“Fall off a cliff and die Dominguez! Fall of a cliff and die! Any other jock and dat horse woulda been ten to one!”
I look over to where the sound is coming from thinking this might be the same Puerto Rican I saw about a month ago at the OTB—off track betting—a few blocks from Times Square who grumbled to the TV after losing on a turf race.
“Castellano, your mother is a whore.” Yes, rrrr’s rolled and all.
It’s not the same guy. But dressed in army fatigues, this man’s frustration bears a striking similarity. He leaves the grandstand full of anger and I can’t help but wonder what he’s going to sound like by the time we get to the ninth race. I take it he didn’t have money on Keechi Bullet. I don’t see what the big surprise is. Ramon Dominguez has had the best winning percentage at Belmont for years and, even with average horses, he’s at the top of his game on a muddy track.
It’s a quiet, sunny Wednesday in September out at BelmontPark just after a night of heavy rain. The horses and jockeys are covered in mud, stuck in the elements as we sit comfortably under the sun and blue sky. We’re studying and marking up our racing forms like Bibles, searching for unknown truths and wagering small dreams on two-dollar exactas, trifectas, and Pick 3’s. In the third I keep it simple and put ten dollars to win on Wishful Tomcat, watch him run a perfect race, and come back with twenty-five.
The stands are rather empty, hollowed remains of what once was. The pictures of Secretariat, War Admiral, Seattle Slew, Bill Shoemaker, Sunny “Jim” Fitzsimmons above the tellers remind us of a different era. Still, a few folks come out. I hear the senior couple next to me planning on the next race. The husband, his eyes hiding behind a huge pair of black sunglasses, looks through the past performances and gives a detailed description of each of the races and the conditions. The wife says she’s going for the four horse. Four was her mother’s favorite number. The husband laughs, but knows she’s got just as good of a chance as he does.
Mystery Man is dressed in slacks, a tie, and straw hat. He shows up and takes his usual seat at the lower part of the bleachers. Meticulously, he wipes down his seat over and over with a napkin, trying to get rid of any leftover germs and bad fortuity. He then sits down, crosses his legs, pulls out his notebook of numbers, and gracefully chews on a yellow apple that fashionably matches his shirt. He surveys the track and the tote board with the air of a man who knows what he’s doing. In the three months I’ve been coming out to Belmont, I’ve never heard the man speak a word to anyone and I’ve always watched him leave by the seventh race. He must be winning.
A man with very few teeth, dressed in what appears to be a mechanics uniform and the nametag, Gus, stands next to me in the back of the stands. He looks at my notebook with random notes on each of the horses running. Despite hours of research and systems, it really hasn’t done me any good.
“You keep records of all this shit?”
“I try, but I’m starting to wonder.”
“You got any tips?”
“All I know is don’t bet the horse out in front first and the one likely to get on the rail.”
“Oh, the track’s biased. The rail’s bad, eh?”
“Seems so. If they get stuck on the rail, it’s like they’re running in quicksand. They don’t have a chance.”
“I hate an uneven track. There’s no way you can win. Hell, a closer like Kelso couldn’t even win on an uneven track. You know who Kelso was? Yeah, one of the greatest horses ever. I was here to see him. I’ve been coming here since 1953 and I ain’t never seen anyone win out here. Not one. You can’t. How can you win when you bet a hundred dollars and you’re already down to seventy-five?” (He’s referring to the twenty-five percent the track automatically takes out from exotic bets.) It’s impossible. Where’s my program? I’ll show you.”
Gus goes rummaging through a bag of what looks like newspapers and oranges. “Ah, where’s my program? What a schmuck, I left my program at home. Can you believe that? Shit, I’ll see ya.”
“Yeah, right,” he says, lacking any sense of confidence.
The races go on and Tom Durkin sits in his spot up top, his voice resonating on the speakers, giving us the play by play. “And…they’re off.” I watch most of the regular denizens throw their tickets to the ground as their horses fail to come in. Some go running around the crowd shouting, “Easy Money!” and then head for the tellers. I spot the closest to a sure thing in the fifth with That’s Rich. I put ten to win, five to place, and a little two-dollar exacta. All three of them hit and after losing thirty bucks I’m up a hundred for the day and feeling a little better.
I get to talking to a small Italian who’s wearing black-rimmed glasses. He looks a lot better than most of the folks I see at the track. You might mistake him for a college professor. He’s telling me these small bets are just a waste of time. The only way you’re going to win is if you put the big money down. Play the pick 3’s. He’s got one ticket for fifty bucks and another for thirty in his hands. Says he already hit one for $220.00. Not bad for most of the odds on favorites coming in. “There’s no way to win with just single race bets,” he tells me. He then covers the racing form over his face, giving me secret words of wisdom he doesn’t want the other folks to know about.
