35 Years and 3,000 Miles Between

19 Jun

By Lucky Kalanges

While my first experience with horse racing and working a Fair didn’t intersect exactly at the same time, it happened at virtually the same place – a strip mall anchored by a Grand Union Supermarket and the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds and Grandstand almost directly behind it.

The horse racing wasn’t live, it was a pre-recorded half-hour TV show sponsored by the Grand Union, a prevalent supermarket chain in upstate New York and New England of the 1970s and 80s. Each purchase at the store earned you a ticket with a number of a horse in six races, if I remember correctly. You got the ticket, went home, peeled off the tabs to see your numbers and watched the races to see if you won a cash prize.

Fair to Fair

Of course, the races were old and pre-recorded, and very few people I knew ever won anything more than a couple bucks. But it was fun just thinking you had a chance.

Every now and then my horse would open up a huge lead for a big prize like $100, and for a minute I’d think I was going to win big. Then it would spit the bit and lose by 20 lengths, but the damage was done. The money was almost in my hands, and surely my steed would hold on, or the rider wouldn’t fall off, next time.

I was hooked, so it was back to the GU for more Bubblicious or Big League Chew.

I wanted those tickets because with every horse, I had a chance to win. They got so used to seeing me at the Grand Union buying bubble gum and candy bars that the store manager once handed me a fat stack of tickets.

Here kid, knock yourself out.

Eventually, the promotion grew stale and faded into oblivion, but the Champlain Valley Fair, held from late August through Labor Day in Essex Junction, Vermont, always marked the end of summer, with school beginning the Tuesday after closing day.

The Fair days were summer decadence in its final throes. The Fair nights, like clockwork, brought with them an ominous chill accompanied by the dreaded ‘back to school’ signs in the town store fronts. The grown ups were rubbing it in, at least that’s how it felt to my teenage self.

As I grew older, the Fair meant different things to me, and during my high school years, it was an opportunity to make some quick cash heading into the school year. I sold Cokes and Lemonade in the Grandstand for minimum wage ($3.15 an hour at the time), plus a nickel commission and a quarter case bonus.

The concerts, like Jerry Reed and Crystal Gayle, were fun because you also got to watch the show, but the big money maker was always the tractor pull on Labor Day. And if it was a hot day, you could empty your case before even getting two rows up the Grandstand.

Just like the Grand Union races, I was hooked.

I’d run back downstairs for refills and run right back up as quickly as I could. On a good day with tips, I could clear three figures, which felt like a small fortune to a teenager with no expenses in the mid-80s.

Now, 35 years and 3,022 miles later, I’m back at it, running up and down the Grandstand at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, CA. This time, there’s no commission to be earned, but the hustle is just as real.

You might see me in the winner’s circle calling out the winners of our Win, Place and Show contest, on the track dropping the starter’s flag for a Hippity Hop race, or in the infield, announcing the contestants for our $10,000 putting challenge.

You might see me in the Sky Lounge or Trackside Terrace talking to guests. You might spot me mopping up a spill near the paddock bar, emptying a garbage can or changing a TV channel. Almost every minute or so, something needs to be done.

And once again, with the urgency and energy only a Fair can bring, I’m hooked.

So if you see this half-centenarian kid in the Grandstand, stop and say hello.

Fair to Fair 2 Photo

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