It was the winter of 1966, but like the whirlwind courtship itself, the dialogue was vintage Bogart and Bacall. I recall saying, my upper lip pulled taut over my teeth, "You know, shweetheart, we're sure to get married sometime. Either this month or next." We'd met the previous week. This was our third date.
And Faith said, arching an eyebrow, "What about tonight, big boy?"
Around midnight I felt a final moment of indecision a few miles south of the Delaware Bridge toll booth as we sped toward Maryland and its no-blood-test marriage laws. "You know, maybe we ought to get to know one another just a little better," I said.
"But we're both gamblers, aren't we?" she said, referring to the fact that we'd whiled away many an afternoon playing the ponies. I nodded. "Then we ought to take the chance," she said.
The proposal was in Manhattan, the wedding in Elkton, Md. and the honeymoon in London, Paris and Athens. We had every intention of filling our days in Europe with shopping and sightseeing, but no sooner had we set foot on English soil than we heard about a hunt meeting (races over hurdles and hedges) at Sandown Park, only a half hour's train ride from Victoria Station. So much for Harrod's and the Tower of London.
On the way out to the track, Faith sat opposite a small, stocky man, large-headed, gap-toothed, the sort of chap who plays the loyal corporal in British war movies. His most distinctive features, far more noticeable than the teeth, were two bushy eyebrows raised high over very naughty eyes. "You know, these here jockeys has a way to make the horses fall when they want 'em to," he said to no one in particular as soon as the train began to roll. "I've seen races where they would do anything rather than let their horses come in first. 'Course, they were better at it in the old days; used to slip off themselves rather than tumble the animal, especially if the ground was nice and soft after a deep rain. That way they didn't have to shoot 'em."
Faith laughed as she said, "Shoot who, the rider or the horse?" I looked at her as if she were a stranger, which she practically was.
"Nothing much to lose when you fall off a 1-to-2 shot," he continued, "but if you were to fall off up at Mother Kilpatrick's in Soho, then you've really lost something, haven't you, boys?"
At his tastelessness there was a breathy gasp among the group in the compartment. But Faith giggled. For half an hour more nothing was said. The rustling of newspapers set the tone. At Sandown people got off the train with an air of controlled excitement, and for a moment Faith and I were separated. When I caught her hand again, she said. "Why, that nice little man. He gave me the first two races—No. 9, Hasty Lad, and No. 5, Bromo. Did it because he said we were in love."
"I told him we were on our honeymoon, and he said it's his present to us. Wasn't that sweet of him?"
"Tell you how shweet after the second race, shweetheart."
When it came time to place our bet, I began to grow nervous. "That horse looks a little smallish for a jumper," I said to Faith about Hasty Lad in hopes of finding some reason to wager on my choice and not some tout's specious honeymoon present. And I added, "Besides, he's carrying too much weight—12 stone," as though I had any idea how much that was in pounds or how much he was giving the rest of the field.
"For heaven's sake," replied Faith, "you don't know anything about jumpers, and that little guy gave it to me because he liked us. So don't be stupid." Hasty Lad it would be.
In England a bettor can shop around for the best price offered in the bookies' stalls. One named Totin' Teddy was offering the highest odds, 8 to 1. "Three pounds on Hasty Lad," I told Teddy, a white-faced toff in a bowler with a yellow plastic flower in his buttonhole. "To win?" he asked and, as I nodded yes, passed my bet along to his stooped, Dickensian clerk, who recorded it dutifully on a huge ledger sheet and handed me a pink ticket. "And good luck to you, Yank," said Teddy with lusty insincerity.
The horses were off before I could get back to our seats. When I first saw the field, Hasty Lad was last going into the first jump. He bobbled badly there and then, at a water barrier, almost fell. He subsequently took three consecutive bad jumps and finished a staggering 10th.
"You see, dear," I explained coldly, "weight means everything in these races."
"How much is Bromo carrying in the second race?" she shot back. I bit my lip and pretended I didn't know. "See, he's the lightweight in the field," she said. "In at under 10. Look, I know Hasty Lad was a bummer, but give the little guy a chance. Please bet this horse. For me?"
I bet Bromo with Totin' Teddy, again getting 8-to-1 odds. For the first half of the race he was a carbon copy of Hasty Lad—off badly, a few botched jumps. But then Bromo began to move, and by the final jump he was ahead by half a length. But he took that hedge so badly that he was actually two lengths behind racing for the wire.
Bromo came on again, though, and won by a short neck, making Faith ecstatic and starting us on a day in which we hit the winner in four of the next five races. She kept saying, "It's the little man's gift."
A few weeks later we were off to Paris and Longchamp, where I made a major faux pas. After the first race, I mistakenly tried to collect a win payoff with a place ticket. The cashier glared and pushed the ticket back without a word. I shrugged and smiled weakly. Then, as I moved to pick up my 50-franc misunderstanding so I could cash it at the proper window, he slammed the back of my hand with a rubber stamp and grabbed my pinky in one fist, my index finger in the other, so that I couldn't pull my wounded hand out of his cage. Suddenly, there was a lot of French screaming, and Faith turned red with rage. She tried to scratch my attacker's face but was thwarted by the narrow bars.
