seem to get) - to the second floor, where you pay the $2 Stroger tax and pick up the Daily Racing Form, programs, tip sheets and such. If you also get a Green Sheet, you're already down $9.50.
The second floor has a medium-sized bar and the snack bar (no table service on this level) and is primarily made up of tables and chairs, not unlike the food commons at a student union. It's funny to see tourist families come up the escalator thinking they're in Giordano's. The look on their faces . . . priceless. A great many of the players in this crowd of characters stand in various open areas.
Or you can climb a long flight of stairs to the "Club Level" on the third floor, with a fair amount of dark wood, minimal carpeting and couch-and-table areas. The windows in this vintage building are big and you can actually look out and wonder why you're in here on a gorgeous day.
There is a $5 minimum on food and drink, but they don't really enforce it. This floor includes a larger bar area with about a dozen hi-tops. The remainder of the floor to the east and west of the stairwell is made up of nooks and crannies of tables with paper "tablecloths" and chairs with individual TVs. In fact, all of the TVs on this floor, except for those behind the bar, are controlled by the players. So there's a sense of cooperation we could use in Springfield or Washington, with the common goal of displaying any track any individual might be playing. It works out. However, every week you have to ask them to pipe in the calls of the races through the PA system. Every week.
The betting machines are as old as any I have ever seen. Tickets are spit out quite regularly with an error message that it can't be read or data not found, but you won't lose your money. The screens are the most basic touch screens that take some real finesse to use, and you learn which ones are working better that day. They use the same tote company as my mum's OTB, Shalimar in Indio, California (just down the road from The Griffin Ranch). But lo and behold, on an outing there this Christmas, I discovered gorgeous, brand-new machines that are fast, well organized and accurate. It's like Version 1.0 at Jackson and Version 9.x out there. Back in Chicago, it hurts my feelings. It really does.
But Inter-Track also made one subtle change that I am not at all happy with, which I discovered upon my return from California: They took away the $3 bet option. Now it's either $2 or $4 (or a lot more, of course), and guess which one they want you to use. I like the $3 option because if the odds on an individual horse are right and the chalk comes in either first or second, I might still make a tidy profit on a $3 Win-Place bet while the Exacta gets killed. You cannot make a $1 Win, Place or Show bet, so for this heavy hitter, it's $2 or $4.
Service at Jackson can be spotty when what always seems like a skeleton crew gets a decent crowd. And from the third floor, they have to walk down the stairs to get your food. They also play the float when it comes to having enough parimutuel clerks, such as early in the day. But I do have to say I don't have much of a problem getting a beer when I need one. The food is OK, but I usually limit myself to the tried-and-fried chicken tenders, although other menu items I've had, including plain wings with sauce on the side, are good. The food is better than it used to be.
* The Stretch Run, operated by Inter-Track Partners, 544 N. LaSalle.
Stretch Run is new, opening in 2007 and basically replacing the shuttered State Street OTB next to the Chicago Theater. It's a cross between ESPNZone and a Midwest attempt at a Vegas race book, dropped on a prime corner of the competitive River North tourist mecca.
The first level is a nice sports bar with a combination of the typical human sports and simulcast wagering. On your way upstairs, you pass a nearly life-sized fiberglass horse, just standing there. Luckily, mine were moving faster that day. The modestly-sized room is four rows of carrels with individual TVs and an impressive array of Hi-Def screens on the wall. True Hi-Def simulcast is coming very soon. A good-sized bar is to the right and one teller to the left. Behind the carrels along the back wall are the equivalent of skyboxes, named Secretariat, Barbaro, Affirmed and Citation. What about Kelso? Or Arlington hero John Henry? They're available for private parties, with wagering machines. The artwork on the wall is quite nice.
The food was . . . interesting. I had the fish 'n' chips. Can't figure out how they cut a fish into such small filets, but I felt I was eating sardines or something. Is it smelt season? The fries were peppery and salty, a lot like McDonalds, if memory serves me.
The regulars seemed to be having fun, but I did not find the place conducive to banter or interaction. It was very quiet and it felt like I was taking a test in a library. And the pints of beer could have been colder. Nice, new and clean, and the service was good and pleasant enough.
But I had a serious problem that proved to be a total dealbreaker and is something all of you should be very wary of. Being a brand-new joint, I figured I'd see the latest wagering machines. Instead, they were these clunky machines that I have seen at Jackson (also no $3 bet button) and are not new at all. Very disappointing. They weren't solidly mounted and I actually had to hold the machine to press the touchscreen. But the kicker in all this is that the machines WERE NOT ACCURATE!
