Like creatures from some postapocalyptic nightmare, blinking and wheezing, we trudged in out of the perfect May sunshine, winding up in a large, windowless cinder-block bunker, the kind of room where the last people on Earth might go to the of radiation poisoning. In reality, this is the third floor of the clubhouse at Yonkers (N.Y.) Raceway, and despite a plenitude of those plastic chairs with broken armrests and holes in the backrests, eight TV monitors, four Autotote betting machines, five SAM betting machines and one live (if not particularly lively) teller, it has exactly one thing to recommend it: a sign that reads POSITIVELY NO SMOKING ON THIS FLOOR BY ORDER OF THE HEALTH DEPT.
Since, as a group, we were redolent of hypertension and about-to-blow heart valves, this was no small thing. By law Yonkers is supposed to be a smokeless facility, although there are actually a few indoor spots where smoking is expressly permitted. However, as we will soon see, horseplayers have both feet planted firmly in the past, and this newfangled no-smoking tiling is honored purely in the breach. Except here, on the third floor of the clubhouse.
The occasion: Preakness Saturday and a full slate of thoroughbred simulcasting from Belmont, Churchill Downs and Pimlico, site of the second leg of racing's Triple Crown. Later there would be races to bet on from Golden Gate and Hollywood in California, and later still harness races from The Meadows, Vernon Downs, Northfield Park, Rosecroft, Buffalo, Pompano Park, Balmoral and Yonkers itself, where real live horses would track and pace around the track, though few breed improvers would rouse themselves from in front of TV monitors to watch.
For those whose impressions of horse racing come from watching the Kentucky Derby on national TV, or from renting videos of My Fair Lady or attending the races 20 years ago, before the advent of state-run lotteries and Indian-owned casinos; who believe women bettors wear Easter-parade hats and male bettors morning suits; who kvell over owners and trainers who treat their horses like human offspring, referring to them cloyingly by such nicknames as Big Red, or the Fish, or Skippy, I've got a news flash:
I don't think we're at Ascot anymore, Toto.
It seemed like such a harmless notion: Spend a day at a local simulcasting facility and paint a picture of Life as a Horse Bettor, circa 1998. A tad overeager, perhaps, I arrived at the gates of Yonkers Raceway at 10 a.m. on Preakness Saturday, copies of The Daily Racing Form and that night's Yonkers program in tow. (I later purchased the Belmont Park Post Parade Magazine, Post Parade Simulcast and the Yonkers Raceway Official Evening Simulcast Program. All in all, I would be required to assess the chances of 1,119 horses in 131 races at 13 tracks in eight states, from sea to shining sea. Yonkers was also simulcasting races from tiny Finger Lakes, in upstate New York, but blessedly I was never able to acquire a program that included those events.)
My plan was simplicity itself: Cash at least one substantial winning ticket (no $2 show bets) for each track, observe the behavior of those around me, take copious notes and do as little as possible to embarrass this magazine. Oh, well.
The night before, in a flurry of preparation, I had handicapped the first two races at Pimlico before my eyes began to droop. Don't forget, I reminded myself by way of rationalizing my sloth, the tote board is the most important factor in handicapping. I'll look at the other 129 races later.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I bet doubles and exactas in the first and second races, trifectas in the first and second races and the superfecta in the first race, ridding myself of more than 10% of my bankroll before most people in the world had gotten out of bed.
As the bunker began to fill up, the level of babble began to rise. Pretty soon the "so I sezes" and the "anyhows" and the "don't tell mes" and the "I'm telling yous," not to mention the colorful descriptive adjectives, were ricocheting off the cinder-block walls. As my nine-year-old daughter, Wendy, noted the last time I took her to the track, "They sure do use the f word a lot around here, Dad." Then she thought about it for a moment and added, "I guess I'd use the f word a lot too if I was losing all my money."