Dianna Abshire, Cliff's 42-year-old sister, is the busiest person around. She is the track's accountant, gardener, barmaid and racing secretary. It's her job to draw up the card. Trainers phone her with their entries on Saturday afternoon, and she has the program typed and copied by the next morning. The trainers can be finicky, she says. Some refuse to compete against each other, citing blood feuds or terrible slights, while others want an early race, knowing that by late afternoon the beer will affect their judgment.
Ask Dianna what she likes best about her job and she'll tell you it's the people. Her biggest problem? Crowd control. A sign warns patrons that anyone caught fighting will be fined $250.
"All I knew about racing before this," says Dianna, "was to sit down and enjoy it. Now I don't have a minute to myself." She stares pointedly at Cliff. "But these races are something! We've raced mules here and Shetland ponies. One time six men put up $30 apiece, climbed into the starting gate and ran a footrace, winner take all. Us women, we wanted to race, too—and we would have!—but I realized that if we did, there wouldn't be anybody left to do the work."
Cliff Abshire is speaking. As the track announcer, his only formal job, he sits near the bar and holds a microphone while he addresses the crowd, his feet propped up on a table. From his command post he has a fine view of the spectators, and it isn't beneath his dignity to direct a flirty remark at any woman who strikes his fancy. He is dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, and his voice is sly and seductive, even though the first bulletin he delivers isn't what the fans want to hear.
"Well, folks, looks like we won't be startin' at one o'clock after all," he says, checking his watch. "We're runnin' a little behind. Seems this one jockey, his car broke down, but he fixed it, and he's on his way comin' here now. Be about, oh, 20 minutes."
The fans standing by the empty paddock grumble and hoot. They have been socking back beer for three hours or so, not counting what they might have drunk with breakfast, and they kick at the cans on the ground and study their programs out of pure boredom. After 30 minutes the grumbling has turned into a roar, and an uprising seems imminent, with Cliff being rousted from his regal perch and fed to the alligators in the infield pond. He senses this and pleads for a replacement rider—it could be anyone, really—and soon trainers are leading three thoroughbreds out of the receiving barn. The assembled fans squint and count the horses' legs.
"I get the feeling!" a tattooed man with huge biceps shouts, as if he were at a revival meeting. "I get the feeling on the 2 for $20!"
Nobody responds. Shot Byruff, the 2 horse, looks much healthier than his opponents, Beau Fly and Phar Lap, and is the clear favorite. "I get the feeling!" the man shouts again, sounding irritated. He spins on his heel to confront a fellow who's carrying a cane and has a shaved head that glistens with sweat. "Hey, you there! Why you don't bet with me and take the 3 or the 1?"
The fellow stops in disbelief. He's insulted. "What you think I am, cher?" he asks grandly, playing to the crowd. "You think I just fell off a banana boat? That I'm some type of fool? No, my friend. I am an African-American gentleman!"
The tattooed man shrugs. "We all the same here," he says.