’TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY! Especially if you’re a horse player. That’s because many of the tracks around the country are coming out of their winter hibernation. Santa Anita opened last week, Gulfstream opens this weekend, and who knows what else is about to launch.
Because I’m not able to attend the meets like I used to, I must rely on my memory to re-live the smell of the liniment and the roar of the pari-mutuel crowd.
Nevertheless, the back roads of my mind are bumper-to-bumper with thoughts of those rascal times of my life when win, place and show held me captive, with the exception of the daily double.
In those days, there were no quinellas, exactas, trifectas, triples, superfectas, pick sixes and/or pick nines. The only quest was to pick a winner.
There were a few exceptions to the rule. A college classmate, who grew up in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, was a degenerate show bettor. Remember, there weren’t many moneymaking opportunities in the coal towns. City guys had more opportunity to make money. Coal-miner kids had to play it close to the vest. It explains his conservativeness and why he became a show bettor.
Not me! In the club of Last-Dollar-Dans I stood tall.
My classmate ”” call him Eddie ”” loved Maryland racetracks.
"The bettors in Baltimore don’t bet show," Eddie would say. "They sock it all on the nose with a devil-may-care attitude. In Maryland a favorite pays $4.80 to win and $3.00 to show. That’s what I like about the South," he would say, even though I’m not sure the folks in Maryland would appreciate being lumped in with the Confederacy.
Show betting was definitely not my cup of tea. However, I would often forego the cavalry posts in New York and New Jersey to accompany Eddie. He was conservative, but consistent when it came to coughing up gas money. Such a gesture was not to be taken lightly by Last-Dollar-Dans.
We didn’t know it at the time. But, we were a jolly bunch of horseplayers pitting our wisdom against all the other handicappers of the day. Seldom did we get the job done. The ride back north from Pimlico was usually a re-run of the previous weekend. I would tap out completely. Cautious Ed always had a few bucks tucked away for gas money.
There was also another ritual. Just before the clubhouse dining room closed, we would sneak in and empty a few containers of oyster crackers left on the tables of big time bettors. Once in awhile we would pull into a supermarket and grab a pound of baloney and a tall bottle of pop to wash it all down.
Ed would always want to stop somewhere to enjoy our gourmet supper. Not me. There was a card game that night in Norristown. I was a cinch to hustle up enough of a stake to get into action. I insisted we eat en route. We had to stop for petrol. Ed would fill up the tank. It was only a few bucks, but in those days it was a couple of daily doubles, at least.
When we returned to Norristown, Ed didn’t have enough borrowing power to get into the poker game. I did. He would stand behind me, and root every time I was in a hand. In the meantime, Chief, the guy who ran the game, supplied players and moochers with free food, soft drinks and cigarettes. How could you beat that?
Believe it or not, once in awhile I made a score playing poker. Without fail, Ed would want to know if I would stake him so we could return to the races the next day. I always did.
All of the above took place in the late 1950s. War stories! We had them by the carload. And, enjoyed chewing the rag about all the near misses at the dit dot dits. Little did we know that these were our happy golden days.
Nothing stays the same. Ed and I are off in different directions working for the Yankee dollar. Every once in awhile, a memory comes back. One of us will pick up the telephone and tell stories to the other. Making more memories.
"Here we are in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years
We all will be together
If the Fates allow,
Hang a shining star
On the highest bough,
And have yourself
A merry little Christmas now."
— Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane
And, from all of us: A Happy New Year, too!