A Dollar Here, a Dollar There | Travel | Chicago Reader

A Dollar Here, a Dollar There 

Low Rolling on the Small-Time Horse-Racing Circuit

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On Kentucky Derby Day, Terry Bjork stood staring at a bank of television screens in a room at the back of the grandstand at Great Lakes Downs, a minor-league racetrack next to a freeway in Muskegon, Michigan. He held a program in one hand, a $2 cup of beer in the other. His faded jeans were covered with tiny holes, and his brushy gray hair swept out from under a Breeders' Cup baseball cap.

The Derby is the Super Bowl of racing, so Bjork, who has gambled at 126 different tracks around the country, was surrounded by people who play the horses once a year: young men and women on dates, retirees who normally ride buses to casinos, middle-aged women exchanging small talk--"How're things goin'?" "Oh, they're goin'."

Bjork said, "These are people who don't come out to the track--they haven't got the lack of etiquette." Most days, he said, "a racetrack is a place where it seems like all codes of behavior are left at the door. Guys you'd never see cursing and screaming and acting like idiots will do that at a racetrack. It's fun to watch people misbehave."

Most of Bjork's money was on Essence of Dubai, who bumped into another horse coming out of the starting gate, then bumped into the same horse in the stretch. Bjork had no reason to cheer, but no one else was cheering either. The crowd gaped as War Emblem led all the way to win at 20-1. Afterward, the few winners lined up at the betting windows, and a man wearing a straw Hooters hat and a Dead Kennedys T-shirt strolled past the empty-handed Bjork folding a stack of bills.

Bjork lives in Evanston, so he could have watched the derby at Sportsman's Park in Cicero, where the rheumy gamblers are sophisticated enough to swear at the horses and spit cigarette butts on the floor. But driving to racetracks is Bjork's way of seeing America. In 1994 he got hooked on the races after he and a buddy picked a long-shot winner on a trip to Turf Paradise in Phoenix. He spent that summer losing money at Arlington International Racecourse, then started taking weekend trips to little "bullrings" around the midwest. He called his travels the McChump Racing Tour and wrote racetrack reviews that he posted on his Web site (mcchump.com).

Last spring his employer, which he refers to as the Big Company, moved its offices to New Jersey and made all of its employees an offer: move east or take 14 months' salary. Bjork took the money and spent the summer driving around the country on his Free at Last Tour--25 tracks in 55 days, starting at Prairie Meadows in Iowa and ending back home at Arlington.

Racetracks are any state's best tourist attraction, Bjork says, because "you get to see the people that live there. When I went to Rockingham Park in New Hampshire it was just the quietest, grumpiest, sourest crowd I've ever been with at the racetrack. It was like they were in prison. The most fun was the Gillespie County Fair in Fredericksburg, Texas. Everybody there's having a good time. They're making up conspiracies about the races. They've got German tacos, German everything. After the races, you can go to Luckenbach and listen to people play guitars."

After the summer tour Bjork stayed at home, looked for work, played the horses at smoky Hawthorne and Sportsman's, and ran a handicapping contest on the Derby List, an on-line message board. But by Derby Day, the holiest date on the racing calendar, he was ready for another road trip.

Great Lakes Downs isn't Bjork's favorite track--on his first trip there a stage set up for a Bellamy Brothers concert blocked his view of the stretch. But it's only a three-and-a-half-hour drive. The grandstand is built into a hill, gaping out at a sandy half-mile track. There's no grass in the infield, just tire tracks and piles of dirt. Standing sentinel in front of the tote board--an infield scoreboard displaying the odds--is a tiny lighthouse that could have been swiped from a miniature golf course.

At Great Lakes the horses run in the evening, so the first race there started 20 minutes after the Derby, not enough time to handicap--look over the horses carefully and study the program. But before the second race Bjork ambled down to the paddock, a row of sheds behind a chain-link fence. There were only six horses, and they were an unkempt, underfed lot--their rib cages stuck out like barrel slats, and their shaggy winter coats made them look like mules. Muskegon is a blue-collar town, and these were blue-collar horses. They didn't eat as well as the glossy thoroughbreds in Kentucky, but they had to run three times as often to win enough money to cover their feed bills.

