Racetrack’s a funny place. People says they come here for entertainment, but there ain’t nothing they take more serious. It’s the gambling. They see themselves hitting the big one and taking it all home in a big bag. Course, that never happens, but it seems some always had that idea. Mind, there’s a few can come here and just spend a few dollars and leave, and it don’t bite them. But others, well, they get hooked the first time they’re here. I think it’s got something to do with the horses. Maybe they think they’re not really gambling cause it’s live animals.
I been here near forty year, ever since about 1955. Started out as a groom, then got a lucky break to start as a sulky driver in the races. Even got to travel around the state for a while. But then I got hurt in a bad pile-up and the boss offered me this job. I’m sort of a security guard now. It’s okay, but I sure do miss the horses. I’m not so close to them no more.
I remember this one young feller, back about thirty year ago. His daddy knew somebody and got him into the barns as a groom. That’s the starting point, where you learn everything. He wanted to be a driver and could have made it, too. He had a good touch with horses and was showing some real promise on the practice track. But then I start seeing him in the stands, and at the window, and I thought—well there goes another one. He’d caught the gambling bug. There’s a certain look they get in their eye when that happens, a kind of intense focus when they watch the horses or read the program. There’s despair when they lose, but it ain’t long before they’re looking at the next race.
Now, I do a little betting now and then, but only if I know it’s a sure thing. That means a tip from a horseman. They’re the ones who know how a race is going to be run. Sometimes they let me in on it ’cause I used to be one of them. It’s a real tight society, the horsemen. It ain’t easy to break into it, and once you’re in, you’d better follow their rules. If you respect them rules, you’ll stay on their good side. And if you don’t, well…
I felt real sorry for him. He was bettin’ money he couldn’t afford to lose, and like most people, he just didn’t know what a rip-off a small track can be in this state. No thoroughbreds here, just a bunch of cheap claimers, Trotters and Pacers. This is the last stop for most of these horses before the glue factory.
I was keeping an eye on him more out of curiosity than anything else. He was such a nice-looking young feller, and he had a real pretty girl, too.
She come here one night, and they was both all goo-goo eyes at each other, and then he pulled her over to a little table in the corner and gave her this tiny box. I think it must have been a ring, cause she got all weepy for a minute, and then they was hugging and kissing each other. It made me feel good to see a nice young couple like that and I just watched them and enjoyed their happiness.
But then he done something unusual. He pulled this big wad of bills out of his pocket and flashed it around in front of her. And I thought, whoa, Nellie! Where’d he get all that money? I knew he didn’t make very much. He didn’t even have his own car, so unless his daddy died there was somethin’ funny going on.
Every track’s got rules, and this one’s no different. I got to make sure the horsemen follow ‘em. I don’t want to see no driver at the betting window. They can’t bet on any horse, not even their own. But I know that sometimes they give money to a friend, or somebody else, to make a bet for them. That’s what I think was goin’ on with this fella.
He started buying beer. I don’t think his girlfriend had more than one or two the whole night, but he was in there getting a fresh one near every race. Well, he’s drinking beer, I thought. That ain’t a crime, I says, and neither is getting drunk. But then he starts pulling bills off this wad and wanting his girl to go up and bet. Not just your little two dollar show bet for third place, but two hundred bucks a race, every race. I come up close behind her at the window for one of them, and they was bettin’ to win. Well, you got to be pretty sure or pretty rich to throw money around like that. Or pretty stupid. And they wasn’t winnin’, neither.
By about the fifth race she started to get upset. She was pushing him away and wouldn’t take the money to go to the window. He was getting mad at her and insisting, and it looked like there was trouble in paradise. Both of them was wearing some pretty dark looks, and I’m thinking that’s one short engagement, there. But then he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out towards the stair and I thought I better just go see what’s going on. So I followed them, but I kept out of sight. He took her right down to the ground floor, past the grandstand and along the wire fence, all the way back to the barn.
