Frequently, in my time as a horseplayer, I felt depression, anxiety and anguish. This night I was at the bottom. I wanted to commit suicide.
—I Made My First Bet $25,000 Ago
(Sports Illustrated, Feb. 10)
There are millions of Americans who have never seen a horse race, and probably a few million more who have never placed a bet on one. I feel sorry for them, as sorry as I feel for the compulsive horseplayer who wrote the doleful lines above.
For I am a horseplayer and a lover of the sport, one of the finest and oldest sports in the world. And also one of the most misunderstood.
Last year 32,085,177 racing fans wagered a taxable $2,300,510,107 through the pari-mutuel windows at America's 116 race tracks. How many of them were helpless, hopeless addicts who saw $25,000 vanish forever through those same windows in the course of 15 years?
February 17, 1958
The truth is that racing is supported mainly by prosperous, normal Americans-working, professional and business people who spend no more on their favorite sport than does a hunter, a fisherman or a golfer. Yet, to most Americans, the racing fan is still the cartoonist's familiar picture—loud vest, cigar in mouth, fleeing from the rent collector, squandering his substance. Why?
Racing has a schizophrenic background in America. It is the greatest paid spectator sport in the country; yet it is shadowed for many with feelings of guilt and shame. It provides its fans with some of the most beautiful, most carefully tended plants of any sport; yet millions of Americans consider these lovely parks on the same level as the burlesque house and the cockfight pit. Most of our states profit handsomely from the tax money which the tracks bring in; yet some states will not allow a track within their boundaries.
Pennsylvania, for instance, is in the odd position of having its citizens support racing to the east in New Jersey and Delaware, to the south in Maryland and West Virginia, to the west in Ohio and to the north in New York—but the state itself has no racing whatever beyond a few annual hunt meets because betting is illegal there. And all the efforts of Pennsylvania fans over the years to have pari-mutuel betting legalized have been vain, because there are more people who recall the attitude toward racing of the Puritans than there are sensible citizens who realize that a day at the track and a fling with the bookies was one of George Washington's favorite sports, too.
All this has stimulated a curious guilt complex about racing which extends even to enthusiasts themselves. Every turf writer in the country can tell stories about the elected officials, clergymen or prominent pillars of the community who have asked him kindly not to mention their presence at the track in his newspaper. The classic example occurred when President Truman's private railroad car was parked once in 1948 on Belmont's special siding. When the President went out for his early morning constitutional and gravitated toward the track where the horses were working out, he was hastily steered away from it by advisers who were afraid a news photographer might catch him leaning on the track railing while a horse went by.
It all seems rather silly, but it's so. And it's time that we grew up and recognized racing for what it is. It is an adult sport, with an honorable tradition going right back to the dawn of recorded history. It is a sport followed and supported by adult and intelligent people who do not go to the track merely to earn money—although, being human, they are happy if they do—but for entertainment. And as entertainment, it is fun. It's fun to stroll beside the walking ring at Del Mar, or to dine in the airconditioned clubhouse at Arlington Park, or to admire the nobly bred steeds amidst the tropical fauna at Hialeah. It's fun to doll up and play the sport of kings for a day—as much fun as going to a wedding when the bride's old man is rich.
But to get the most fun out of it, you've got to be adult, intelligent and bear some things in mind.
First and foremost, go to the races to enjoy yourself. Racing fans know that wherever they go the day will be one to remember. You'll never find a lovelier backdrop for your spectator sport. Perhaps it will be the snowcapped peaks of the San Gabriel Range, towering behind Santa Anita. It might be the Queen Mary heading majestically out across the limitless expanse of ocean that you see over the napery and silverware of the luncheon table in a cozy parterre box atop the stands at Monmouth Park. Whatever it is, wherever it is, there will be the incomparable green of the turf speckled by the shade of ancient towering trees; the smooth brown of the track bisected by white fences; the colorful milling of silks and Thoroughbreds, and the unforgettable music of the bugle's call.
It's something to be savored, enjoyed—and prepared for.
I have a business to attend to, a family to support. I can't go racing every day. But when I do, I make it a production.
I dress properly for the occasion. I see to it that my brogues have a shine to them as sleek as Citation's coat. My slacks have an edge as sharp as the state's pari-mutuel cut. The only spots on my tweed jacket are the ones that were woven into it by an ancient Celt who had an eye for a pretty thread as well as a pretty horse. The kelly is worn at a stylish acey-deucey tilt, and the binoculars—earned years ago in a Pimlico double—hang at just the right Widener Chute slant.
The spendthrift money for the day is carefully totted up and kept where it is handy. Tucked away beyond temptation's reach in my watch pocket is an extra $50 for bail. A last look in the mirror and I'm ready to say: "Lady Luck, you can marry me or bury me—I'm ready!"
This careful preparation isn't all fooling. There's a method in my sartorial madness. It isn't just that being dressed right adds to any man's enjoyment of a special occasion. A little touch of elegance also pays off at the races. Especially when you're one of the many thousands who use my particular system of betting.
I'm a busy man, and I don't have time to read all the form sheets. The numbers in them may add up to sweet music in the expert's eye, but there are too many sharps and flats for me. So I play it strictly by ear. This calls for a first-class appearance, because nobody who knows anything is going to give a real horse tip to a man who looks like a bum.
But if you look well, it's easy to gather information. Racing fans are inordinately proud of their ability to pick winners. Give them a man who looks like an expert, and they ache to show off their knowledge, too, in appropriate professional phrases. All I have to do is drop a choice word here or there, and then listen. Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief—they're all touts at heart, and after a while you learn to pick the good ones.
There are plenty of other ways of getting information on the horses, and my own penchant for handicapping horseplayers rather than the ponies themselves is not to be taken as a rap at any of them. "Kitchen handicapping," for example, is an engrossing and thoroughly worthwhile pastime practiced by thousands everywhere long before Three Men on a Horse swept the world. Quite apart from whether intensive study of the form sheets brings in money, the therapeutic value of kitchen handicapping is considerable. Witness the late, great and beloved National League umpire, Bill Klem.
Klem was a master in a profession that would drive any average man into a mental institution in short order. But the old arbiter knew that an umpire's greatest enemies are not threatening ballplayers, bottle-throwing fans or second-guessing writers, but his own nerves. These must be kept under control no matter what happens. So, after a day of enduring mass abuse on the ball field, he would leave it all behind him by the simple expedient of retiring to his hotel room and losing himself among the absorbing pony problems posed in his Daily Racing Form.
Pretty soon, word got around that Bill was an addict. "Trouble is," said John McGraw, himself a horse-player of note, "that blind fool Klem always has his mind on race horses instead of balls and strikes." Kenesaw Mountain Landis called old Bill in one day. "Will-yum," he demanded, "do you bet on the horses?"
"Yes," bellowed Bill, in the famous voice that could carry from Brooklyn's home plate to the bleachers. Then, leaning across the table for emphasis, he continued in the same tone: "For 40 years. An' I pay off 100 cents on the dollar!"
That was the end of that one.
There are, of course, a dozen different ways of going racing, and all of them are tremendously popular in America. If you are a loner, desirous of charting your own course, dressing for your personal comfort, and to hell with all neckties, you can always find a strategic spot affording a good view of both the odds board and racing strip while within easy depositing distance of the mutuel windows. The men who operate these separation centers, from Hollywood Park to Atlantic City and New England to New Orleans, have gone to great expense for your convenience, and even Belmont Park, the Old Lady of Threadbare Street, recently installed escalators to ease your path to pleasure. Loners, like everybody else, find these accommodating gestures helpful and appreciate the singular politeness of all racing fans who respect a seat "reserved" by the simple expedient of leaving your newspaper on it. Loners generally judge fellow fans with the same suspicion elicited by men newly signed on a ship scheduled to pass through submarine-infested waters. Before getting chummy they are likely to speculate on how you would act in a lifeboat.
Should you be the gregarious, social type, however, there are gay groups scattered all over the place. A lorgnette waved before Washington's international set at Laurel Race Course will cause no more stares than a flower under the peak of your cap in grandstand section 28 at Jamaica, where Manhattan's hackies brag of picking up fancy fares as well as winners. From coast to coast Monday is the smart day for barbers and waiters whose places of business are closed. In fact, no matter how you earn a living—as a butcher, baker or president-maker—you'll find your own kind at the races. And on big stakes days you are certain to meet the Brown Derby, Pump Room, Toots Shor boys, who give each other a big hello and drop names like Arcaro, Shoemaker, Atkinson and Longden, adding confidentially: "A great li'l guy. Lotsa class. We was on the same plane together to Looeyville."
Actually, it doesn't matter how you go or where you sit, if you are one of the 32,000,000, you'll have a big day. One thing every racing fan knows. When he presents his two bucks at that "win" window, his ambitions, hopes and fears are as one with Ambassador John Hay Whitney, Robert Kleberg Jr., Mrs. Ogden Phipps, Mrs. Gene Markey, Aly Khan, Willie du Pont Jr., or any of the other millionaire Thoroughbred fanciers who spend anywhere up to $900,000 a year on their great farms and stables. They are all looking for a winner. And whether your investment is $2 or $2 million the pony you are backing must run around that track and cross the finish line first before you get it back. It's corny now, but a crusty, class-conscious old English admiral—the Hon. Henry John Rous, who established the scale of weight for age—said it all, years ago, when he observed: "All men are equal on the turf—or under it!"
Like every other horseplayer in the land, I consider myself a success and am more than willing to spread the word around. Under the pari-mutuel system, of course, we bet against each other and fresh money is always welcome. I am also aware of the immutable racing law that says your C notes can shrink and your deuces can grow. It is the aim of every racing fan to move from the $2 window to the $10 window after the first race. We all dream of some day strolling casually up to the $100 window, and I'm sure there's a candle burning there just for me.
Racing, you see, not only amuses its patrons but also hits them where they live. Even a witch doctor could gauge the blood pressure of a racing fan merely by noting the palpitations of his pocketbook. And it should be emphasized here that the risks of playing the ponies are all relative. Certainly people go broke at the races. They lose all they brought to bet. I've done it many times. I agree completely with John Masefield, England's Poet Laureate, who loves racing and wrote, in his epic Right Royal:
For broken he'll be as sure as eggs
If he puts his money on horses' legs.
