Like creatures from some postapocalyptic nightmare, blinking and
wheezing, we trudged in out of the perfect May sunshine, winding
up in a large, windowless cinder-block bunker, the kind of room
where the last people on Earth might go to die of radiation
poisoning. In reality, this is the third floor of the clubhouse
at Yonkers (N.Y.) Raceway, and despite a plenitude of those
plastic chairs with broken armrests and holes in the backrests,
eight TV monitors, four Autotote betting machines, five SAM
betting machines and one live (if not particularly lively)
teller, it has exactly one thing to recommend it: A SIGN THAT
READS POSITIVELY NO SMOKING ON THIS FLOOR BY ORDER OF THE HEALTH
Since, as a group, we were redolent of hypertension and
about-to-blow heart valves, this was no small thing. By law
Yonkers is supposed to be a smokeless facility, although there
are actually a few indoor spots where smoking is expressly
permitted. However, as we will soon see, horseplayers have both
feet planted firmly in the past, and this newfangled no-smoking
thing is honored purely in the breach. Except here, on the third
floor of the clubhouse.
The occasion: Preakness Saturday and a full slate of
thoroughbred simulcasting from Belmont, Churchill Downs and
Pimlico, site of the second leg of racing's Triple Crown. Later
there would be races to bet on from Golden Gate and Hollywood in
California, and later still harness races from The Meadows,
Vernon Downs, Northfield Park, Rosecroft, Buffalo, Pompano Park,
Balmoral and Yonkers itself, where real live horses would track
and pace around the track, though few breed improvers would
rouse themselves from in front of TV monitors to watch.
For those whose impressions of horse racing come from watching
the Kentucky Derby on national TV, or from renting videos of My
Fair Lady or attending the races 20 years ago, before the advent
of state-run lotteries and Indian-owned casinos; who believe
women bettors wear Easter-parade hats and male bettors morning
suits; who kvell over owners and trainers who treat their horses
like human offspring, referring to them cloyingly by such
nicknames as Big Red, or the Fish, or Skippy, I've got a news
May 31, 1998
I don't think we're at Ascot anymore, Toto.
It seemed like such a harmless notion: Spend a day at a local
simulcasting facility and paint a picture of Life as a Horse
Bettor, circa 1998. A tad overeager, perhaps, I arrived at the
gates of Yonkers Raceway at 10 a.m. on Preakness Saturday,
copies of The Daily Racing Form and that night's Yonkers program
in tow. (I later purchased the Belmont Park Post Parade
Magazine, Post Parade Simulcast and the Yonkers Raceway Official
Evening Simulcast Program. All in all, I would be required to
assess the chances of 1,119 horses in 131 races at 13 tracks in
eight states, from sea to shining sea. Yonkers was also
simulcasting races from tiny Finger Lakes, in upstate New York,
but blessedly I was never able to acquire a program that
included those events.)
My plan was simplicity itself: Cash at least one substantial
winning ticket (no $2 show bets) for each track, observe the
behavior of those around me, take copious notes and do as little
as possible to embarrass this magazine. Oh, well.
The night before, in a flurry of preparation, I had handicapped
the first two races at Pimlico before my eyes began to droop.
Don't forget, I reminded myself by way of rationalizing my
sloth, the tote board is the most important factor in
handicapping. I'll look at the other 129 races later.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I bet doubles and
exactas in the first and second races, trifectas in the first
and second races and the superfecta in the first race, ridding
myself of more than 10% of my bankroll before most people in the
world had gotten out of bed.
As the bunker began to fill up, the level of babble began to
rise. Pretty soon the "so I sezes" and the "anyhows" and the
"don't tell mes" and the "I'm telling yous," not to mention the
colorful descriptive adjectives, were ricocheting off the
cinder-block walls. As my nine-year-old daughter, Wendy, noted
the last time I took her to the track, "They sure do use the f
word a lot around here, Dad." Then she thought about it for a
moment and added, "I guess I'd use the f word a lot too if I was
losing all my money."
There's a kind of congenial know-nothingism that passes for
dialogue among horseplayers, along with a healthy dollop of
paranoia, and age does little to ameliorate this. Quite the
contrary. Three old guys sitting behind me were watching a
replay of the third race from Pimlico, trying to figure out who
had finished third. As the horses struggled down the stretch,
one of the guys got up, stuck his face about three inches from
the TV monitor and touched the screen where the third-place
horse was crossing the finish line.
"Who was it?" one of his friends growled. "The six?"