I'd press one and get the five horse. I'd press exacta box and get win-place-show. Press three horses for a trifecta and get three wrong horses. I alerted the manager to this and he turned off that machine. I went to the next machine and wham, same thing happened. Friends of mine had told me about this and human teller mistakes - and programs for the wrong day(!) - but now I was experiencing it for myself. This is inexcusable; one machine OK, two machines NO. My newfangled radio-telephone thingy saved my life, that's all I'll say. If you go to Stretch Run, write your bet down first, place it only with a human teller and study your tickets very closely before leaving the window. It's the only control you have.
The byword this week is dejection. Trevor Denman's race calls are more professional, but there is still a measure of overdubbing and too many "attaboys." I'll just go down the cast of characters.
* This week we meet Brandon Meier. He's 20, looks 14, and has come to Santa Anita to give it a shot. He's the son of legendary jockey Randy Meier, who has won more than 4,000 races, mostly on the Chicago circuit. He holds the record at Hawthorne, and is still going strong at 54. Brandon won his riding debut last year at Arlington Park on a Frank Calabrese horse, Houseboat.
I wonder why he chose to come out here right off the bat. Why not go the Fairgrounds/Churchill/Turfway/Keeneland route to get experience and wins? Silver-haired trainer Bob Baffert is worried that Brandon is too tall, because that means he will probably fill out and be too heavy to ride. Brandon patrols the backside before dawn hoping to get trainers to notice him.
It's here they talk about the ordeal of making weight. Anorexia or bulimia for some, sweating and little to eat for others. Brandon's girlfriend Dana is not happy with his career choice and tells of the time he suffered a severe potassium deficiency. This is real stuff and some jockeys handle it better than others.
Later, Brandon wins a race by a long neck on a fast-closing horse. It was sweet, and he gets an initiation of buckets of water and raw eggs thrown on him by the veterans. When he calls Pop, Randy is clueless and admits he didn't see the race. Brandon is very dejected. "He was on a date with his girlfriend. I've ridden out here at Santa Anita and now I'm also winning. I've accomplished something he hasn't," Brandon spits as he closes the cell phone. A Chicago blogger yesterday swore he talked to elder Meier and the TV show "told him to do that. Of course he watched the race." You decide.
* Upon seeing Brandon's win - they compared rookie notes the first day they met - Kayla Stra is really dejected, but she refuses to cry. She's already run some stinker races on slow horses.
In a race that included Meier, she came in a very nice second aboard a very live Soda Pop Kid, but both hers and the winning horse were disqualified for changing lanes and cutting off a third horse. Kayla is crestfallen. I wish the stewards would have the same guts on some of the heinous races I've bet on. The show gives a good description of a stewards' inquiry for the newbies.
In her next race, Kayla's horse clips heels with the one in front of him and stumbles and Kayla flys off. In the second half hour, we learn she was extremely lucky as two horses behind her passed on either side. I knew that, but was hoping she didn't break a leg. She comes back to ride again the same day.
The most upsetting part of this was the show overdubbing women's screams during the replay and after she's down. I have never heard a scream at the track or at an OTB. It's always a big GASP, and then silence. Always, by men and women alike. It's not a James Cameron movie.
Kayla comes back later in the meet on the same Soda Pop Kid (although the Jockeys graphic shows she's on another horse) and wins by a length-and-a-half, beating the great Rafael Bejarano on the favorite. I reported last week that her first American win came later at Hollywood Park, so don't believe everything you read on the Internet, except everything at The Beachwood Reporter.
* Wanna see dejected? Jon Court is a veteran - just over 3,000 wins, one Breeders Cup mount and no Triple Crown races - who has been plying the California waters for five years. Wife Krystal reminds him that he promised to just try La-La Land and then go back to Kentucky, where he was make-a-nice-living successful at Churchill, Keeneland and other tracks. I always wondered about that too. Krystal doesn't yell - she's on national TV after all - but you can see the pain in her eyes as Jon just can't seem to get going on a big horse. They both lament the fact that there are "a lot of new jockeys in town, huh?" Court even admits that his career is not what he wanted it to be.
Late in the show, he gets the mount on Orthodox, a live horse with Breeders Cup aspirations. It's a nice win and Court is excited. This could be the horse he's waited for. Alas, his record shows one win in two maiden special weight races and a seventh in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf.
* The trivia question going into commercial is "What was the most amount of money ever paid for a horse?" It was, as everyone knows, The Green Monkey, bought with $16 million of Arab money. Jimmy the Hat nails it: "He couldn't ride out of sight on a dark night." Think of The Monkey as the horse Hummers bought.
