By Victor E. Zast -- By the fourth at Sportsman's Park, the screen was a flat silver platter. The image of horses spinning out of the blowing snow was such that you couldn't distinguish one from another, so different from the colorful telecasts being sent via satellite from Gulfstream and Santa Anita. Sitting at a table of unshaven strangers, my feet ankle deep in scattered betting slips, I wondered how long it would be for the Sportsman's officials to call off the dreary competition. Off-track betting is the winter way to watch racing. There are 203 television screens at the Mud Bug, aka Trackside Chicago, the off-track betting facility owned by Arlington Park. At the Mud Bug, it's possible to watch racing at a dozen different racetracks. Take your choice of tracks. Take your choice of races. Take your choice of rooms. There's a good restaurant, a couple of full-service bars, a teletheater, and a mysterious back room hideaway for big bettors.When it first opened, the Mud Bug was a den for men with no place to go. Today the Mud Bug has neighbors like Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and The Container Store, not to mention valet parking. But don't let its tony surroundings fool you. On weekends, the place is overrun with bona fide racetrackers, and the Mud Bug hums with delicious bad behavior. It gives me the buzz I got from going to the track in the old days. I started going to the racetrack as a teenager, when living in Buffalo; I'd flee to Fort Erie to escape from the ordinary. Racing's renegade reputation made it seem "cool" to me, or more accurately, made me feel "cool" for liking it. A visit to Fort Erie was a walk on the wild side. To me, there was no place on Earth like the racetrack. It was a place reserved for adults, and the adults who gathered there left all their differences behind. The language, the colors, the customs, the diversity--these were the qualities which made the track unique and enticing. That you could see little men who rode big horses and you could bet on them just added to the lure. But there was something more about Fort Erie that intrigued me. My parents believed I shouldn't have gone there.My parents considered racing disreputable, which provided me the perfect reason for going. Forbidden fruit is tastier than the roadside variety, even at my current stage. These same illicit emotions are what draw me to the Mud Bug, although its owners, the starched-collared men who sit in The Jockey Club, may not fully comprehend them. There is a concentrated effort by racing's leaders to sanitize the sport. The visionaries believe the way to attract new followers is to turn the racetracks into shopping malls and entertainment centers. They've taken us racing fans
through the era of sports bars and concert stands. Casinos are next, I suppose. It's hard to argue against clean accommodations and a family-oriented sport. But the logic of consumer research is based on people's ideals. The design of the perfect place is a left-brained response to simplistic questions about what people say they want. Who in a focus group would dare to answer, "The Mud Bug"? If the truth were told, a love for racing has always been driven by the other side. It's the right side of the brain which enables us to gamble, to feel happiness and anger, disappointment and hope. Combining the charm of the carnival with a visit to the palace is no easy trick. Three years ago, the owners of Sportsman's Park decided to combine the Thoroughbred track with a motorsport track. The hideous change converted a cozy neighborhood gem into a vacant grandstand. In a city of eight million people, fewer than a couple thousand were on hand when the snowstorm struck. Meanwhile, the Mud Bug was rockin'. Finally, and mercifully, the last three races on Sportsman's card were canceled. The favorite in the sixth, a horse named Handsome Red, stumbled in the sloppy frozen stretch and fell to the track. On the television monitors, the gray-ghosted images of Sportsman's Park were replaced with a bright blue screen which delivered the dreaded message, "Temporary loss of our satellite signal due to the weather pattern of snow." So much fun was being had at the Mud Bug that nobody seemed to care. b Victor E. Zast is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.