SPORTS

Diary of a Horse Racing Virgin

2/27/2006

I’ve plunged into many a baseball pool and I’ve spilled a keg’s worth of quarters into a one-armed bandit’s money sucking lips but I’ve never bet on the ponies before.



I’ve plunged into many a baseball pool and I’ve spilled a keg’s worth of quarters into a one-armed bandit’s money sucking lips but I’ve never bet on the ponies before. That all changed one wet and windy Saturday afternoon when I found myself trackside at Woodbine watching horses thunder through the slop.

It was the opening day of the thoroughbred racing season and there was a palpable buzz in the air, a tingly energy much like the rush that can hit you on the first hot day of spring when you catch a glimpse of naked street thigh. Call it the “Sport of Kings” or “the Sport for Chronics,” take your pick, people go gaga for this game of galloping hooves.

With twenty minutes to spare till go time, or post time as they say in racing circles, I make a beeline for the betting queue. Ahead of me, a slim middle-aged woman is taking her time at the pari-mutuel window chit chatting with a dour faced yet polite clerk. She wants to know how the daily double, one of the more exotic betting options, works. It turns out that this bet has no relation to the Jeopardy wager although it is a skill-testing wager. To win a daily double you have to pick the winners of two consecutive races. This was not the play to make for a rookie like me. I was chomping on the bit of equine action for the very first time and I wanted to take things nice and slow.

“Can you believe this?” An antsy man behind me exclaims just then, loud enough so that everybody waiting in line could hear. He was hoping to illicit a sympathetic moan, but when no takers obliged, the man threw up a sweaty hand in disgust and switched to the adjacent line even though it was longer. Real hardcore gambling men bet on the fastest lines as well as the ponies. “Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return,” wrote the English poet W.H. Auden. Heavy.

With gambling man still itching for his fix on deck in the line next to me, I was already up. It was time to get my horse on. In advance I’d decided that I’d cap my betting budget at $30, making three conservative bets on three consecutive races at $10 a pop. I opted to bet all three “to show” (picking a horse to finish in the money: first, second, or third). Instead of poring over the statistical data, and taking account of pedigree or even the morning line odds, I chose to pick my steeds randomly like a stock picking Orangatang—blind and flukey. If I had wanted I could have asked for a Quickpick, a random computer generated Super 7 style horse draw, but where’s the fun in that?

I settled in trackside just as a red-coated trumpeter sounded the call to the post, a staccato throwback tune to the days when knights sat around round tables and “bugle boy” was a respectable career choice. Believe me, you know this song, it goes: “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo…” Err…on second thought maybe it doesn’t translate that well in print. After the musical interlude, the track christening pageantry continued as a plane flew over as if on cue. For a second I thought I was at a NASCAR race. I surveyed my surroundings for rednecks and large breasted woman but there were none in sight. Instead I see many families here, I could just as well be at Ontario Place. Just then I caught the tail of a mere Boeing 747 commercial airliner descending into Pearson airport, evidently this was not part of the show—thanks air traffic control, I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Beside me a grandfather was reading The Daily Racing Forum, the broadsheet bible of horse racing. Every once in a while he’d lean away from his paper to impart some horse racing wisdom unto his adolescent granddaughter. “You don’t just pick a horse by its colour,” he instructed. My girlfriend’s father, Leon, who’s only had a couple horse- racing-afternoon-stands had given me similar folksy horsey advice. “Make sure your horse has a tail, head, and four legs.” Leon also told me to make sure I picked a horse who ran well on a wet track, a track stat in retrospect I would’ve been wise to actually pay attention to.

Seeing your horse in person (or is it more correct to say in horse, where’s a grammarian when you need one?) is a unique thrill. It’s sort of like watching your favorite new sports team that you just bandwagon jumped onto after your former team got snuffed out early in the playoffs.

Previously I had only known Sultry Fluff, a strapping dark brown fillie by her name and the number on my betting receipt, but now here she was in the flesh. If looks could tell, she appeared to be a strong contender—fierce, muscular and all stallion-like. One thing was for sure: this horse could hoof it. I was pumped.

