January 21, 2005


By BG © 2004

I walk with an uncertainty, except at the track, where the templates of coiled tension in gait are personified in the jocks – little men to be certain, but sinewy and aggressive in their stance, in their stride, carrying a bravado that is often as much machismo as it is the understanding that on every day and on every mount they ride straddling the bounds of daring and mortality to urge these behemoth beasts from which they might easily be thrown into a plaster cast, maybe traction, even a casket.

I watch the jocks all cool and Napoleon and self-assured and corporeally aware and carry myself with that same swaggered precision into my place in the arena - mano y mano and mano y beast-o and beast-o y beast-o on parade in trot and cantor down the center of the circumference of the dirt oval with the colorful and silky costumed pilots of these significant machines a competition of Mardi Gras colors and jackpot numbers from exotic best estimations spinning through my eyes.

It all happens and it happens in my mind first, with ten in a row behind steel bars that spring open and turn these creatures loose with jock and tack held fast but chestnut brown and muddled grey and black with white socks faster and faster out of the chute eating up lengths and fractions – and the Three and the Five are there first, passing the quarter pole, the Eight and the Six inhaling the dirt thrown from their hooves in close pursuit – and I manage a cockeyed grin because I know the crowd is in favor of the One, a beautiful and contentious gelded roan, but I can see the One breaking sharply and laboring significantly running through the soft patch trench at the rail, finding no room to move and each stride laboriously difficult in comparison to my Three, my Five, my Six, my Eight...

...The One is not the One, not here, not today.

The Three can hold steady and stride true, but my Five cannot as he pushes through the backstretch and holds his lead to that final turn but will – must – give way to those in close quarters and around the turn into the stretch it will be the Six and it will be the Eight who will close with furious fractions on the Three and Dominguez will glance under his arm atop that Three and go to his whip, insisting the brindle grey give him everything he has left in that last half furlong, but Gutierrez will have the Six at top speed in top form about three wide from the soft ground at the rail and will have enough to close on Dominguez and the grey with Cabrera and the Eight just good enough to outlast the rest for the show.

My old man used to say that running the race on the reel to reel in his head to divine the winning combination was as “complex as calculus computations with a Cracker-Jack code key” and I know he wasn’t kidding when he tried in all his efforts to partner our long afternoons in my youth at the track, digesting every last piece of arcane and useless and useful data in the form and watching these regally bred thoroughbreds pick each other off time and time again around this oval, with the one single wish I’m sure he had but never was able to adequately articulate to his son whose eyes gleamed with fascination at nine, ten, and thirty years old at the shiny strong horses and the rolling numbers on the tote board – “Son, don’t grow up to be a horseplayer.”

It couldn’t be helped.

I walk through those doors with my racing form tucked neatly under my left arm, glyphed heavily with the notations made this morning, all computations and calculations necessary to prove pace and power true and unlock the solution to each of the eleven conundrums circling the oval today – and I’m one, and there’s two, three, five dozen of us that know the faces of our brethren, but work in solitude with our systems on speed, on pace, on class, on time, or on best guesstimation lucky names, numbers, and hot jocks to isolate the winner, find the overlays and the best plays and toss together the exotic bets and the pick threes, fives, and sixes to take our shots at glory, cash and pride.

Never, ever, in that order.

I play for pride and then cash but never glory, because the old man would have wanted it that way and whatever I’m doing here it’s because of him and his singular love of the game – but don’t confuse the game with the sport, because the sport is the effort of the beast to circle the track and the effort of the jock to make sure he arrives home ahead of the others, but the game is in the numbers and the divination, and the game is played in the heads and from the wallets of the five dozen of the regulars sitting with binoculars and forms and file folders full of past performance data, digging through the arcane, the useless, and the useful to adapt a number – pace rating, Beyer figure, percent in the money – to whatever system is in play in their head today.

Make no mistake, this is war – a war in logical proportions between men and women behind their racing form, scribbling madly or watching intently or casually sipping coffee from a foam cup as they await the call to post, each of whom has already run the reel to reel in their head, unfolding the fractions in stop-motion daydream imagery, most too clouded by desire and greed to allow the images to take absolute shape and focus.

I’m smarter than all of you is the satisfaction I have as I lay the bets, taking every single combination of my Six-Three-Eight certainty I can muster, blinking back the image of the Three trying to hold off the favored Gutierrez on the Six in the final strides and the satisfied grin I’ll be wearing when I watch my Six-Three-Eight prediction perform precisely to the form, the speed, the post, and the pace I dissected hours ago.

The shooter holds the dice in slick and sweaty fingers when he needs to make his point while the blackjack player waits with an adrenaline fueled nervousness for what the dealer might toss his way when he doubles on an eleven – but the moments before they open the gates treat a true horseplayer differently than a true gambler, for they are the last moments of perfection that I can expect before the gates swing free and ten tons of brute finesse try to find daylight at forty miles an hour, they are absolutely the last moments where everything makes sense, and where the solution to the conundrum I’ve worked mightily to solve has a reasonable solution, which is – in some combination – Six-Three-Eight.

Six-Three-Eight. Dreams won’t be fulfilled with Six-Three-Eight, and Six-Three-Eight won’t bring glory to my name, but if and for the wake of Six-Three-Eight crossing the line, I can walk with the little Napoleons and carry their bravado to the window, cashing in the big bills to the envy of two, three, five dozen of my brethren who insisted on following the One that was not meant to be the One today down into the mire on the rail and chasing the dream off the wrong reel to reel, because with Six-Three-Eight I play for the pride of being the one to solve the riddle and know these creatures better than they know themselves.

My old man, against his better judgment, sired himself a horseplayer. And I’d like to think he’d be proud.

BG is a writer from a small hamlet in Western Michigan.

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