When I was 23 years old I spent the Spring at Golden Gate Fields Race Track in Northern California, playing the ponies. This is what I learned: TAXONOMY - "Slim" was the name that they gave me. I was hoping for something more bad-ass--Milk-Truck, Fast Eddie, The Scribe--because although barely out of college and unable to grow a real mustache, I drank Jim Beam and Coke, scribbled song lyrics on my program between races, and certainly must have exuded a world-weary toughness and grace under pressure. Hell, I had been to Europe. But Slim stuck. The lesson here: it is hard to earn a really cool nickname when you drive a Nissan Sentra. SOCIAL STUDIES - The track regulars who gave me this name were not the clubhouse sharpies, or the well-heeled horse owners high up in the Turf Club, they were the rough-and-tumble regulars leaning up against the rail of the lower level, close to the action. They were guys like Harry The Hat, "Smooth" Brown, and Daryl the Roofer who Had Found Jesus in Rehab. Harry was part of the Chinatown contingent, tan windbreakers and Marlboro Reds. Mr. Brown was one of the African-American regulars, older, stylishly dressed, leather-capped from Oakland and San Francisco
There were also groups of rancheros on their day off, usually dressed in shiny boots and their best cowboy hat, who spoke Spanish to the jockeys and stable boys. Daryl was a wild-card, a former meth-dealing biker from Santa Cruz who looked like he had gotten lost on his way to a Raiders game. The lesson: America is a melting pot of diverse groups of citizens with a common goal, make money with as little effort as possible. ECONOMICS 101 - I had a night job delivering pizzas for a place called The Pizza Shack. My plan was to take my tips to the track every day, learn to handicap horses like a pro and make enough money to quit my job and write The Great American Novel or a cookbook for goths. I learned quickly that opinions at the race track are like daddy issues in a strip club dressing room; everybody has one. And it’s probably better if you don’t hear them. The regulars taught me rules to live by when it came to placing bets: "You have to bet big to win big"; "Follow the smart money"; "See the race before it happens; "Never bet a grey filly on a Wednesday"; the list is endless and often contradictory. Some bettors swore by the jockey, others by the horses breeding, the look in the horses eye, the smell of it’s poop. A frothy acidic stream of urine was a sure sign of the second coming of Secretariat.
Then there’s the literature: The Daily Racing Form is considered the bible of horse racing but it’s more like the Wall Street Journal for obsessive-compulsive degenerates. There were also tout cards sold by pitchmen with cheesy lines delivered with Muhammad Ali cadence: "I"m the MAN, with your racetrack PLAN!" I decided to ignore 99 percent of all this. I learned the track is no different from Wall Street or Hollywood or Washington DC or any place where money and and ideas are involved. Everyone’s an expert. The louder they are, the less they know. The key is to shut everyone else out and go your own way. Then at least, there is no one else to blame. I had some big wins mixed in with the slow days, but not enough, I guess, to make up the vig(the track’s take) and the money spent on beer, literature, hot dogs and gasoline. In the end, I came out pretty much even monetarily which, in a capitalist society, means I lost. THEATER ARTS- Of all dens of vice, the track is the most bucolic setting, with trees and grass and birds and clean air above. There is room to think. It’s a world away from an air-conditioned Vegas sportsbook, clausterphobic card room, or slot-machined Indian Casino.
It is also essentially a stage, built for drama and spectacle, both manafactured and real.The horses parade around before the race, dressed in their finest silks. They are bred for speed, with no fat on them. They are like European supermodels: all legs, on drugs, and if they break down you have to shoot them.The jockeys, muscled little men in colored pajamas holding whips, are helped on top of the giant thoroughbreds. The track bugler plays the call to post. The horses load up. The bell rings, the gates drop. There is the pounding of hooves, and majestic blur and in two minutes, it’s over. There’s a winner’s circle, and fist-pumping and swearing and the tearing of tickets and loud arguments with imaginary demons. And there is drinking. I, too, was playing a role, "slumming it" as my friends from home would say, the wise-guy writer. But everyone at the track was part of the drama, carefully constructed characters, larger than life. I left the track when the spring season ended and never really went back. The essential lesson remains in me: life is a gamble, but you can’t win if you don’t play. Oh, and one other thing: never bet against a grey filly on a Wednesday if the race is more than six furlongs and the jockey has an Irish last name. Trust me.
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