“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.
“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.
“A racetrack is a place where windows clean people.” -Danny Thomas
Note: I apologize for the long delay in updating. A few weeks ago I suffered a personal tragedy; unsurprisingly, it’s taken up a lot of my physical and emotional energy. I’m not prepared to write anything meaningful about it yet, but I didn’t want to go any longer without posting. Instead, I’ll write about the other thing that’s been taking up a lot of my time: the start of my sixth season as a pari-mutuel clerk at the Saratoga Race Course. I’m sure I’ll write about the track at least a few more times, so I thought I’d start with a primer for readers who don’t know about my secret summer life.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I was desperate for work. I had spent nearly two years as a professional sweater folder, conning anyone who could hold a pen into opening a GAP charge card. I was done with the GAP, but nobody else wanted me: the economy was bad and I would leave for college in two months. My mother saw an ad in the paper for jobs at the Saratoga Race Course, a place that had been a source of seasonal irritation for my entire life. The population of our small city triples every August, packed with transplanted trainers and grooms and, noisiest and most numerous, tourists. Overdressed women in elaborate hats, men uniformed in polo shirts, khaki shorts, and dock shoes. Friends’ families would rent out their houses and leave town; we’d stay and grumble about the traffic and the jacked up prices. I’d been to the track a couple of times, but save the horse-drawn carriages that clomped past our house every evening, I had never given horses a second thought.
“An old racetrack joke reminds you that your program contains all the winners’ names. I stare at my typewriter keys with the same thought.” -Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook
Here in San Francisco, fog doesn’t cover or linger; it sweeps across the entire city in a matter of minutes. I never knew fog could move so quickly, and it’s put me in a weird mood: muddled, chilled, and slightly queasy. I’ve been wrestling with a few big life questions this past week, like what I’m doing out here, how long I’m going to stay, how to fix my increasingly dire financial situation. My boss sent me a link to the wikipedia entry on quarter life crises; apparently my constant worries are as natural as they are distressing. The role of writing – what to do with it, where to put it, how to someday (hopefully) sell it – underscores my overall concerns. It’s been hard to ignore this past week, when a post about my summer job sparked more interest than all the others combined.
“Big Brown had a bad day, but things have could have turned out worse, as we all know. Horses humble men on a regular basis. Here is to the smooth and steady Da’ Tara, the sweet-riding Alan Garcia, and a superb conditioning job by Nick Zito. The beauty of horse racing is overcoming great odds to win, rising out of the dust to prevail in the big race. The Da’ Tara team did just that.” -Sid Gustafson, “Horse Racing Prevails,” The New York Times
In the paddock, the mutuel clerks watched the Belmont Stakes play out on peoples’ faces. They’ve taken most of the televisions out of the bays – a futile attempt to curb employee gambling – so we leaned out our windows and watched the crowds gathered in small groups. There were cheers with the starting bell, but they faded quickly. “Who won?” the clerk next to me shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth and sounding like Rosie Perez. The silence was unnerving, the kind of hush that accompanies a horse’s fall. The race ended without ceremony and people dispersed, muttering and tossing ripped tickets on the asphalt. “It was the six,” someone called out from down the row. We pulled up the odds; the six was a long shot, largely ignored by my customers. “What about Big Brown?” someone else asked. “Last,” a man near the windows announced, grimacing as he flipped through his losing tickets. “Dead last.”