by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
August 28, 2003
A DAY AT THE RACES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Despite the popularity of Laura Hillenbrand's riveting book "Seabiscuit" and the wonderful movie that was made from it, and despite the momentary fame of the New York horse Funnycide, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before fading at Belmont and losing the Triple Crown, horse racing appears to be dying in this country.
This is a shame. Racing require farms, grass and open spaces where horses can run - things that seem to be in short supply in America these days. And betting on horses requires thought, something that is also in short supply.
Now that we have offshore computer accounts, betting on the Little League World Series, buying scratch tickets at gas stations, going to huge casinos to stick metal quarters in metal machines, and big-money bingo, there are fewer tracks, fewer horses, and fewer bettors.
It makes me sad, because I love horse racing above all other sports. As Randy says, horses are the kind of athletes who don't make stupid comments to reporters, don't rape young fillies in hotel rooms, and don't drive Escalades. You see very little bling bling on a horse.
Most of the year we're confined to watching races on television, but August in New England means a trip or two to beautiful Saratoga, "America's Racetrack."
It's the oldest track in the country and a joy to visit, especially when compared to concert venues. Parking at Saratoga is cheap and easy. No one shakes you down for food at the gate - in fact, coolers are welcome. People bring their kids. It only costs $3 to get in. Food is inexpensive. People are very friendly. You can be as close to the action as you want.
In fact, Saratoga is a premier aesthetic experience. There's not a prettier sight in the world than a gorgeously groomed and gleaming 1,000 pound Thoroughbred just minutes away from running its heart out. The jockeys in their silks ride right past you on their way to the track; you can look into their famous faces and see their broken bones and grim determination.
Each spectator, I think, watches her own race. Last Friday, for example, I was sitting under the grandstand watching a replay of Thursday's races on a television monitor. Next to me, a tiny old woman with a deeply lined face was doing the same thing. I was watching the front runners, because I think it takes a rare kind of madness to run so fast so early. I always pull for them, hoping they will last until the end. They rarely do, which is a lesson that some of our politicians might learn.
Race after race, the old woman and I cheered at exactly the same moment, and then we turned and looked at each other in open-mouthed joy. We were sharing something, but I have no idea what it was. But when they played "The Star Spangled Banner," I knew exactly what she was thinking. She sang that song so loudly and proudly that it brought tears to my eyes.
Everyone has their own betting system. That day, Randy and I met a high-energy Latina dripping with gold jewelry and good will. She told us that she stands at the rail as the jockeys leave the paddock and blesses them in Spanish.
"They talk Spanish and I talk Spanish, and it gives them a special lift to hear me blessing them in their own language," she said. "It puts something special into their ride."
I happened to be standing next to her at the paddock for one race, and as Edgar Prado, Josť Santos, Jorge Chavez and John Velazquez rode by, she really did shout out blessings and encouragement. Not one of them looked at her. Their faces were frozen and their eyes were focused straight ahead.
Her method raised a few questions, of course, like which horse she bets on when four Latino jockeys ride in one race, and how she comes out at the end of the day. I don't know the answers.
But her method is just as good as the one developed by a friend of ours. He bets the No. 1 horse in each race. At the Hinsdale, N.H. track, he bets the No. 1 dog.
For a long time, I bet on intuition. I watched the saddling, trying to see which horse had more energy, more of a Spring in its step. Some people actually believe the horses signal to them. I didn't go that far, but I tried to find the liveliest horse, then rush to the window, place my $2 bet, run back to the track, cheer my horse on and, usually, watch it lose. My system worked spectacularly some of the time, but by forcing my intuition to flash 12 times a day, I was just handing the track my money.
Then, for a short time, I tried betting on names. I picked ones that meant something to me, like Flushing Meadows in the fifth, because that was the site of the 1964 World's Fair and my first grownup job. This system didn't work too well, either.
Finally I bowed to reality and began to read the racing form. When you get to the point where you understand Beyer Speed Figures, you're hooked.
As we all learned from "Seabiscuit," horse racing used to be a national obsession, coming right after baseball in people's hearts. Whether they bet or not, everybody knew who Eddie Arcaro was.
Today, racing is for the very wealthy and the very raffish, and the middle is missing out. Maybe because it takes a little more time and thought than a scratch ticket or a slot machine, a lot of people are passing it by.
That's a shame. Thoroughbreds are superb, athletic, intelligent animals. Whether you win or lose, it's thrilling to watch them race.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.