"No, see," said the guy who had gotten up, pointing, "it's the
All three nodded happily. If anyone around noticed that only
seven horses were in the race, he (or she) was too polite to
point it out. I might have said something myself if the two
horses I had keyed to win in the trifecta had not finished sixth
and seventh. As a friend of mine once muttered, "They don't know
a horse from a cow, but they're cashing and I'm not."
How old are these people? Well, the first race at Belmont was
called The Happy 90th Birthday Ed Wetzel, the fourth was called
The Jack Epstein-90th Birthday (Jack at the Track), and the
seventh was called The Happy 80th Birthday Russell Glazer. I kid
you not. You can't make up stuff like this.
I found myself wondering what Wetzel, Epstein and Glazer thought
of the new and ubiquitous ad campaign designed to reinvigorate
racing by attracting new types of fans, the one that features a
heroin-chic actress running around an unspecified track, as my
mother used to say, like a chicken with her head cut off,
screaming, "Go, baby, go!" You can't make up stuff like this,
Later another group of old-timers indulged in the following
First guy (gravel-voiced, assertive): "You can't win here. The
favorites win every race. I bet one race, $10."
Second guy (quiet, passive, totally without irony): "What
First guy: "Whaddya think? I told you, you can't win here."
Third guy (raspy, nervous cough): "Hey, where's Carl? I haven't
seen Carl around here in years."
Second guy: "He went back to a quiet lifestyle. Reading."
First guy (angry): "This used to be a racing state."
Second guy: "So what happened?"
First guy: "Asia. Indonesia. Wall Street's gonna fall apart."
Third guy: "Who gives a s---?"
First guy (gleeful): "Bobby [sic] Gates is gonna go from being
the richest guy in the world to the poorest."
They all cackled. One of the joys of betting on horse races is
that Everyman may be a King in his own domain, but here
Everyking, even Bobby Gates, is just as big a bum as everyone
First guy (as a race goes off): "You can't bet here. The
favorites'll beat you every time."
An 8-1 shot wins, and a 30-1 shot comes in second.
First guy (as confident as ever): "See."
About halfway through the day, the simulcast signal from Pimlico
was lost. Nobody seemed to be aware of the horrendous power
problems that were plaguing that track. Everyone just assumed
that, as usual, it was a breakdown that was based at Yonkers
Raceway. About an hour before post time for the Preakness, one
guy in a large group suddenly jumped up, put on his coat (it was
80-plus degrees outside) and said, "See you, boys. It's been a
"Where you going?" his friend asked, alarm in his voice.
"Home. To watch it on TV. You won't see it here. It always takes
them at least a year to fix anything."
The signal returned about a half hour before the start of the
Preakness, just enough time for me to handicap the race almost
perfectly. I figured only Victory Gallop and Real Quiet were
good enough to do anything, despite their bad posts, and I
figured Victory Gallop had had a much more unlucky race in the
Kentucky Derby than Real Quiet and still almost won. So I
naturally assumed that Victory Gallop would win this time, Real
Quiet would come in second and either Black Cash or Classic Cat
would come in third. (The only other reasonable choice, Cape
Town, seemed clearly on the downslide, formwise.) I bet
accordingly, investing everything I had left on two trifectas,
Victory Gallop first, Real Quiet second, Black Cash and Classic
Cat third. One thing that makes horse betting such a challenge
is that you can be so, so right--and still completely wrong.
Unfortunately, Victory Gallop had another unlucky race, and, of
course, so did I.
After the Preakness the place began to clear out. Eventually,
only a handful of us were left, all broke, aimlessly watching
one last, meaningless race from Churchill Downs or Hollywood
Park or Golden Gate or some such far-off, undifferentiated,
surreal joint that could have been a computer generation, for
all we knew. A medium-range long shot won, and the guy in front
of me began to whine, "Aw, they knew who was gonna win. I told
you before, these races are all fixed." And on and on and on.
Finally, a guy sitting a few feet away couldn't take it anymore.
"What's wrong with you?" he shouted. "Who's this they that knows
everything? And if all the races are fixed, why do you come? And
if you're gonna come anyway, why don't you just shut up?"
With a hurt look, the first guy drew himself up. He said, "Look.
I'm an old man. Most of the time I don't feel well. I'm gonna
die soon. I like to complain. I need to complain. Do you mind?"
The other guy pressed his lips together for a moment, then
nodded slowly in recognition.
I was stunned. In this environment, from these people, after a
day like this, the last thing I expected was inspiration. The
question now was what to do with it. Then I remembered. Only a
couple of blocks away there was a bank with a cash machine. And
soon enough the nighttime card at Yonkers would commence.
As the horses ran down the stretch, one guy got up and stuck his
face about three inches from the TV.
"Look. I'm an old man. I'm gonna die soon. I like to complain. I
need to complain. Do you mind?"