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Feature Mon Jan 14 2013
I love going to the horse track. I am from Kentucky, so I suppose that is understandable. I was born in Lexington, which is reputedly the "Horse Capital of the World." One of my first jobs was at a horse track there, when I was old enough to serve hot dogs but too young to bet.
You won't see me betting at the $50 window, but I have won intermittently, always just enough to keep me coming back. I've made $300 on a $2 bet. I've seen friends cash a ticket for $1,000 (requiring tax paperwork and the friendly advice to either leave the track or keep your winnings a secret). I've seen winners dance with joy and heard losers shout "Go make some glue, motherfucker" at a losing horse (referring to the once common practice of using animal tissue to make adhesives). I met the lead singer of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus, at Churchill Downs in Louisville. And, yes, I've been to the Kentucky Derby (and saw a friend stagger off a bleacher, spraying the elegantly dressed ladies around us with his Bloody Mary.)
Besides the erratic financial rewards horse racing can provide, I like the people-watching. Nothing brings people together like winning easy money and cheap beer. You'll see just about every possible shape and hue of humanity at a horse track. So, after living in Chicago for a year, I realized I hadn't been to a horse race here. I went to the Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero. Hawthorne is one of four horse tracks in the Chicagoland area. Two of those tracks, Maywood and Balmoral, feature harness-racing, and the other regular saddle-racing track, Arlington Park, doesn't have live racing this time of year.
Hawthorne is situated between South Cicero and South Laramie avenues, a few miles south of I-290 where a cramped commercial corridor of mostly Hispanic businesses opens up into an industrial expanse. The track opened in 1891, rebuilt twice after fires, survived a gambling ban from 1905-1922 and now reportedly does over $2 million a day during live meets.
One travel guide described Hawthorne as a "Bukowski story come to life," referring to the heavy-drinking writer Charles Bukowski, who spent a lot of time and money at Southern California tracks.
Chicago writer Ted McClelland wrote a book called Horseplayers: Life At The Track, in which he spent a year betting on horses and immersing himself in the world of hardcore gamblers. He spent a lot of time at Hawthorne for the book, so I emailed Ted and asked him what I would see at Hawthorne.
His reply: "Pretty much the same degenerates who have been there every day for the past 30 years. Look for a guy with a clean pair of pants and ask him, 'What the hell are you doing here?'"
So, with my fiancée Jessica in tow — she's no slouch at betting herself — we went to Hawthorne on a cool, misty December Saturday. We saw lots of people in clean pants but did not ask them what the hell they were doing there. We saw mostly men, middle-aged and up, sipping beer and poring over their racing forms, gauchos in their gaucho hats and crisp denim, plenty of unironic mustaches and Member's Only jackets. Jessica was probably one of three women under 40 in the entire place. We also saw an older man wearing a sweet felt hat, riding around in an electric wheelchair dragging the power cord behind it.
There were nine races that day and we arrived a few minutes before the second one started. We didn't have time to look over the complimentary program we got with our $4 admission, so we used the easiest way to pick our winner: the horse's name. We bet on Doggone Wild, in honor of our two pooches at home. The horse came in second to last.
With 30 minutes between races, we had time to do a little research for the next race. As looked for an open table on the ground floor, we saw an old man in a Turfway sweatshirt. Turfway is a race track in northern Kentucky, close to Cincinnati. We'd been to Turfway before, so we said hi to him and asked him if he'd been there. He came to life, saying he had a friend there who gave him the sweatshirt. At first, he misunderstood us and thought we owned horses from Kentucky that were racing at Hawthorne. We barely had time to clarify that wasn't the case before he began a rambling, five-minute monologue. He had been coming to Hawthorne since 1948 — he was 83 now — with his old army buddies, but now the place was overrun with "scumbags and shitheads." He veered into a story about staying in a cabin in western Kentucky before returning to his annoyance at the current clientele of Hawthorne. His speech became latently racist — he said there were "too many Democrats and Obama-supporters" at the track — so we politely excused ourselves and found a table far away to look over the day's lineup.
Racing programs are a seemingly inscrutable jumble of numbers documenting a horse's past performances, but you can glean useful information from it. My favorite part of the program is the terse descriptions of an entry's prior races. Space is limited in the program, so an economy of words is essential. It reads like absurd, minimalist poetry: Stout rally. Pulling, stalking, driving. Passed tiring rivals. Jostled, steadied. Weakened between foes. And my absolute favorite: failed to menace.
I usually fail to menace at the betting window, and that was the case this time. But, if I make enough to bet on every race and drink a few beers and nearly break even, I consider it a good day at the races.
For the third race, I bet on Holy Bullhive. Racehorses get their sometimes-weird names from melding the names of its dam (mother) and sire (father). In this case, my horse was the offspring of Holly Bull and Bee Hive. I placed my bet with one of the tellers, mostly senior citizens, wearing white button-ups with red vests. We went outside to watch the actual race. It was gray day with intermittent rain, but not too cold. On a clear day, you can see downtown from the track, but now there were only the lights of the surrounding factories and warehouses winking through the gloom.
It was a short race, six furlongs (three quarters of a mile). Holy Bullhive came out of the gate strong, staying in second for the first half of the race before taking the lead. He led the field of seven thundering down the homestretch and splattering mud as a handful of fans/bettors yelling along the rail watched him win by a length and a half. I won $15. Hey, I never said I was a high roller.
Armed with a fresh bottle of Modelo, I wandered around the grandstand with Jessica. The second level was sparsely populated and eerily quiet. Hardly anybody was in the stadium-style seating facing the glass enclosure above the track. A few men were gathered under the banks of television sets showing races from other tracks around the country. (Many tracks have simulcast betting, allowing bettors to gamble on races elsewhere.)
My horse in the fourth race, Greytap, came in fourth. I didn't win again until race 7, raking in a whopping $7 on a horse named Churubusco. By then, the floor on the ground level was beginning to accumulate torn losing tickets like jumbo confetti. (Old joke: I lose so often at the track, they sell my tickets already torn up.) A few bored kids chased each other around while their parents perused their programs. There were abandoned programs and pencil-scribbled newspapers at the table next to ours. A man in a camouflage jacket asked if he could take one of the programs and quietly limped away.
I went to one of the concession stands to get a snack. As I waited on an amiable hair-netted lady preparing my nachos, an elderly gent wearing a big Russian-style fur hat was pouring several sugars into his coffee.
He asked how I was doing. I said OK-two wins — and then asked him how he was doing.
"Not good," he said. "I'm depressed."
"Not winning anything?"
"No, this whole Connecticut shooting with the kids. I lost a son like that a long time ago." He shook his head in disbelief, but didn't elaborate. His eyes were milky-blue with some kind of glaucoma. We talked about the Newtown shooting, as much as you can say about it. He sighed, shook my hand and wished me happy holidays.
By now it was dark and we were ready to go. I placed one more bet on the last race — a horse named Sing It Out — on the way out. (Winning tickets are valid till the end of the following year.) I checked the last race's results online when we got home. My horse, originally favored to win, came in seventh. It led for the first half, then "gave way." Another losing ticket, but it was a good day at the track. And my pants were still clean.
Doug Rapp is a writer and ESL teacher.