The barn had all the lights on and those double doors was like a big yellow eye staring into the night. That’s where they dress the horses for the races, where the grooms and drivers and owners hang around, and where the shots get shot and the deals get done. And I thought, now why in sam-blazes is he taking her there?
I stayed pretty far back but I could still see them. Well, he parked her at the fence near where the horses enter the track and he went into the barn. He was gone for a while, and she just stood there and watched the horses, and I just stood and watched her.
We were both listening to the snorts of the horses and the creak of leather harness, and then the next race started. Now, most folks don’t know this, but there ain’t no more exciting place to be during a race than right there beside that back fence. We was both on the curve of the fence when them horses come bearing down at us like a locomotive. We could see the clumps of dirt fly at the drivers, listen to them curse at each other, hear the snorts and heavy breathing of the animals and see their eyes stare white when the whip flicked them. It all looks so tame and civilized from the stands, but out there, you can feel it in your bones.
Then he was back, and they hugged, and then somebody else come out from the barn. Looked like a big man, and when he got closer I knew right away he was in a mess of trouble. It was Danny Boone.
I knew Danny Boone well enough to know that I didn’t want to know him at all. I had a run-in with him a few years before that, right after he come to this track. He had a bit too much to drink and was acting like he wanted to start a fight, and I had to step in. I spoke nice enough to him but when he turned to look at me with those flat, dead-black eyes, I could feel a little worm of fear start to eat its way through my gut. It was just a glance he give me, no more than a few seconds, but it felt like it lasted a lifetime—my lifetime, cut real short. Well he backed down because he was still new at the track and knew I could get him banned, and I don’t mind telling you I was glad he did. I never seen killer eyes before and I never seen ‘em since, but I saw ‘em that night.
So there’s Danny Boone with these two young people and that young feller’s talking a mile a minute and laughing too loud. He keeps nudging Boone with his elbow, and I can’t help thinking, that’s not a good idea. Well Boone, he just looks down at this guy’s elbow where it’s touching him, and the feller gets real quiet, then backs up a step. Boone says something to him and nods back at the barn with his head, and the young feller just stands there not moving a muscle.
I went back to the stands then, and during the seventh race that young couple—who might not have been a couple any more, for all I knew—come back from the barn. She had her arms wrapped around herself and looked right miserable. He went and got himself another beer and they watched the end of the seventh. She said something to him and he fished around in all his pockets, and come up with a few crumpled bills. She sat there and stared at him, and he kind of slunk down in his seat and wouldn’t look at her.
Then the horses come out for the eighth race. They trotted around the track and was just getting into position, when sure enough there was an announcement that Revelation had to go back to the barn for an “equipment adjustment”. That was Danny Boone’s horse, Revelation, but that weren’t no equipment adjustment. That horse was getting a shot, some drug that peps them up right smart and makes them want to run. Might even be something as simple as caffeine. I know it happens all the time, and I also know there ain’t nothin’ I can do to stop it. It’s just the way this business is.
A few minutes later the race started. I watched Revelation, and you could see that horse was pumped up higher’n a kite. The tote board had him at twenty-to-one odds, or something like that. He won of course, and paid a pile of money on a two dollar win ticket. Come in by over two lengths.
When I looked back at the young couple, she was already gone and he was still sitting there slouched down in his seat. I never saw if she give him back his ring. He hardly moved all through the ninth race, even while everybody was leaving and going home. Then there come a couple of guys I knew was buddies with Boone. They spoke a word to him, and he followed them out.
Like I said, that was about thirty year ago. When I retire I’ll miss this place. But once I leave, I’ll never come back. Being here was good, though. I guess I became a student of human nature. I seen people do smart things and weird things and just about every kind of stupid thing you can imagine. But I think that young feller won the prize for stupid. I never saw the girl again, of course. Seen Danny Boone plenty of times, and I still don’t like him and wish he’d go someplace else. But I never saw that young feller again.