I am in total disagreement, however, with the widely quoted exaggeration of Damon Runyon that goes: "All horseplayers must die broke."
Runyon's stories were magnificent Broadway fairy tales and I loved them all, but the characters he described as "horseplayers" would have died broke if the Godolphin Arabian had been shot at birth and the Thoroughbred never invented.
Suffice it to say you won't be hurt, because sensible people never get hurt at the races. If you lose, you can afford it. If you win—how sweet it is! And if you are a wise man you will realize that, win or lose, a great deal of your character is going to be on display. Even a poker game won't reveal the true nature of a human being any quicker than a day at the races. Francis Patrick Dunne, eminent steward of the New York Racing Commission and Tropical Park's Racing Secretary and Handicapper, once truly observed when a certain rich owner complained about the weight assigned to his greatly superior horse: "Nothing brings out the essential heel in a man quicker than his first good horse!"
This tendency of the races to uncover true character makes it a tricky sport in many ways. You'd better be sure of yourself before inviting along your boss, your wife or your intended. Horseplayers who go in groups must be real friends if harmony is to be preserved. You must learn, for one thing, to be tolerant and pay no attention when Mrs. Nextdoor Neighbor hits her innocent husband with racing's oldest verbal one-two. Before each race, she bows admiringly to his male superiority and asks which horse he likes. Like a sucker he tells her. Whereupon she immediately mentions another horse and then goes into her "but-go-ahead-you-great-big-wonderful-man-you-know-more-than-I-do" routine. Thus, from an argumentative point of view, Mrs. Nextdoor has two horses going for her in each race. She's a cinch to come out ahead of Mr. Nextdoor and if he has a particularly bad day the routine switches to "why-didn't-ya-listen-to-me-ya-bum-ya?" Next stop Reno.
Books could be written and probably will be on the horrendous social and financial pitfalls that await the unwary racegoer. It is safe to estimate that a great many of the aforementioned customers who swelled racing attendance figures in 1957 were newcomers who now visit a track perhaps three or four times a year when a meeting is held in their neighborhood. So, right here, I'd like to make an appeal. It may sound presumptuous to oldtimers who know all the answers and have made racing the great sport it is today, but I can't help writing it down:
Be smart. Be sensible. Bet what you can afford to lose. No more. If you "blow the roll" remember it happens to big-timers, too. This is a game for Thoroughbreds and you said you could afford it. Keep it that way. Never send your good, hard-earned "living" money after the "playing" cash you brought along. If you put that money up, expecting to get something for nothing, you were not only foolish but revealed a slight touch of larceny in yourself. Bad losers never mention this. Nor the fact that ii a bona fide "fixed" race ever were advertised, Colorado's Grand Canyon wouldn't be big enough to hold the crowd and today's loudest, postrace "squawkers' would be first in line at the windows.
Certainly you should holler about injustices. All racing fans have excellent lungs. But don't waste your breath blowing hot air just because your judgment was proved wrong. Racing is not, as you might suspect from the uninformed publicity it often gets, the oldest established permanent floating crap game in the world. It is the most carefully policed sport in America. And all honorable racing men who make a living from the sport—and they are in the vast majority—know enough good tricks to be played on the square without risking their livelihood by dealing under the table.
So, remember, when you partake of a pastime that squeezes all the juicy elements of love, chance and money into less than two minutes of competition on a small piece of ground, right before your eyes, you are handling a concoction that demands respect. Don't gulp it. Sip it slowly. Savor it. Be a real man of distinction. Play the races. Don't fight them. That way you'll probably just sing a little. Whether your song is sweet or sour depends on how you mixed the ingredients. If you do it right you'll love it and want to browse through racing's well-filled libraries and reread its great story from the day, centuries ago, when Queen Anne put up the first formal plate for a winner, to right now when Queen Liz hopes to win it.
If I have sounded a bit too preachy or querulous in the foregoing, please remember, with charity, that true love never runs smooth and my affair with racing is dead on the level, as a few budgetary scars will prove. Moreover, it should be obvious that these scatter-shot observations haven't even scratched the surface of my favorite sport. Between the noisy tipster selling cards at the front gate, and the quiet groom humming a soft tune as he totes a bucket in the peaceful barns out back, there is much more to racing than meets the eye, even though a beautifully landscaped racecourse, filled with a gay crowd on a big stakes day, certainly is an eye-filling picture. Far beyond all this lies a world of hope and love for Thoroughbred breeding that winds through Kentucky's Bluegrass, Ireland's Currah of Kildare, Argentina's Pampas, the Australian plains—and reaches back in time to the ancient windswept deserts of Arabia. For thousands of professionals and millionaire patrons racing is a great deal more than a game. It is a fascinating, colorful and wonderfully challenging way of life.
Racing is fun. Moreover, in the immortal words of Joe E. Lewis, first jester of the turf world: "It's great to go out once in a while and visit your money!"