That first summer flew by, and there was much to be learned.
Rule No. 1: Trust no man who drawls.
Rule No. 2: Trust no man who does not drawl.
Rule No. 3: Larceny is beautiful because it turns the existing social order inside out.
Harness racing is assumed by nonfans to be nothing more than an endless parade of fixed races. The endless part is open to debate, but certainly a kind of casual thievery is one of the sport's most salient features. That's just fine. Eliminate the cheating, and harness racing would be about as satisfying as double solitaire with grandma.
Most regulars, as I've mentioned, are outsiders in the eyes of the straight world who want nothing more than to be insiders at least one time. This is why the preferred road to cashing in is inside information, not luck, handicapping skill or hard work. (Luck is a clear second choice because that proves God loves you. Hard work is by far the least favored path, too much like a job.) To know nothing may be bliss, but in America to know something nobody else knows is to taste life as lived by Michael Milken before he learned about work release.
A refugee from the big city, I yearned to be a wise guy, or at least to be influenced by one. In my old neighborhood, wise guys were cool, well-heeled and popular with the kind of girl who makes you want to strip down to your underwear and bay at the moon. Sadly, though dishonest things happened almost every night at Monticello, no well-connected mentor made himself known to me. Forced to fall back on daydreams, I lapsed into fantasies about my seven Sicilian partners and our much-envied stable, Seven Vitos and a Yid. And I imagined myself dropping into basketball practice one day to ask my former teammates, as I lit a giant Cuban cigar with a $100 bill, "Well, wiry farm boys, zone-pressing full-court like a bevy of berserk barnacles is some marketable skill, but can you do this?"
Soon enough I was off to Harpur College in Binghamton. I guess I wasn't ready to be functional though. After a few halfhearted attempts to impersonate a student, I joined a crew of similarly inclined desperadoes more than willing to make the five-hour round trip six times a week to one of three conveniently situated tracks: Monticello; Vernon Downs, near Utica, N.Y.; and Pocono Downs, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. On Sundays we rested.
My parents could never get me on the phone; I told them I was going to night school. In a way, I was. My new best friend was Stu Eisner, one of the few rich kids at the state school I was about to flunk out of. On the subject of racetracks, the Scarsdale-bred Eisner was a snob; he regarded "out-of-town" ovals with the same disdain Lyndon Johnson expressed for Hubert Humphrey—useful if nothing better was available. He preferred the elegance of Roosevelt Raceway (which closed in 1988 to make way for much-needed future commercial development on Long Island). If a man with Eisner's excellent parents thought Roosevelt was the one, who was I to argue?
That summer, before what would have been my junior year, a kind of existential wisdom about harness racing began to reveal itself. One Saturday evening, for example, as the card was winding down, I scanned the entries in the 10th race for a get-out horse. (A get-out horse is a long shot that gets you out of the financial hole you have dug for yourself by too aggressively pursuing the life-changing bet when the evening was young and full of hope.) In the 10th, two of the best horses in training stood out: Lang Hanover and Brown Jet. As I saw it, they were evenly matched, but the crowd had made Lang Hanover a heavy 4-5 favorite, whereas Brown Jet was going off at a tasty 7-2. "These people are crazy," I whispered to Eisner. "They should not be allowed out of their homes." Eisner cautioned me to take it easy, but I was giddy with desire, and no force on earth, least of all reason, was going to stop me from making the biggest bet of my life on Brown Jet.