There are lots of things I could have been doing yesterday that would have had redeeming and useful qualities. There’s my family, free of obligations on a Saturday; there’s a stack of reviews yet to complete and send out; there are readings and preparations and lawn mowing and . . . well, clearly, so many things, all of which would have had more redeeming qualities than driving across state lines and spending the day at the horse track.
Strangely, I hadn’t been to the track since I was a minor, when a high school friend’s family were horse people, training and breeding horses (as opposed to being half horse, half human — not that kind of “horse people”). I remember it being fun to watch the races, but the elements of alcohol and gambling were clearly things we missed out on. This time, the day trip seemed like a good opportunity to think about things of little importance, cheer for magnificent creatures with names like “Princess of Zoom,” and drink beer. The pace of such a day, especially after teaching a weeklong workshop, seemed exactly like the thing to do.
The track is a fascinating place. This one was neither fancy nor filthy. Families gathered around blankets and hot dogs. Children raced on stick horses in between the more official competitions. My $2 bets were received without judgement. My combination of t-shirt, shorts, and cap seemed only slightly out of place in a mix of people where many fancied cowboy hats and jeans. Variety abounded, including not only me and the cowboys, but the families and the woman with a tattoo of a dolphin that arched across the topography of her left breast.
My first “successful” bet came in the first race, when my horse was disqualified. That meant that the $2 I’d invested would be returned to me, on pace for a break-even day. But then most other of my subsequent wagers to place and show garnered nothing for multiple races, and when they did pay out, I realized that the return was so small that it was almost embarrassing to cash out $3.20 and then reinvest only the $2 minimum. So, by the 6th race I’d decided that my $2 bets should be going to causes that, since they were likely to lose, should lose in grand fashion. Not completely wild, improbably guesses, but predictions of combination, such as the trifecta. I remember the “trifecta” from my high school track days, the remarkable boldness of suggesting that you could know the top three horses, in order. A physicist by trade, I could analyze data from previous races and improve my odds, I thought. And for the privilege of engaging in such a pursuit I’d gladly pay $2.
When this paid $299 in the 7th race, and my other wager on a quinella added a few more dollars I wasn’t really sure what to think. In fact, it wasn’t until the nice woman at the counter was counting out hundred dollar bills that I realized what a great thing gambling is. What to do with $300 that you are paid just for sitting around, drinking beer, and pretending like you know all about the sport of horse racing? Later I’d think of multiple things, like shoes and CDs and more beer. But at the time I thought (honestly) that this would pay a big chunk of my deductible on the medical procedure scheduled for Monday. There I was, Mr. Excitement, middle-aged physics teacher now able to afford to pay for a doctor to put a camera down his throat and into his stomach.
My second improbable trifecta of the day, on the last race, only paid $46 for my two dollars. But it was more exciting this time. First, I knew a bit more about what was occurring as it happened; second, the three horses (8, 2, 1) were clearly crossing the finish line in that order as I cheered them on; third, I had already earmarked my earlier winnings for medical procedures. This money could go to my kids college funds. Or dinner that night, where it paid for the special catch of the day and a sandwich, salad bar included.