“Do you like sodomy? Do you like artificiality and cars? If so, stay in LA. Why would you decide to come to LA? If there’s wisdom I can give you, it’s leave LA. Do you fight?”
An artifact of some twisted bizarro strip stood in front of me in the bearing, smoggy heat, with foppish yellow pants, army jacket, scrunched up face, and a thick mane of dreads. He had a sociopath’s smirk and stood too close. On home turf this kind of thing is easy to ignore, but my friend and I were stuck in front of Sunshine Liquors just south of the 210 in Pasadena, duffel bags on the curb, waiting for a ride to the racetrack.
“Do you gamble?”
In whatever dazed alternate reality he lived in, the guy somehow still smelled it on us. When we said yes, he pushed, “Can I come to Santa Anita with you and gamble?” I managed to fend off the question. Then in normal derelict-gadfly fashion, he got bored and turned: “Well, I’m going inside to get some liquor.” He got about 20 feet away and then spun around, and offered, his voice raised the way your grandma would offer tea sandwiches, “Do you want to fight?”
Contrast this with the three homies we found spliffed up and and drinking tall cans at the bus stop ten minutes before. Nelson was just a truck driver, but his friends revered him, because last year he won the Super High Five at the Preakness Stakes. That’s in Baltimore, the second leg of the Triple Crown competition (which starts with the Kentucky Derby this weekend) and one of the biggest and oldest horse races in America.
“9-7-6-4-2, man. I’ll never forget those numbers. Ever.” From what I can gather, those five numbers helped turned Nelson’s $2 into $3,667.60. So he was in charge, silently. His buddy Jerry just wanted to party, and their Filipino friend Paul Kim (“I’m Thai”) was a quiet fryer sporting his free Santa Anita Derby shirt from the year before. For some, the racetrack is a day’s work, for others it’s Disneyland. For these guys, it’s a ritual of unparalleled potential.
Up in the grandstand you don’t feel anything unless you’re gambling. Particularly for me, so visually impaired I could hardly see the legs move on the horses in front of us. I sat there for the first few races trying to appreciate what was going on, but without bets the whole scene was void. A crowd of polar opposites and oddballs surrounded us: lopsided couples, unstylish families inventing fake stakes to keep the kids entertained, and dotted among the masses, the real track people. They were mostly men, young and old, the only unifying mark being a pen—seemingly always one with a button that they could click nervously—hovering over a program or a set of stats. Short of a few exotic birds, there was no Kentucky Derby swag, no mint juleps, and not nearly enough cigars.
The Santa Anita Derby itself refers to a Stakes 1 race that happens at the park in Arcadia once a year. It’s the biggest West Coast qualifier for the Kentucky Derby, and the biggest horseracing event west of the Mississippi. The derby, which was specifically race number nine of the day, is always run with only three-year-old thoroughbreds, but there were ten other races that afternoon run by horses ranging from ages two to six. It was part tourist and part working-class luck-chaser; the grimy gambling addict meets the Cleaver family.
If you don’t have money on the line, you won’t feel anything. So in lieu of a real high roller whose ups and downs I could appropriate and vicariously cherish, I said fuck it and decided to throw down my own dough. My totem and esteemed auger for the afternoon was Thomas, who by day is a gourmet chef, and whose relationship with gambling is, to be delicate, exhilaratingly fluid. He was wearing orange pants, a checkered shirt, and a fedora. On his lap was a stapled-together packet, like you’d get for homework in a high school language class, and shit it might as well have been in Mandarin as far as I’m concerned. It’s full of numbers and abbreviations—statistics for every horse, every owner, every jockey, and every previous race that they’ve ever run. Thomas traced their histories like a doctor diagnosing a patient—the options were weighed, compared, handicapped, scratched, and heavily scrutinized. So I took his advice for starters. I put my money on Apostle Paul to place.
Pretty soon something terrible happened: we all start to win. If there’s anything more detrimental to an enjoyable and even functional day at the races, it’s winning early on. Ben won. Peter won. Even Thomas’s uncle Paul won. So we were feeling good. Our soda cups were full of bottom-shelf whiskey and there were still seven races to go.
