09/27/2010 3:34PM

Jammed Up in Toronto

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On my previous half-dozen trips to Woodbone, which is in Etobicoke, Ontario on the outskirts of Toronto near the airport, I had  stayed at airport hotels near the track instead of in the heart of the city. This past weekend, I decided to be a more cosmopolitan traveller and stay in downtown Toronto.

Big mistake.

The first day and a half went just fine. It took an hour to get from the airport when I arrived Friday, but that's to be expected when you arrive in North America's fourth largest city late on a Friday afternoon. I had no trouble getting to Woodbine in 30 minutes on Saturday, where I did a seminar before a nice card of racing that included three $68,400 maiden races, a $71,200 N1x, an $83,200 N3x and the $150,000 Ontario Derby for 3-year-olds, won by Stately Victor. The fans who showed up at 11 a.m. for the seminar couldn't have been nicer or asked better questions.

It took more like 45 minutes to get back downtown, and I noticed a couple of signs saying that two expressway exits would be closed Sunday because of a "road race." I made a note to leave a little extra time to get to the airport after Sunday's scheduled appearance at Greenwood, the big teletheatre downtown just 2.7 miles from my hotel. I even congratulated myself for staying downtown, closer to Greenwood, where I was going to do a mini-seminar and welcome the contestant for an NHC qualifier before catching a 2:30 pm flight back home.

Sunday morning, I left a full hour to get those 2.7 miles to Greenwood, checked out of the hotel at 10:30 a.m., and got into the rental car. If I got there in the 12 minutes that Mapquest said I would, fine, I'd have 45 minutes to look over the contest races from Belmont, Monmouth and Woodbine I'd handicapped the night before. Twelve minutes later, however, I had travelled exactly two blocks.

The road race was the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and what neither the expressway signs, the local newspaper nor the hotel concierge had reported was that this event would close down every single east-west road in the city of Toronto from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. After 20 minutes and three blocks, I inched up next to a Toronto policeman and asked him how I could get the remaining 2.5 miles to Greenwood.

"You can't," he said.

What about my 2:30 flight?

"You're screwed, eh?" was the reply.

I called the people at Greenwood and before I could begin my tale of woe, they said they suspected I was stranded in traffic and reported that things weren't much better over there. No one had told them that the marathon route had been changed and expanded this year and that none of their customers could access the big lot behind the teletheatre where everyone parks.

Three more blocks and 20 minutes later, I queried another policeman and he said that one escape route had finally been opened: If I turned around, drove back the six blocks I'd covered in 45 minutes and kept going, I would eventually hit the one open street north of where the marathion ended, and if I took that for a few miles I'd eventually hit the one street leading to the expressway and the airport. (By now the seminar was a lost cause; my apologies to Greenwood and the customers.) He didn't mention that one street was a two-laner cutting through Chinatown. That took another hour, and I did finally find daylight and get to the airport an hour before my flight and three hours after getting in the car.

It turns out that Toronto is now officially the most congested city on the continent, even when they don't have civic events that inconvenience tens if not hundreds of thousands of people so that marathoners can run through the streets instead of around the city's large and plentiful parks. The average Torontonian spends 80 minutes getting to his job (vs. a mere 56 minutes in Los Angeles), and 70 percent of downtown employees drive to work (vs. 30 percent in Paris and 10 percent in Hong Kong), due in part to an inadequate public-transit system that has not grown along with the city and which may have even more decrepit subways than New York's. This despite taxes so high that no American one wants to play for the Toronto sports franchises and public "services" like museums where the admission charge is $24. 

And while I'm at it: I have never seen a boondoggle quite like the exchange between American and Canadian currency. Toronto could fund private helicopters for every citizen with the vigorish taken on both ends of these transactions. An American dollar was supposed to be worth $1.03 Canadian last weekend, but when I changed $50 in U.S. greenbacks into Canadian purplebacks and bluebacks and one- and two-dollar coins, I got back only $42 Canadian. Then when I reconverted my $20 in remaining Canadian funds to U.S. currency, $20 Canadian was only worth $15.02 American. The exchange rate has fluctuated between $0.99 and $1.08 Canadian for $1 American over the last six months, but no matter where you go there seems to be a 15 to 20 percent devaluation of whichever currency you're trying to change.

If I had gone back and forth between currencies long enough, I would have had all my money taken away, a little bit like a parimutuel system if there were no way to win -- just a 20 percent takeout and a return of 80 percent of your starting bankroll every time you wagered.