“I don’t listen to Andy Serling or read the Daily News picks. I don’t listen to what any of these guys out here are saying. You have to know what’s really going on. Trainer angles. Jockey moves. Shippers. I’ll show you. You’ve got to break it down to three or four horses and then bet with those. It’s just like the stock market. Value for your dollar. That’s the name of the game. I know a guy who does well out here. Just to be in the action he plays 10-15 to win or place on races he doesn’t really care about. He does okay with those, but that’s just play money. Then when he sees something he likes, boom, he lays a couple hundred down. He wins a lot, too. Dollar investment.”
I’ve enjoyed listening to the Professor, but with only a couple of minutes to post, I realize I’ve been distracted and put twenty on Tar Beach, who finishes up in the middle of the field.
An unassuming, rather lanky, and soft-spoken man named Roger asks if he can borrow my form too look at the 7th and 8th races.
“You got any tips?”
“I don’t know. Seems like all the horses from the inside posts are winning.”
“Oh yeah? Bet the inside. You got anything else for me? Anyone look good?”
“Horses just off the pace are winning. You just got to figure out who the hell’s going to run that way. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Don’t listen to me.”
“Yeah, this is a rough game. I met a guy one time out here who was real bad on his luck. Living out of his car. He was real depressed. Wife left him. Then he hit the pick 6 and won $80,000. Well, at least that’s what he said.”
“Let’s hope he didn’t come back to the track after that.”
“Yeah, you hear about these people that win big and then blow it all gambling again. Half of them go out to Vegas. Not me. I’d just take a trip somewhere. Maybe go down to Florida. Take a cruise. Well, I don’t want to take any more of your time.”
We part ways and place our bets. The sun is starting to fall low as we head into early evening, casting shadows along the infield. The birds are circling and somewhere in this crazy world winning tickets are chanced upon.
I watch the eighth race unfold and, for the first time all day, a closer actually gains ground. Bhangaloo Ruby gets up in the front towards the final turn and bursts down the final stretch. She’s the first outside horse of the day to win and paying decent at 5 to 1. But that’s not what everyone’s hooting and hollering about. It’s the fact that following her is Fivefifteen at 42 to 1 and Yo Karakorum at 32 to 1. For all the wild long shot players who toil through winless months, this is their day. The exacta pays $366.00 and the trifecta pays a handsome $3,281.00. And who’s riding the winner, but none other than Castellano.
A large, jolly-looking black man is running back towards me with the most wonderfully animated expression. He’s so excited he can hardly get the words out.
“I knew it! I just knew it! I was sitting at the machine and I don’t know why, but I picked all the outside horses. You know, my dad always came out here and that’s how he’d play. Always betting three horses in a row. He never won a dime doing that. I used to tell him he was crazy for betting that way. I said, you’ll never win. Damn, I knew I should’ve played the trifecta. It’d be the same thing for twelve dollars. Oh man! Three thousand dollars? Oh man!”
“Hey, $366 ain’t bad. Be thankful for that,” I say, quietly crumpling my ticket and letting it fall to the ground. I’m a little jealous, but I’m happy for this guy. At least someone’s winning out here.
“Oh, I know. It’s crazy, something told me to do that right at the last minute.”
“Maybe it was your old man looking down on you.”
“I think so. It had to have been. Oh boy, that just paid for the year.” He looks up to the sky, as if to thank Pops.
Roger walks back over to the two of us.
“Hey, you said the inside of the track. Your 6 didn’t even show up. The 7 looked good at the paddock, but didn’t run worth a shit.”
“You should know, always bet the opposite of what someone tells you. I guess it was time for a change. Bet the outside.”
“Yeah, I guess. Hell, I’m out of here.”
The jolly man comes back after telling someone else about his big win. He’s still beaming. He looks over at Roger as he leaves and says, “Damn, you look like my father, I mean, you’re like the spitting image. Jesus, this is weird.” He then runs toward the victory circle. I wonder if there’s some kind of spirit channeling going on right before my eyes. Stranger things have happened. I wait around for the ninth just to see if some kind of miracle takes place, but no such luck. The favorite Fastus Cactus blows away the rest of the field and everyone heads home.
The old woman with the smoke-wrinkled face of a Sharpei puppy, whose probably been sitting in the general admission booth since they opened the racetrack, bids us a good afternoon. Her small, beady eyes and sharp smile have a beautiful resignation about them. I imagine she’s got more than a few stories to tell. I follow the regulars out to the parking lot and count what I’ve got left in my wallet. It’s about nine dollars less than I came with. I figure it’s hardly much of a price to pay for a day of small victories. I’m quickly brought back to reality, though as a swaying drunk a few feet away mumbles to himself and pisses in the open for all to see.
I’m thinking it’s probably been a while since he picked a winner.