I’d hoped to write a few things about working the Belmont Stakes sooner, but my entire connection with Time Warner Cable was mysteriously severed Monday night, leaving me without Internet ever since (the television cruelly winked out while I was watching the Colin Firth version of Pride & Prejudice, an honest-to-God tragedy). But Belmont also left me completely floored, health-wise, stranded on the couch with a whole-box-of-tissues-in-an-afternoon kind of cold. I’d felt it coming on Friday, but it was seriously compounded by four hours on trains and busses and, of course, ten hours taking bets without a break. Never mind that, though: Belmont was wonderful. I don’t regret it for a second.
I mean, there were setbacks. There are always setbacks. A lot of hurry-up-and-wait, and strange mix-ups with assignments, like how they stuck a bunch of us (including me) on half-assembled machines, screens without the CPUs, just the shells, no guts. They finally got them up and working, and it wasn’t the greatest window I’ve ever taken bets at, facing away from the track, an area that usually sits dormant, but it was a genuinely lovely crowd in the upper clubhouse—tastefully dressed and overwhelmingly polite, they journeyed toward drunkenness at a gentler pace than their counterparts in the Preakness infield.
And let it be known: I was wrong. The last-minute scratch didn’t hang over the crowd, at least not amongst the people who frequented my betting window. A few of them talked about I’ll Have Another—one man told me that he’d flown all the way from California to witness a Triple Crown victory, and a few women, like I had the day before, clucked and said, “What a shame. That poor horse.” But most people just seemed excited about the thirteen races of the day. I saw a surprising number of expert gamblers (on big race days, many regulars stay home, to avoid the crowds and the low payouts of heavy favorites), and it was a delight to punch strings of complicated bets, to cash well-earned triples and pick threes. There’s no surer sign that you’re dealing with a career gambler than when you hand him his winnings with congratulations and he sighs and says, “I’m still five hundred in the hole, but thanks, sweetheart,” and drops a ten back on your machine. There’s something in there about karma, but gambling at the racetrack never makes for easy metaphors.
I had some memorable customers. There were a surprising number of Irishmen, one of whom kept absent-mindedly handing over too many twenties and then insisting that he’d counted his bills correctly. There was this giant guy in a navy blazer who lumbered towards my window and then simply stared at me and swayed: I was nervous that he’d either vomit or fall on top of me. “You and me,” he slurred. “How about you and me?” I didn’t feel compelled to let him down easy. When he showed me his empty wallet, I quickly cancelled the ticket I’d punched for him. There was a cheerfully intoxicated woman who asked about the favorite in one of the races. I pulled up the odds on my machine, but as I was scanning them, she cut in, “Oh, right, there’s no favorite!” “Well, no…” I said, confused. “There’s always a—” “OK, so no favorite in this race,” she shouted right past me. I shut my mouth and sat back; arguing wasn’t worth the effort. She placed a bet—possibly on the actual favorite—and handed me a damp bill. “Sorry!” she shouted. “It’s wet because it’s from the bar!” Then she leaned in closer, and assured me: “It’s not because I peed on it or anything!”
And then, the big race, and who knows what would have happened if I’ll Have Another had run. But it was an extraordinary finish, John Velazquez bringing Union Rags up on the inside in that last length: I watched from the catwalk, high above the grandstand, and it was something to see that final run, but it was something else entirely to see the crowd jump up in unison, eighty-thousand-some-odd people cheering at the top of their lungs for a mile and a half. I could have stopped to marvel at this sport, this strange world that’s dragged me in and under so thoroughly, but I was too busy cheering myself. If I could’ve bet, I’d have put money on that three horse. I swear.
[image source (Jerome Park, NYC, “The False Start”, 1868)]