By J. V. Houlihan Jr.
The Narragansett Racetrack grandstand was empty; it had an eerie silence at this hour. Cold stillness and a fuzzy ground mist covered the track and in-field. The parking lots were slowly filling as small groups of people milled about. Week after week the same old crusty, careworn characters huddled against fences waiting for the gates to open. For these people betting the ponies was not an option. These guys were hardcore gamblers. My buddy Tim and I were greeted with this scene every Saturday morning when we hustled to our jobs—it was a way to earn some extra money— for dates.
I had a menial and mindless job at the track and that suited me just fine. I was a
go-fer for a beer and hotdog concession. Mary Keenan, the pretty blue eyed Irish woman from Galway, handled all the money and ordering of the food; I just had to hump it to the stand. It was an easy job. She said, “I tink it’ll be a good idea if I handle the cash, Joseph.” I said, giving her a wink, “I agree Mary, I tink it would be a great idea as well.” Mary liked me but she liked to keep her track job more. She was fearful of her drawer coming up short at the end of the day. She probably had an intuitive sense which told her that I’d more than likely make the wrong change—high probability there— and get her in trouble.
My job consisted simply of getting supplies from the commissary: sandwiches, hotdogs, and coffee. Our stand didn’t get much business because of the frigid north wind blowing through the door near us. As a result, I had plenty of time to wander about the track and bet on the horses. Whatever moral compass I had at that time was always changing its heading—yet onward I sailed.
As usual I gave my newly issued paycheck to my friend Tim. “Don’t give this back for any reason at all,” I would tell him. Tim, with his knowing smile would say, “Ok Joey.” He knew damn well that I’d be back by the 8th race demanding the money. It was the same routine every week—a fait-acompli.
The next step in my arduous schedule would be making the intermittent rounds on the way to the commissary. This included saying “hello” to all of the bartenders, porters and shoe shine men along the way. The ham and cheese sandwiches I clipped from the commissary tasted stale and bland as I read the racing forms. Then I roamed over to see Pop, the man with a plan at the ice cream stand. “Hey, Pop! What looks good in the first race,” I asked. “Space Monkey, he’s a good mud runner, Joey.” He said this chewing on his cigar and looking at the tote board displaying the odds. I valued Pop’s opinion most of the time; however, he often picked the wrong horse to win. At racetracks, everyone has “hot tips.”
I have never seen so many hopeful people in one given area as I have seen at a racetrack. There is not just a glimmer of hope in the gambler’s eye, it’s a raging inferno. They line the railing hoping against the odds, human error and equestrian failure.
I too had become one of the hopeful. The adrenaline would get flowing about ten minutes before post time. All of these “hot tips” caused terrible indecision in my fatigued and overwrought teenaged psyche. Finally, a show bet was made and I waited with my ticket at the railing of the hopeful.
After losing my initial two dollars—all I had promised myself I would bet— it was time to go see Tim. He would reluctantly give me my check, and then the fever would begin as I cashed it at the bar. Every week the same bartender always cashed my check. He looked like the grandfather vampire from the T V show The Munsters, and of course he had a “hot tip.” He would give me a rheumy eyed wink and mumble, “Number 4 horse champ.” I never took his tip to heart, because he was always drunk. But, I did take the free cup of Ballantine Ale he gave me each week. Here again, was another change in my moral compass heading. Nevertheless, onward I sailed.
The paddock was filled with people eyeing the horses before the next race. My straining ears tried to pick up a “hot tip” from the voice of an all knowing corpulent high roller, who was with a woman who redefined the adjective blowsy: cleavage, cheap jewelry, a Camel dangling from her puffy painted lips. The horses were then led to the post, and the throng moved to the fence. Fifteen minutes later, the starter’s metallic assertive voice came over the P A system. “And they’rrrrre off!”
The beginning of the race was mildly exciting; the final stretch was what races were all about. The cluttered railing with people waiting to see the finish of the race was the only reality the faithful dialed into. It was all about the moment at the finish line. As the horses came out of the back stretch, the noise level rose to a rolling, roiling and bubbling din. “Come on Number 8 horse, you can do it!”
“Go Space Monkey, run you sumbitch!”
“Paul’s Charm! Close you dolt! I need you!”
The cacophony sounde senseless. However, to a person with his last dollar riding on a particular horse, it made all the sense in the world. It was the world. As the horses approached the finish line, the pitch of the crowd rose. Arms, hats, and tattered racing papers flailed in the cold February air. The noise thundered and peaked. After the horses crossed the finish line the noise slowly receded with yelps of joy, and low audible groans.
One elated and swaggering winner hugged his good looking girlfriend and sloppily kissed her— no social grace needed here—he was a winner this day. A listless man with untied shoes and three days growth on his pock-marked face stared at the tote board vacantly and mumbled slightly— something about his wife. Three older ladies heckled the favored horse and jockey who appeared to lose the race deliberately. “You cheatin’ heathen! You should be locked up!” “Keep out of Central Falls if you’re smart. I’ll have you shot!” said the oldest yet feistiest of the threesome. The uncaring, colorfully silk clad jockey simply smiled and blew kisses. “Thank you very much, ladies. Please come again!”
My day always ended with a Narragansett Lager beer and a Harry M. Stephens hot dog from the hammered vampire. Tim and I walked home through the jams of cars as police tooted their whistled commands on Newport Avenue. In all, I lost five dollars for the day. I won a few show bets and almost broke even. The money was not important though; it was the adrenaline, the juice, and the chase. There would be no moral lessons learned at the Narragansett Racetrack. It was all about the hunt and the chase, of the “hot tip.”