This summer I pledged to do a number of things, including taking a trip to Boston to watch the Red Sox play in Fenway, reading at least ten books, and heading out to Belmont Park in Nassau to lay some scratch on the ponies. So after the Sox blew their shot against the Indians, and those damn television programmers conspired to keep me from getting to my books, my options were running out. So I called up my old pal Dave and asked if he would be interested in a Saturday afternoon spent at the track. Luckily for me, Dave used to be quite a thoroughbred racing fan, before the bankruptcy court forced him to join Gamblers Anonymous, and he was willing.

We left on the 12:41 Long Island Rail Road train out of Penn Station - one of two trains which run daily to the track. On the way out, Dave showed me his Racing Form and New York Post. He busied himself reading up on the horses, while I took in some of the 80 pages of World Series coverage and an article about some fat guy's Broadway show that was being canceled after just two performances. I had no intention of trying to bet logically, instead relying on a system of choosing the horse with the coolest name.

Once at the track, we paid our $1 entrance fee. The woman selling tickets wished me good luck, which I appreciated as a classy touch.

Before doing any betting, I needed to get something to drink, because picking horses while dehydrated seemed like a fatal mistake. I bought a surprisingly cheap Coke and again received wishes of good luck.

The first race we bet on was the third. Dave consulted his papers, double checking the names he had circled on the train. I distracted him by trying to get him to explain what the numbers on the big board meant. Horseracing is, after all, pari-mutuel, and the worse he did, the better off I would be.

My original plan turned out to be a bust, since no horse in this race had a name which jumped right out at me. My possible options included: Come Back Ronnie, a decent name, but the owner could possibly have been a heartbroken girl who had kept her horse up all night with noisy crying over her recently departed beaux; Covert Action, who sounded plenty tough, but could have been a double-crossing double agent; and Jake the Groom. I finally decided on Jake, because I thought his wedding day jitters might translate into fast runnin'.

Most of the betting nowadays is done with ATM-like contraptions. I bought a ten dollar voucher at one machine, and then inserted it into another machine and used a touch screen to select the dollar amount, kind of bet, and horse. I pushed the appropriate buttons for $2 to show on Jake, and the machine spit out a little ticket indicating the bet and a new voucher noting my new balance. The machine did not, however, wish me good luck. I found this oddly impersonal, especially considering that unlike earlier, I was in a situation where good luck might have actually helped me.

While waiting for the race to start, Dave and I surveyed the very small crowd. Most everybody had a full set of teeth, was dressed nicely enough, and resembled nothing like what I had expected and kind of hoped for. Dave guessed that, "All the derelicts must be at the Off Track Betting office." I supposed he must be right, considering that most true down-and-outers would prefer to save the eight dollar train fare for extra bets. So instead of the wild-eyed old men sucking nervously on cigarettes that usually hang out in front of the OTB on my street, the crowd consisted primarily of middle-aged guys from Queens, a few young hipsters, some wannabe playaz wearing huge gold rings, and a cigar-smoking yuppie or two in the box seats. Dave postulated an interesting theory that the only reason the track stays open is to have events for the OTB to offer its wagering.

Once the race began, the small crowd began to make a heck of a lot of noise, and I contributed as much as I could, although it's tough to yell, "Go Jake the Groom" without feeling a little stupid. Jake pulled it off, though, coming in second, and I jumped up and down when he crossed the finish line, pleased as heck with my powers of intuition, but not so happy with my lack of guts. Had I bet Jake to place, I would have ended up with somewhere around 6 bucks, but instead had to settle for a mere $3.70 - not even winning back the equivalent of my original bet.

As the day wore on, I tried a variety of tricks to help me pick my ponies. Dave continued to consult his forms and didn't do badly, but I couldn't just bet along with him. So I took Fire and Rain, because with a James Taylor-inspired name, I figured he must be plenty sensitive, and would feel badly causing me to lose money. Later, Noble Cause seemed to be the jumpiest horse in the little parade before the race, plus he had blinkers on, and I guessed correctly that he must be naturally spunky, a quality which would propel him to the lead. In one race, the only horse who didn't look like a total jerk was Dixie Bayou, so he got the nod.

But it wasn't until the ninth race until I found a horse in whom I had complete confidence. Among all the entries with uninspired, bleh names that I had sifted through that day was one shining light who embodied everything I had been taught to expect about horseracing. In the number one spot a horse called Johnny Legit would be running. Clearly anybody trying to shake a reputation as a mob tough would have every reason to run like he had never run before.

Being more interested in happiness with my selection than big winnings, I bet him to show. I figured it would be better to win a little and be proud of little Johnny than to take the risk of winning a lot and possibly end up disappointed. My yellow belly paid off in the end, as Johnny Legit led through about three quarters of the race but fell behind in the stretch for a third place finish. For me, third place was more than plenty, and I ended up with chapped hands from so much applauding out of sheer joy.

In the end, I came out $4.70 ahead, which took a chunk out of the cost of getting to the track and eating the bad food once there. But mostly I went home pleased that even without any racing forms or knowledge about handicapping, I won four of the seven bets I placed, a darn good record by any consideration.

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