scenes from the racetrack


“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.”

*    *    *

A blind man bet at my window one afternoon, accompanied by a friend. I imagine a blind person would have to really love something to come to the track—gambling, or the sound of horses’ hooves beating against the turf, or maybe just the idea of a horse race. He was soft-spoken and graceful, and when I handed him his change he ran is fingers over the bills and asked, “Is this…?” “Three fives and a single,” his friend confirmed, and they thanked me and turned around slowly, gathering their bearings to push through the crowd. “Hurry up, buddy!” a man towards the back of the line shouted. He couldn’t have known that the man was blind, but I hate customers who shout—it’s like honking your horn in gridlock, and, similarly, it’ll never make a line move faster. The blind man didn’t come back to my window, but the shouter did, a Southerner with an unnaturally smooth face and a white baseball cap. He bet a lot and seemed to lose every time. I’m starting to believe in karma.

*    *    *

Hundreds of parents bring their children up to the windows every day. They must think it will be some kind of treat: gambling up close. Usually, three or four children will dart off in opposite directions, like some sort of well-choreographed taunt, and the parents will sigh and scream and still place bets for the brats. Children can be extraordinary gamblers. So much of it is faith, and children, the normal, imaginative ones, have no short supply of blind faith. A horse is chosen because it’s the prettiest, or because it has the nicest name, and the odds are nothing but a list of numbers on the side of the page. “Which horse do you want?” a father will snap at his daughter. And he scoffs when she asks for Rainbow Princess. “Sweetheart, that’s sixty to one.” A child doesn’t need to know the odds; children never get bogged down by the numbers. More often than not, Rainbow Princess comes in. And she pays.

It’s all a game, though. I see the harm in gambling but I don’t often see its effects, and most of these parents aren’t hardened addict types. They wear striped polo shirts and drink oversized glasses of lemonade. They’re usually very tan. I remember one woman with four young girls who came up to my window and went through the standard routine: frazzled, sunglasses dangling from her lower lip, she flipped through the program as her daughters shouted out horses at random. “I want the three!” one would yell, jumping up and down, and the woman would sigh and mutter, “I guess we’ll have the three,” holding up a single crumpled bill to accompany each bet. I imagined Mother Ginger sweeping a dozen dancing children under her skirts. As she sorted her stack of tickets, handing one to each girl, she glanced over all of her children and looked at me ruefully. “I just hope,” she said, “that I’m teaching them the right thing.”

*    *    *

I watched a man scratch his balls under thin cotton shorts, unaware, uncaring. He was studying the odds, his mouth hanging open as his fingers moved up and down. He turned to look at me—I was staring openly—and we caught each other’s eyes. It was a rare moment: I prayed he’d go to another teller. I’ll usually take any customer that crosses into my line of sight, but there was something about him that made me hold my breath. A few customers came and went and then he approached, thin shoulders squared, his body filling my whole window. He looked unclean and vaguely unsettling, with a bulbous nose and pockmarked skin. I looked down to avoid his eyes. A thin gold chain sat on a patch of chest hair poking out between Hawaiian lapels. There were a few charms clustered at the end of it, a little collection of gold resting on thick blue-gray hair, but the only one I can remember is a set miniature handcuffs, glistening, menacing. He bet and I handled his sweaty bills gingerly, at arm’s length. He didn’t come back to my window again.

*    *    *

A few weeks into August, the heat was brutal. With heavy, taunting clouds overhead, we took bets as sweat dripped down the backs of our necks and collected behind our knees. The humidity jammed our machines, made customers weary and short-tempered, and led one trainer after another to scratch their horses from the card. It reminded me of a Wednesday three summers ago, when we woke up to temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Track officials met with trainers, jockeys, stewards, and veterinarians early that morning and made an unprecedented call to cancel an entire day of racing. Or a Wednesday the year before, in the beginning of September 2005. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the south and swept up the Eastern Seaboard and we were left with the last angry bits—a dark, muddy sky and air so thick it was hard to move. They cancelled the first two races and we sat, sweltering and staring at a crowd of no more than a dozen desperate regulars. The storm finally broke around the fifth or sixth race, and we all rushed home in the downpour to watch Anderson Cooper wade through knee-high water in New Orleans.

By Labor Day, people were wrapped up and ready for fall, in jackets and sweaters, green flannel and tan windbreakers. The weather responded in kind. It was too early for an Indian summer, and the temperature hovered just above 60. The sky was a bright greyish white, and it threatened, hanging over the grandstand, but never delivered. The sun peeked out sometime before the ninth race. The crowd was hungover and quiet, curled in on themselves and solemnly choosing their very last bets. Fifty feet away, a jam band played a sleepy, rambling sort of melody, with a steady bass, gentle chords, and a creative but excessive harmonica descant. A small crowd had gathered around the bandstand, swaying and taking pictures of the guitarist, an animated hippie in a purple poncho. Next to the beer seller, not far from my window, a woman stepped apart from a crowd of boisterous men and did a secretive two-step, shuffling with the quick, jumpy footwork of country line dancing. Two brisk turns and she was done, sliding back into small talk with the group as they continued to debate Linda Rice and the season’s training title.

*    *    *

Sometimes this place smells terrible, like burning cooking grease, cigars, cheap spilled beer, and a thousand men in tank tops, sweating profusely. But sometimes it smells like all the best parts of a carnival, and when you walk out of the park in that final week of the meet, when the sun hangs lower and lower every day, it smells like the very end of summer—like grass, leaves, and wood smoke. Summer is a season of nostalgia—will it ever be what it was when we were children?—and Labor Day is an echo of all that. I always find myself looking back with regret, marveling at wasted afternoons I could have spent sitting in the sun. In Saratoga, those last few days feel incredibly final. Horses are nudged onto long metal trucks, and they poke their noses out of thin slats as they’re shipped out of town, out of state, back down to Kentucky where the bluegrass never sees more than an inch of frost. By the weekend the summer estates have been boarded up, winter-proofed, and they sit waiting. Tourists clear out and college students return; restaurant owners take overdue vacations. It’s a perfectly ordinary transition in a resort town, from seasonal life to real life, but it feels a little bit new every year.

In college, returning to the track for another summer was expected—and welcome, a steady job when I could really use the money. But for the past few years, I’ve walked away with a question hanging: will this season be my last? Two years ago, I was off to work in Scotland; last year, to start a new life in New York. Now that my New York life is something established and semi-permanent, and I can’t help but look back on my seven racetrack summers with that same mix of regret and nostalgia. Working there is uncomplicated; social interactions are boiled down to a wink, a smile, and a monetary transaction. There’s an ease and a nonchalance that works its way into everything: it’s only money, after all. It’s a life that can’t exist without long, hot afternoons, or without the thrill of a close horse race. In some ways, it’s a fantasy world—one that’s dirty, sweaty, and loud, where the paint is chipping and our baser instincts are on full display—but it’s fantastical nonetheless. I’m not sad to see the season end, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss it.


1 Comment

Filed under personal, the racetrack, work, writing

One response to “scenes from the racetrack

  1. Pingback: Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - Writing the Racetrack

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