When the bell rang and the horses bolted out of the gate, Sultry was in the lead pack. She was in the hunt. As the horses came around the bend into the home stretch of this five furlong (1000 meters) sprint I found myself on my feet with the rest of the suddenly wild crowd whooping it up like it was the third period of the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals, and the home team just scored the go ahead goal. A few rows down a guy wearing a windbreaker with equestrian written on the back in big block letters starts jumping up and down and working his right arm in mimicry of a riding crop. The way his equally excited friend is howling, you’d think someone just dropped a firecracker down his pants. Horse racing isn’t for the squeamish—the entertainment is bloody intense.

Twenty yards from the finish, I stop whooping, and my heart drops into my stomach. It turns out Sultry isn’t as deserving of her hot to trot namesake as first imagined. She finishes fourth and out of the money. A sweet-toothed horse named Candy Haze handily wins the curtain opener.

Shortly after the race a procession of treaded CATs, horse racing’s zambonis, begin to loop around the track smoothing and leveling its surface. I didn’t think there would be this much waiting around in horse racing. There was a full half hour until the next race would start. I don’t know, maybe I’d just picked up a case of pony fever and was getting impatient for post time.

Giddy up. Classical Ruckus was my next pick. The ominous “da-da-da-da” melody of Beethoven’s 5th played over and over like a broken record in my mind and I decreed that this was Ruckus’ personal Rocky song. But then I decided she’d need something a little lighter to bring her home when she came down the stretch so I composed a chant: “Go Ruckus, it’s your birthday, going to party like you’re at a symphony….”

“They’re off,” I hear behind me, (I must have dozed into a little dream world there for a bit), but the raucous fan noise that inevitably greets the start of a race sprang me out of my haze and onto my feet along with the throng of horse wailers—whispering sweet nothings to motivate a horse is only for uber-softies like Robert Redford and Tobey Macguire. Ruckus was running in the middle, her jockey Jack Lauzon, looked like an Italian flag in green white and red. “Viva Italia,” I roared with gusto. You can say pretty much anything at a horse race and no one will turn and look. A group of Rasta-men hanging out on the concourse with dreadlocks and Bob Marley toques are screaming high-pitched horse neighs.

Ruckus was fighting hard in the middle of the pack but Jack just couldn’t bring her home and she finished in fifth.

“Ohhhhhh…so close” a woman squealed to my right. “It’s hard to get an exacta (* picking the first two finishers of a race in the proper order), very tough,” murmured her consoling husband.

My third race pick, Swift of Flight was a real disappointment, so much so that I’m not even going to give her the dignity of a race recap, lets just say I could have beat ole Swifty to the finish line riding a tricycle.

So that’s it, an hour and a half of pulse pounding sports entertainment for $30, not bad at all. Just for the heck of it I decided to stay for one more race. I pick a horse for fun just to see if there’s such a thing as playing the ponies for fun. I flip to the page in the program for the fourth race and my index finger traces towards Hot Dish like a Ouija board triangle. She is my horse. Before the bell Dish seems to resist getting into the starting gate, yup horses get performance anxiety too. I was thinking she was going to be a scratch but then Dish steadied her nerves and took her place amongst the starters.

I was standing with everybody else but with nothing invested in the outcome, my eyes were on the horses and not the scoreboard when they rounded the bend. I had forgotten which number Dish was but I was digging this, there was more horse power here than under the hood of a Hummer and it was a thrill watching these robust creatures pound their way to the finish line. A minute later when the crowd noise began to fade I looked up at the screen and Dish had medalled, she’d come in third! On the one hand I was happy for Dish, I’d picked her after all but on the other hand I was feeling a little empty inside—why didn’t I believe in her enough to bet? Truth is winning when you don’t bet, hurts more than losing when you do. Bet that will give a couple psychologists’ cerebral cortices an orgasm?


Copyright © Mike Dojc, 2006
*An abridged version of this story was published in Chill Magazine

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