The crowd settles into a state of easy waiting. There is cheap beer, cheap food (and expensive food for those that want it), there is sunshine and there are friends to be made. When making bets you have to be sure you specify the correct track, the correct horse and the correct type of bet.
One young man who was with us (who worked at Industrial Light & Magic and was especially keen on the trumpeter’s rendition of the Star Wars theme) bet on OpSec, who had a great name to be sure, likely the reason he picked the horse, who turned out to be racing at Santa Anita that day. He had to watch OpSec race (and lose) on the giant television screen on the results board in the middle of the track, which appeared small and grainy from halfway up the middle level of stands. And there was no fanfare, no trumpet introduction, no standing and cheering – just a sad look on his face as he realised his mistake and watched his horse place next to last on a television in an oval-shaped grassy field in the middle of the track a hundred yards away.
After reading through the program thoroughly and learning from the mistakes of others I decided to make some wagers. I was confident I could at least manage to gamble my money away on races that I would actually be able watch in real life. At the betting machine an older, but not elderly, woman standing behind me was talking to a friend about how she was picking the horses. She had any number of methods that ranged from looking at the horses, reading online for tips and buying the tip sheet from the track. Contrary to my line of thinking, she swore by the tip sheet and insisted the track was giving out good tips to their patrons. Her reasoning was they want people to win sometimes and in turn have a good time and in turn come back the next week (or even the next day).
“How exactly do you see the horses?” I asked her.
“Oh, follow me, honey.” “Hey, can we stop by the beer tent on the way? I’m a little thirsty.” I wobble my empty beer cup at eye level.
“Oh, hey, good idea.”
We get two beers each at the tent and she leads me down to the ground level and we make our way toward the actual track to the paddock, where you can see the horses being prepared for the next race. Their trainers were brushing them and petting them and one even whispered words of what we can only hope to be encouragement into his horse’s ear. And indeed, up close you can see which horses look healthier, more vital and more energetic than the others. After thanking her for showing me how close you could actually get to the horses I inspected them as thoroughly as possible with my lack of expertise.
Remembering the tips found on the GGF website I chose a horse that had a shiny coat, raised tail, and good size (i.e. bigger than the others — I’m a tall guy and when presented with a choice I tend to side with other tall guys, or horses in this case). So I choose horse number 3, Lady of the Nile. She has strong and healthy appearance and exudes confidence, or so I convince myself. She also stands at least a half a hand taller than the others.
With a horse picked and a bet in mind I returned to the betting machine. On my way back I encounter one of my favorite Dollar Day standbys, the guy who somehow managed to get 10 beers for himself even though the limit is two. A garbage can with a tan bottom and a dark green top with a swinging door stands next to a set of stairs leading down into the stands. Leaning on the railing in front of the can is a squat man wearing a polo shirt and jeans. His gut hangs out of the bottom of the polo shirt and over the top of his Levi’s. In front of him he has carefully arranged his 10 Miller Lites in a neat square on top of the garbage can. There are tables and bars and seats all over the place, but he is content to watch the races standing up and using the garbage can as a table.
At the betting machine I navigate the clunky user interface to bet on my horse. When I am choosing the type of bet I want to make I see the “quinella” alongside the other options. I remember vaguely, through the burgeoning haze of cheap beer and food coma, that quinella means you pick two horses for the same race and if they place first and second, in any order, then you win. Even though the payout will be smaller if I win, I figure I will have better chances of winning something by playing the quinella. I am still not sure if this is true. Scanning the list of horses I spot my secondary choice: Unbridled Bounty. I make my bet, take my wager slip, and return to the beer tent — I have exhausted my beer while standing in line for the betting machine. I decide to get two more hot dogs too because, well, why the hell not.
I walk carefully, sipping out of my two beers alternately to try to sip them down below being so full they splash and spill with every step. Back in the stands everything and everyone remains the way I left it except for the addition of more beer, some nachos and some popcorn. I hand Jessie the bet receipt.
“Keep your fingers crossed,” I say with a laugh.
I have no expectation of winning, but am still having fun. I have been gripped by the thrill of the bet. And so has Jessie. I see a spark in her eye as she looks up from the slip of paper.
“Fingers crossed!” She crosses her fingers and thrusts her hand into the air. I do the same, and we try to high five like this, but it doesn’t work.
Before long the horses are trotting out to show themselves off to the spectators — or, rather, the trainers are trotting the horses out to show them to the spectators. I doubt the horses would do this on their own. In fact, each horse has a companion pony or horse with them to keep them from getting too agitated before the race. They are strapped to the pony by the bridle, and once the jockey or track hand removes the strap the thoroughbred knows it’s time to turn up the throttle. The horses and jockeys proceed through the warm up and my excitement builds as the race draws closer. I didn’t have this feeling during the first race. Admittedly, my mind was on beer and hot dogs, but this feeling of anticipation and thrill was altogether not there.
The horses are in their places behind the starting gate and the race is about to begin. I keep looking from the track to my wager slip as if to make sure I can remember what horses I picked. Or maybe just for something else to look at besides six horses lined up and about to explode out of six tiny stalls. The gate opens and the horses are off — with Lady and Unbridled bringing up the rear right from the start. They race around the first curve and the horses begin to spread out, their individual speeds naturally taking them further ahead and slightly behind through the first half of the race. As they round the second curve, I strain to see all the way across the track, but I think I can see one of my horses moving up in the ranks. His jockey is pushing her to her limit and approaching the lead! One by one she passes the other horses through the straightaway and by the time they exit the third curve she is running with the top three!
The horses approach and we all stand, because one person stands and everyone else stands in chain reaction, and I grab Jessie and we cheer for our horse. By now the quinella is forgotten, the other horse is forgotten and the only thing that truly matters in these moments are the horse that might move up and win the whole thing. My horse! The horse is not mine at all, but putting my hard-earned money down on her gives me some false sense of ownership, some inclination toward being directly involved with his winning or losing. As they near the finish line two other horses are neck and neck with mine for the win. Just as they finish Lady of the Nile puts on a burst of speed and takes the race. She places first, while Unbridled Bounty places fifth. I barely think about this though; the only thoughts in my head are that my horse won, and I feel a great sense of misplaced pride.
But just as quickly as a frenzy of emotion took over my body and brain the feeling subsides. The race is over. I have, in fact, lost money on my wager because the second horse did not place. I sit and drink a beer. Jessie goes to get hot dogs. Matt brings back more nachos. Someone lights a joint. A flask is passed around. The sun burns on the back of our necks.
And yet, while I enjoy myself immensely, especially the thrill and accessibility of the gamble, it is difficult not to think about that elusive question and whether or not my enjoyment is worth the pain and suffering these horses might be going through. Without any way to truly know how a trainer treats their thoroughbreds, it is a complicated emotion to reconcile. For now the question disappears behind the fog of the beer, pot, food coma and the thrill of the bet.