There’s a saying in gambling: scared money never wins. And inevitably you always get scared. The first paranoid inkling I got was when I was suddenly caught up in the cash-advance racket downstairs. When asked where the ATMs are, the lady at the counter pointed toward one wall. In retrospect, this lady must’ve worked at the track for a cool 20 years, so she obviously knew that the ATMs were, in fact, elsewhere, but instead we were directed to the gambling addict’s worst and best friend, the cash-advance booth.
Withdrawing money on credit is a delayed-consequences aversion that gives luck-junkies a chance to chase their losses all day long. When you swipe your card, you can pick up a telephone receiver to reach customer service. Before you’re connected, a friendly voice comes on the line to the tune of: “Think before you bet! If you think you might have a gambling problem, just say the word ‘think’ now, and we’ll connect you anonymously to our gambling addiction hotline. Please hold.”
Obviously I don’t have a problem—I just needed to suck the last 60 dollars out of my bank account so that I can continue blindly throwing it at horsies instead of my rent, which is due on Monday. Nevermind the $10.50 transaction fee levied by the cash-advance Nazis (when asked if I could cancel the transaction, racetrack employees said they would still hold my money for 90 days and sadly this CA-ATM mixup “happens to people all the time” and they “recommend I just go through with it”). Nevermind the train ticket home that I still needed to buy, or all the side dice games we kept holding. Another 20 on Battle Storm, please!
Two words on properly betting on horses: complete bullshit. At one point, standing down on the paddock watching the horses line up and the little pint-sized jockeys mount for the eighth race, we were taken aside by a fellow amateur-enthusiast. He had strategies and plenty of them.
“You come down to the paddock to see which ones are looking good; the ones that are muscle-y, calm, and cool, you know, you can tell which horse is a winner by the physicality.” Seems logical, but these equines all look the same to me.
“My wife picks them just based on their names,” he says, “and… actually she’s the one who’s been winning all day.” I find this more reasonable, which leads me to mistakenly drop real dollars on Dirty Swagg to win the derby despite 76 to one odds.
“You gotta wait for 'em to drop a deuce.” This was his sloshed brother, who heard from someone that the best way to bet is to watch the horses beforehand, and if any of them decide to unload for the bucket man, put it all on that one.
But shit rolls down hill and “quitting while you’re ahead” (sage advice from my parents) I think is actually biochemically impossible. So after several rounds of positive reinforcement, it was time for the big-ticket race—the Santa Anita Derby—and in all our bets we wagered on about six different promising horses: Tiz A Minister, Power Broker, Storm Fighter, Flashback, Super Ninety Nine, and, of course, Dirty Swagg. This is when the gods of gaming reorganize your psyche. None of our bets landed, and we sat there dumbly as Goldencents, that we all overlooked, soared to horse-race heaven with Rick Pitino riding in a $750,000 golden chariot behind it. Serious sidenote though: that same day (April 6) Pitino, who owns a small share of Goldencents, led the Louisville Cardinals to the NCAA finals, and two days later was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame before clinching the title. This seemed like a happy coincidence for the guy.
So this is when you wander down to the infield and everyone is drunk. Who cares why they’re drunk? If they just won, they’re drunk. If they’re losers, they’re really drunk. Maybe they don’t even care about horse racing, they just came to get drunk. If they’re families, they’re probably leaving, or drunk! There were still two more races.
Peter won, at last, because he wasn’t betting scared. Earning back $400 on the final race of the day is the best possible way to shove off. Maybe to some of you hardcore gamblers I’m talking about chump change here, but as Thomas put it, sitting in his car in a somber line of traffic, “It’s not even all the hundreds of dollars I lost that gets to me; it’s the gratification of it. The fact that I was so close to making the right decision, and I didn’t.”
Luckily horse racing goes nearly year-round. I was and am completely out of money, thank God, but the following weekend Thomas was at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley for a telecast of the Arkansas Derby. Next it’s the Kentucky Derby this weekend, then the Preakness, then the Belmont. What it amounts to is millions of dollars in cash, a handful of lucky drunk people, and most of all, a shitload of tough decisions.