Fortunately, an elderly, very distinguished-looking, English-speaking Frenchman came to my aid. Only the slight fray of his collar and a cracked lens in his binoculars belied his elegance. I explained to him, above the intermittent shouts, that I hadn't quite mastered the difference between the windows for gagnant and placèe and that I certainly wasn't trying to steal the clerk's money. The clerk finally released me when the old Frenchman evoked the memories of Black Jack Pershing and Marshal Ferdinand Foch in my behalf.
"The racing here is gorgeous, but the betting is quite impossible," Faith told my rescuer, trying to explain away my difficulty.
"Ah hah, if you do not understand our normal racing, you must see the tierce," he said. His eyes rolled back in his upturned head, and he went on, "It is absolutely fantastique. You would think it was an amèricain invention. But it is not—it is French. Ah, tiercè, tiercè."
"But what is it exactly?" I asked.
"Ah, what is it?" he said. "A way of life—no, no, a way of starvation. Who knows?" He puffed his cheeks helplessly and gave a Gallic shrug. "This morning all of France wagers on the tiercè. It is all quite mad, quite mad."
"But what is it exactly? A lottery?"
"A lottery? No, no, no, no. It is a wager, a wager, monsieur. There is a skill; you must know horse racing. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, one million francs are wagered each Sunday morning on the tiercè. It is here this very afternoon, the fifth race."
He examined his program and continued, "It is the reason I have come. I have a good feeling all week. One must pick the order of the first three who finish. I myself have picked two of the first three. Perhaps today.... So you see it is most assuredly not a lottery. No, no, no, no. And the winnings, my friend...." He slapped his forehead and his gray eyes rolled again, in a mock faint. He had also hooked Faith's arm, but she didn't seem to mind a bit. We invited him to join us and he accepted.
Faith won the fourth race with a horse called Le P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢chè. Her winnings came to 70 francs, which she promptly reinvested in the tiercè. She decided to wheel Nos. 9 and 5 with the rest of the field. The Frenchman hurriedly did the same. I sat it out, thinking that this most assuredly was a lottery.
Winning the tiercè was exciting for them, even if the race wasn't. The No. 9 horse won wire to wire. No. 5 chased him the entire way and finished four lengths ahead of the third horse. Afterward our companion sat stunned for many minutes. At the announcement of the price, almost 5,000 francs, he merely stood, bowed and kissed Faith's hand. Tears were in his eyes.
Traffic crawled all the way back to our hotel. Not a word passed in the taxi. Faith just smiled. Somewhere near the Arc de Triomphe, I asked, "How come?"
"Don't you remember?" she said. "Those were the numbers the little man on the train gave us in London. His honeymoon present to us. Didn't work then, but everything comes around eventually, doesn't it?"
The day before we arrived in Athens the military seized control of the Greek government. After sensing the desperate spirit of the place, we quickly made plans to leave. We stayed only one day, but we at least got to the races at Phaleron Park, where Faith caught the eye of a major in the Greek army. He was a gross, perspiring man with a withered arm. With him was a tiny hunchback with mirrored glasses and a distorted face who ran here and there, making exotic bets at the major's bidding. For our benefit he announced in English how much his master wagered on each race—"forty drachmas...sixty drachmas...one hundred drachmas." It was this warped emissary who invited us to the major's box. I never for a moment would have considered refusing the major's invitation. Nor was I going to get into a betting competition with him.
When the horses took the track for the next race, I was surprised that they were almost all Arabian stallions. However, it was a small dark-brown thoroughbred filly that drew my attention. She was built along classic English lines. I pointed to the track and then to No. 9 on my program, because the major seemed curious about which horse I preferred. "No chance," he said threateningly in English and executed the horse by drawing a line through the Greek name on my program. How many men had he killed as easily, I wondered.
He smiled and winked at my wife. Faith looked away. He then tapped No. 5 in my program, closed his eyes and nodded to me assuredly. To emphasize the point, he gave his servant 300 drachmas.
"Three hundred drachmas to win on No. 5," shouted the dwarf.
Faith didn't have to tell me, but in pig Latin she said, while smiling appealingly for the major, "Et-bay the Ine-nay, darling." I disappeared and bet 50 drachmas on No. 9 to win. I returned in time to see my sleek little filly slip through on the rail and beat the major's front-runner by almost a length. She paid 15 to 1, thanks no doubt to all the bettors the major had scared off.
He stared cruelly at the finish line. Then he looked sideways at me, glowered and fixed his face in a tight smile. Clearly, he was most dangerous when he smiled. Faith patted his shoulder and his expression softened. She said, coyly, "You, no chance, either. Goodby." Pure Bacall. If only Bogart were really backing her up! I could see the major had the impression she would be back alone.
Fourteen years have passed since our horseplaying honeymoon. We have begun our slide into middle age, I a little faster than she. We rarely go to the track anymore, though I will play an occasional 9-5 daily double at OTB. But mortgage payments and the kids' tuition doth make cowards of us all. Still, there was a time when Faith and I knew we ought to take the chance. And we did. Let it be recorded.