* As Brandon Meier parades to his first Santa Anita start, one of them, I don't know if it was the guy with the cigar stub, says "Who in the hell is Brandon Meier?" After the win, one of them says "Maybe the kid's good." First of all, you never say that. When the kid wins one of 14 with some other money finishes, then you take notice. Not before. It sounded scripted and microphoned. I rewound to find the lapel mikes, but they must have been at their feet. The lighting was also too-too good.
There's always a reason or a story behind a horse's name. I found out about Chernobyl Princess - one of last week's Horse Names I Laughed At - in a nice note from Kathy Ryan, a member of the board of directors of Chernobyl Children's Project International.
Purse money that Chernobyl Princess and her stablemate Chernobyl's Hero earn 'goes to the charity. Thank the generosity of Bill Discala, one of the principals of Karakorum Racing, a New York-based racing partnership group with highly visible Thoroughbreds on the New York circuit. New York couldn't run as many races as it does without operations like Karakorum. In fact, Karakorum Tornado was in a very tough beat in the fifth at Aqueduct Sunday, but he still paid $27.60 to place.
I wasn't able to get in touch with Mr. Discala, but I found that four-year-old Princess has a fine record of 7-2-1-1 with earnings of nearly $28,000. She's by Say Florida Sandy, winner of 33 races and almost $2.1 million. Chernobyl's Hero is by the great Cryptoclearance, with Belong to Me on his dam's side, and has won over $114,000.
The Children's Project web site explains: "We figured that the horse - who we named Chernobyl's Hero - would at least raise awareness to a whole new audience. Bill has a special heart for orphans, and noted that Chernobyl's Hero's mother (who had been well-loved by his whole family) had been killed suddenly by a lightning bolt. He noted that in this case, an 'orphan' will run to help orphans across the ocean to find loving homes of their own. "
Head to the home page of the Children's Project and you'll find a terrifically informative site and touching stories. My thanks to Ms. Ryan for the explanation.
On The Triple Crown Trail
It was a relatively light week on the Road to the Roses, but there were some interesting developments.
* Old Fashioned with Ramon Dominguez up won the one-mile Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Monday by 3+ lengths over Silver City. He shot out of the gate, let Silver City take the lead, and then began a big move on the far turn, showing nice versatility. But the horse that impressed me was Flat Out. Near the back of the field for much of the race, he downshifted and took off in the middle of the track and was flying as he took third. If he had had another two furlongs . . . What's that you say? The Kentucky Derby is two more furlongs than the Southwest? Hmmm. But this will catapult Old Fashioned to the top of nearly all Derby lists.
* Local Florida boy General Quarters checked hard on the backstretch and then bought a ticket on the Springfield Monorail, hugging it inside to a convincing upset win in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Saturday. He finished 13-1 ($29.00) and place horse Sumo went at 32-1 and paid $24 for place. This messed everything up for the Derby prognosticators. Musket Man finished a long third and Free Country and A.P. Cardinal followed in that order. The latter two were supposed to be the guys in the race, Derby-wise. But my opinion is that running at Tampa is like running on the beach, and a horse that does well here is really running hard and even if a horse doesn't win, he gets a good workout. These are always worth watching in their next.
* Axel Foley and Chocolate Candy looked each other in the eye in the El Camino Real at Golden Gate Saturday. Chocolate Candy won by a neck over Massone. Axel Foley finished a long fourth. That's about all you need to know. Chocolate Candy will graduate to tougher competition somewhere. San Felipe? Then the Santa Anita Derby?
* In a $37k allowance race at Gulfstream Thursday, Dunkirk lived up to his modest Derby buzz with a win by nearly five lengths over Warrior's Reward. Most were looking for more in this race from Alma d'Oro and Stately Character, who finished fifth and last respectively.
* Shug McGaughey's Imperial Council, son of Empire Maker, the spoiler of Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont, won a small allowance Saturday. Lots of touts like him.
* Old Fashioned
* Silver City
* Flat Out
* General Quarters
* Chocolate Candy
* Imperial Council
* Captain Cherokee
* Fierce Thunder
Looking Not So Good
* A.P. Cardinal
* Musket Man
* Stately Character
* Alma d'Oro
* Axel Foley
It's a light schedule, both for three-year-olds - especially the prominent ones - and graded stakes. Many are looking forward to the Fountain of Youth next weekend at Gulfstream.
I'll be keeping an eye on veteran Georgie Boy in the seven furlong San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita Saturday. I've always liked him. Sometimes he pays. And top-level turfer Champs Elysees goes 1.5 miles on the Santa Anita grass Sunday.
Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you Track Notes every Friday. You can reach him here.