"Looking at the horses in the paddock is really important at small tracks," Bjork said. "They're bad horses who generally don't get as good care as at a big track." He spotted a mare with well-defined muscles and a shiny coat, and decided to bet on her.

Miss Granger was 4-1 when Bjork went upstairs to bet $2 on her. When the race started she was 2-1. "Damn it," he said, as he stood beside the rail smoking a Kool Mild in the blue dusk. "Somebody hammered it. Cheaters. That's what happens when you have a $9,000 pool."

Such is the pari-mutuel system, in which the odds are based on the money bet on each horse. The Kentucky Derby had a $20 million pool, so a big bet there was a raindrop in the ocean. At Great Lakes Downs a big bet was like dumping Lake Erie into Lake Michigan. The odds went up and down so quickly that Bjork couldn't count on getting a long shot--he just had to pick a horse he liked and hope no one else bet on it. He didn't get a 4-1 payoff, but he had the satisfaction of watching Miss Granger win the race. He collected $6, which put him on the way toward his financial goal for the evening: paying for his beer.

"When I first started going to the races I thought I would try to be a great handicapper, and follow all the rules, and only bet on races where you have a strong opinion," he said. "I made a little bit of money, but it was completely unenjoyable. It's not fun. It's work. Trying to make money as a handicapper is the hardest job in the world. It's hard on your psyche, betting and losing. The handicapping part is boring. I much prefer going to the racetrack, getting a program, looking at the horses for four minutes, and betting a horse if I like it. My bets are two or three dollars. If I lose 20 bucks, it's still cheaper than going to see the White Sox."

In the third race Bjork won $9.50 on the exacta, which challenges bettors to pick the one-two finishers. He immediately took his money to the concession stand to buy a hot dog. That kept him away from the paddock, so he had to bet the fourth race just by looking at the horses' records in the program. He couldn't see that his choice, Starcheck Billy, looked like a starved rat. When Starcheck Billy finished sixth Bjork lost $2, but he didn't care. He was going to bet on every race, and he knew no one could pick all winners.

In the sixth race he bet a "cheesy little trifecta," in which you pick the one-two-three finishers. His top horse finished fifth. In the race after that he bet a horse to win, but it came in second. Now he was down for the day, so he decided to bail himself out with a trifecta in the eighth race, a half-mile sprint for six horses. He went through his program, crossing out losers with his lucky red pen, and settled on Midnight Gift, Rivets, and Roughjette. He spent $12 to "box" the trio--bet them to finish in any order--and watched them come in 1-2-3.

"Let's go look at a TV and see how much this fabulous trifecta paid," he said. "Fifty-two sixty! Hey, I'm back being a winner today. Just like that. I'm the king! I'm ahead $30 for the day. That'll pay for beers and hot dogs and still leave a few bucks."

At the motel that night Bjork stood in the chilly parking lot smoking a cigarette and remembering the things he'd loved about being on the road. The announcer's cry of "Ils sont partis!" when the horses left the starting gate at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana. The reptile show behind the stands at the Tilamook County Fair in Oregon, where a man in the paddock told him, "A gentleman is a man who knows how to play the accordion--but doesn't." At almost every big track in America someone had heard of the McChump Racing Tour and sat down with him to drink beer and play the horses. He'd even met his girlfriend on the road, at Lone Star Park in Dallas.

In the morning he paid his bill at Denny's with dollar bills from the racetrack, then slid into his cluttered Saturn. His good-luck charm, a plastic dinosaur named Kozno, stood upright on the dashboard. As he headed south he loaded the tape player with the "McChump Sound Track‚" a collection of songs that reminded him of his travels. "That's What I Like About the North," a very regional hit for polka queen Lynn Marie, bounced out of the speakers. Bjork had first heard the song on a North Dakota radio station's accordion hour. When Waylon Jennings sang "Luckenbach, Texas," Bjork was back at the Gillespie County Fair. The Ramones' "Rockaway Beach" took him to the Aqueduct, a racetrack in Queens not far from the ocean. As he passed I-65 in Indiana, he badly wanted to turn south and head to Louisville and Churchill Downs. But tomorrow was Monday, and he had to look for a job.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ted Kleine.

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