Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dreams and Days at the Races

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets."—Damon Runyon


This week, I’ll let you in a secret, one I’ve been keeping from you for the last couple of months: nothing soul-shattering, just another curious turn in my curious life.

I’ll start with a dream.

A couple of nights ago, I dreamt I was handicapping an afternoon of thoroughbred horse racing at Golden Gate Fields, the last equine racing facility still operating in the San Francisco Bay Area.

That’s all I did for almost the entire dream—handicap an upcoming race card, meaning I analyzed each horse and jockey and picked which might win, place, or show for each of the nine or so races on the card. I don’t recall any of the entries, but it was intellectually strenuous work. It was a long, singularly focused dream. I’m sure you’re dozy just reading about it, but I was fascinated.

I finally flipped to a new scene, this one co-starring Tim, a San Francisco buddy I’ve not seen for way too long a time. He and I were arriving at Golden Gate Fields. Tim went through the gate ahead while I hung back. It was my birthday and, I recall, I started haggling with the ticket taker about whether I would get an admission discount for this special occasion.

Then, damn it, I woke up. I always wake up. Just when I’m about to pick the money off the floor, pluck the fruit off the tree, collect my Pulitzer Prize.

The meaning behind this dream is simple, transparent--remember to ask about discounts and specials when I celebrate my birthday at Golden Gate Fields in a few weeks (probably the first weekend in November.)

(Yup, I just keep popping with the surprises, don’t I? Next week, I’ll tell you about my dream of becoming a Sumo wrestler.)


I attended my first thoroughbred race a few years ago when another now-faraway friend, Toni and her husband George, invited me to Toni’s birthday party at the Turf Club at Golden Gate Fields.

From the second the horses stormed out of the gate I was entranced--by the action, the energy, the drive, the thunder of those beautiful beasts and the brave jockeys as they galloped along the track, around the turns and raced toward home. Even from the high vantage point of the Turf Club, the power and genuine danger of the sport was as palpable as a storm. I felt a unique excitement lacking at other sporting events, even the Big Game.

I was lost that whole afternoon as my focus fiercely shifted from the track to the racing form, trying to get a sense of who would win, who would place, who would show. Then, after horses and riders zipped across the finish line, up I would leap and fly off to the betting window to collects my winnings and place my next bets. Aside from the sporty Runyonesque fashions worn by some of the other bettors, I recall little else of that singular afternoon. Whoever spoke to me, I probably looked right through them, my eyes as glassy as the lenses of my binoculars.

Because I was a pure beginner, I stuck with simple straight bets—win, place, show, two dollars per horse per race, no wagering on long shots, no “exotic” bets. Elizabeth and I came to the track with a hundred dollars. We left with around eighty dollars remaining. Later I found out that, for a novice, I’d done alright.

The glow lasted a long time, but I didn’t go back, not after Seabiscuit, not after the premier of the HBO series Luck¸ a drama I found thrilling and enjoyable, even though it never quite found its stride before being scratched.



This June, worldly magic struck again, at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton. (California is the last state to maintain the tradition of the county fair racing circuit.) We were there at the invitation of Elizabeth’s sister Margaret and her husband Charles.

We’d attended the races here last year, but we only stayed for one sprint, I think for quarter horses, before plowing on through the rest of that cheerfully gaudy, tacky, sensory experience whether you like racing or not--exotic farm animals, Roller Derby, has-been pop acts, and enough delicious bad food to clog the arteries of every vegetarian in the Bay Area.

This time around, I asked if we could stay at the track a little bit longer.

Forgetting my first experience, I blew my first bet, betting three horses to win, a betting strategy known as “dutching,” a legit way to go, but only with certain longshots.

The next race, the fourth race, I cooled down and studied the program. Then Charles suggested we visit the paddock, the circle where horses and jockeys parade before heading out for the post parade to the starting gate.

The second I got there, my brain lit up. I understood instinctively what to look for. County fair circuit races don’t feature the best horses; that is, they’re not the top-graded stake races you read about on the front page of The Daily Racing Form and seldom see on TV, leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

But even though these weren’t top grade horses, these thoroughbreds were some of the most beautiful animals anywhere: gleaming coats, rippling powerful muscles. Like so much of Nature, human hands could not create anything more beautiful, more moving.

Without prompting, I looked for horses with spirit, focus, and energy, the ones that enjoyed being there and were ready to run; those who walked with their heads held high, alert, their ears on end, who were one with their jockeys. No one had to tell me. It just made sense. Run with the one who wants to run.

A horse who bucked nervously about or one who plodded like a plow horse or office clerk, there just to punch the clock, collect their check, and go home . . . I passed on those.

In five minutes I found three horses worth my six dollars. After I placed my bet at the window, I rushed back to my group, happily waving my fists in dopey joy: “Elizabeth! I just bet all our savings on a twenty-to-one pick!” (I don’t know why no one finds those jokes funny, really.)

No joke this time though: My win pick won, a 6-1, six year old named Summer Suntan. However, I must admit, he won by disqualification. Running second, he was bumped out of his line by a horse named Fly Blue near the end of the race. Fly Blue was disqualified by the California Racing Board stewards. Summertime Suntan walked the winner’s circle.

Nevertheless, I was right enough about that horse, right enough to win me $13.80, the only winnings in our party.

But . . . it wasn’t my party. And so, with my hands in my pockets and Charles grumbling alongside, the two of us kicking up dirt clods like a couple of five year old boys, we left the racetrack behind.

“The next time,” I pouted, jabbing my thumb at my chest, “it’s gonna be myyyy party! And we’re gonna stay allllllll day!”

[To be continued]

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

No comments: