There is something undeniably luring about the horse track. Throughout the century, authors such as Charles Bukowski and Graham Greene have exposed and examined the types of seedy characters that lurk and are drawn to the environment of gambling, cigar smoke and potential violence. It is a place where a man can lose his pay or make his rent all in the time it takes a horse to run five furlongs. The horses run Saturday through Monday, the odds changing by the minute, the bets waiting to be placed.
Cash your checks, keep your razor snug and you and your eyes open, ’cause the ponies are getting ready to post and we’re going down to the track. Arriving at Portland Meadows at noon on a Monday can feel like visiting your grandfather at a bar. The crowd is sparse, the men all have grey hair, and the lady working the door looks like a Golden Girl. But beyond the old timer aesthetic, the air at the track is dense with the smell of anticipation, opportunity and chance.
The wide open, empty space makes you long for days when the track must have bustled with a sea of hard up stiffs with shabby suits, furrowed brows, and chins wrinkled in anticipation of "Photobound," "Blue Boy," and "Two Time Bell" to hit their trifecta, daily triple or at least to show. The tall ceilings and empty tables have a disorienting affect at first, but it doesn’t last. As you begin to look around you start to notice the men huddled over their tables, pencil in hand, with their papers spread out, pouring over the numbers of the day: the post times, the trainers, the track conditions – the game at hand.
First thing to do when you arrive is purchase either a program or a copy of the Daily Racing Forum, which is only needed if you plan on betting on horses at other tracks over simulcast. The next thing is to pick your spot. My friend and I like the club house because you can eat, smoke and order drinks from waitresses who don’t know their heads from their hinds and get confused when you ask what kinds of scotch are at the bar. Nobody knows anything when you’re here, it’s you, the facts and luck – that’s all that counts.
My buddy Dan and I bagged the scotch, deciding that it might not be smart to drink too hard before getting anything solid down, so we ordered two nips of vodka done up into Bloody Marys and then began to study the program.
There are a number of factors that go into placing a good bet. The program lists a lot of information about the horses, jockeys and their trainers from which you can pick and choose in order to make the most informed decision on your wager. In the program, you can find out how the horse has done in previous races, the ranking of the jockey and the trainer, what kind of races and under what conditions the horse has performed the best, how long ago, etc.
The race lengths vary, and the distance is measured out in furlongs (an eighth of a mile). Judging the distance of the race about to get underway, you can determine how well the horse you’re going to bet on has done at that distance in the past and under what track conditions. If you have a horse that has a great time at a mile, but a crap time at 5 1/2, you probably wouldn’t want to bet on him at a shorter distance. But that’s just a tip and everybody’s got a tip at the track.
Some people say that you want to size up the looks of the horse you have chosen before placing the bet, sometimes appearances can tell you a lot, they think. A lot of figuring goes into placing a strong bet but that’s what makes for excitement once the race is underway- the preparation comes with stakes.
I say it’s a good idea to get to the track early, that way you can get a good idea of your bets for the whole day, before the ponies are posting for the first race. There’s a ton of information to scour over in order to position yourself to walk away with something at the end of the day. The races run about two an hour from one o’clock to four-thirty, so you really shouldn’t get there after noon. If you’re new to the game, be prepared to lose the money you bring with you, unless of course you get lucky.
Once the bugle sounds and the horses storm out of the blocks, you can feel the air tighten around you. Eyes dart back and forth between the tiny television screens perched at each table, and the giant window that looks out onto the track. For the next half-minute, the only thing in the room anybody is thinking about is out there on the track, galloping toward the finish.