A few racing people have linked here in recent weeks—thanks so much for that! Though the date of my last entry gives the (fair) impression that I’ve abandoned listenbetter, I swear I have new posts in the works. If you’re interested, please check back in the coming weeks. And in the meantime, I’ve done a little writing about the track for The New Yorker’s sports and books blogs, respectively:
“Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.” -Russell Baker
Note: It’s been a long, strange summer, and a few things (an infestation, a new job) derailed plans for regular updates. I did, however, spend the better portion of August taking bets at the Saratoga Race Course. The following is a collection of observations from my seventh summer as a pari-mutuel clerk. For a primer on the bet-takers, see “My Secret Summer Life.” For a primer on the people who place bets, see “My Most Persistent Customer.”
I became a pari-mutuel clerk in 2003, pushed to the racetrack in a sort of last-ditch effort to find a job in a weak economy. I’ve watched the crowds expand and contract in the past seven years, fueled by increasing prosperity, shrinking with the sport’s waning popularity. They reached new lows last year; I blamed high gas prices—and the feeling that our precarious bubble was about to burst. This year, I didn’t know what to expect. There was rain—it came down in thick sheets on and off that first week—and there was blazing heat, but the economy didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. For the first few weeks of the meet, people were happier than I’ve seen them in a long time. A lot of men were unabashedly forward. “If I was younger, I’d be on you like beans on rice,” one told me, leaning eagerly against my window. He was probably around sixty, with spiky silver hair and a big, white smile. “Oh boy, you know I would,” he continued. “But there’s not enough Viagra in the world!” One afternoon they pumped Dixieland jazz on the loudspeakers. It was heavy on the lazy, staccato trumpet, with a brisk walking bass, and it was infectious. Across the clubhouse, I watched two men in their early sixties, golf shirts tucked into pressed khakis, grin and link arms, skipping drunkenly across the cement. For a week or two, I was happy, too. The tips were pretty good and I was back on familiar ground. Regulars from five years ago greeted me with a slightly skeptical, “You’re back.” “You are, too,” I’d point out, wishing I could add, “At least I’m getting paid for this.” Continue reading
“In betting on races, however, there are two elements that are never lacking: hope against hope and an incomplete recollection of the lessons of the past.” -E. V. Lucas, Visibility Good
Note: For a little perspective, see my post on the Belmont Stakes from a year ago, “Belmont 2008.” Original titles, I know.
I didn’t work the Preakness Stakes in 2006, but I watched it on television. The previous three years had seen highly promising horses win two of the three legs of the Triple Crown, and we watched Funny Cide, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones slip from the public’s favor the second they were nosed out of a sweep. In 2006, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro seemed to be getting as much hype as these three hopefuls combined. NBC devoted most of their pre-Preakness coverage to the horse, following him from the stable to the paddock to the post. I still remember that moment, a few furlongs into the race, when everyone realized that something had gone wrong. Barbaro twisted and stuttered—Edgar Prado was quickly and skillfully pulling him up—and he half limped, half sprinted to the side as the cameramen grudgingly tracked the rest of the race. Bernadini won easily, and everyone turned back to Barbaro, surrounded by trainers and doctors, looking so much smaller without his saddle as he gingerly raised the right hind leg on which he could no longer stand. I’ve watched it again recently, and it’s still heartbreaking. The bigger story is a compelling one—the long, costly battle to repair and rehabilitate Barbaro after an injury that is normally met with swift euthanasia, his eventual death and the resulting scrutiny into unsafe breeding and racing conditions—but that moment on the track remains one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. Continue reading
“It’s the people’s race! It’s the people’s party! It’s the people’s event, which means a lot to the city and the state. I think the Preakness will be here in 2010 and for many years to follow.” -Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas Jr., in the Washington Post
There’s always something a little disappointing about the second installment of a trilogy. The first part is usually fresh and full of possibilities, all exposition and introductions and hobbits in the Shire. The final part, of course, is climax and conclusion, where the guy gets the girl and most of your favorite characters make it out of the battle unscathed. The middle is full of necessary evils: slow plot and character development, red herrings, and unsatisfying cliffhangers. It’s easy to argue against this on a case by case basis–I’m no “Star Wars” fan, but I enjoyed “The Empire Strikes Back” a hell of a lot more than the others—but as a general format, it often holds true, and the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, is no exception. It lacks the glamor and Southern charm of the Kentucky Derby, and it has none of the Belmont Stakes’ grim finality, something you’d expect from a longer-than-usual race held just outside of Queens. Despite its storied history and important role in the racing calendar, the Preakness seems to be more famous for drunken (and dangerous) revelry than for anything that has to do with horses.
“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” -Aaron Levenstein
I’ve spent the past eight months trying my best to be useful—and trying to get paid for it. I arrived in New York City in October, a few weeks after the fall of the first big, public dominos of the financial crisis. Thousands were being laid off every day, and I was looking for work. I got my foot in a very specific door—web editorial work—and I learned that I’m actually a methodical, detail-oriented person, capable of handling large amounts of material and performing repetitive tasks without gouging my eyes out. I’ve gotten gigs up and down the length of Manhattan: big media corporations, small magazines, dictionaries, an investigative journalism outlet. It’s fun wearing my fancy pants one day and jeans the next, but it gets confusing, and it’s hard to feel wholly committed to anything. I know people who’ve done this for years; I’m already completely exhausted. Continue reading
“Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” -Barack Obama, after winning the Iowa Caucus
Four years ago, I cast my very first presidential ballot. I was 19, living in one blue state and voting absentee in another, and there was something vaguely unsatisfying about putting a little X next to John Kerry’s name. I was voting against George W. Bush—who terrified me, a memory that’s hard to reconcile with our 2008 keep-as-low-a-profile-as-possible president. Bush’s first term marked a strange time to grow into a thinking member of the electorate: September 11th, the hyper-patriotism that followed, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the invasion of Baghdad, the Patriot Act, and Abu Ghraib. I didn’t think we could afford four more years, but a slim majority of the American public disagreed with me. I cried on election night, and when I woke up the next morning, I wrote an editorial for the campus newspaper that basically endorsed resigned disillusionment. There was hope and there was fear, and the latter had prevailed. Reading over the piece now, this passage stands out:
“Someone once asked me why women don’t gamble as much as men do, and I gave the common-sensical reply that we don’t have as much money. That was a true but incomplete answer. In fact, women’s total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.” -Gloria Steinem
Note: More apologies for another month-long delay. The racing season proved to be more taxing than usual. One day a man said to me, “If you’re single, then I love you.” This story, which I wrote a year ago, is in the same vein.
Two years ago, I had a regular window in the Lower Clubhouse. A good portion of my customers were serious career gamblers: big bets, big tips, and a whole lot of leering. I’m good with casual flirting, good with being called sweetheart and baby doll and brushing off little flashes of male perversion. “I haven’t won a single race in two days,” a man once told me, looking desperate and a little bit angry. “Take off your top for me.” His friend just laughed. “Don’t mind him, he’s drunk.”
Most of our customers are men and I’d say two thirds of the tellers are women. You hear plenty of horror stories about men taking things too far: waiting for tellers after work, threatening to follow them home, the sorts of things I imagine strippers face regularly. But we’re not so overtly sexual; some of us aren’t sexual at all. Customers ask us out but I don’t know anyone who follows through.