THE SUN was high up and cooking real good now. The midday heat mixed with the exhaust from the streets and as it pushed up, the whole thing seemed too much already. We crossed 48th street in the bright sun and headed for the OTB to make the late afternoon bets. Outside there were the men and women huddling around the ashtray can, down for their late afternoon smoke breaks. When we passed them to the other side for any shade I was already sweating pretty hard. I loosened the tie and looked straight ahead into the shade across the street in the stifling burn.
By now John had started with the talking. He was going on about how we wouldn’t make a good post time. He loved to talk. This was the good talk though. As long you weren’t telling me some drivel about spreadsheets and commit of membership I didn’t mind what the hell you worried on about.
There was never any talking inside though, and John knew this. We were real pals so I was working to understood the talking. It’s always better to get it all out first. He had just come from some meeting or another and this was probably the first time he’d opened his mouth in the past two hours. Inside we both worked hard to keep the talking down. It’s not good to be running your mouth with two dozen or more crazies and truly desperate men peering over your shoulders. That will single handedly ruin a good line. No matter how giddy you get going up you keep the mouth closed tightly until you’re at the bar later on that night. Otherwise it goes down just about as good as the fat guy next to you at Atlantic City drinking free rum and cokes and spoiling all your cards. John had told me this himself the second time we discovered how close the betting was to the office. But just because you say something doesn’t mean a lot about you doing it. I nodded when John had said it. He always talked during the races, on and on about jockeys and the horses and the mud and the rain and the tracks and how awful Delaware was no matter what time of the year they were running it.
I dipped into a deli on the way and grabbed the coldest Dr. Pepper I could find. The sun was up pretty high still this late in the day. It made you want to stay longer at the office just to avoid the trains. I thought I would walk home anyway around the park. I had no plans for the night. If we won something decent that could change.
Plenty of times we got stuck with late day races. People tell you the later it gets the more dregs they start in the runnings. It usually means you end up on some track like Tampa Bay which you don’t know a hell of a lot about and blow through all your cash on a six horse race with no leads. You still had to work it though. I had already outlined the best takes the Daily Post had for the day in a bathroom stall after lunch. I had some of the money left over from a fifty I took off some stupid stiff who bet me that the Yankees had no chance against Cleveland. I planned to put that right back in the pot for today and make it something real big. Besides, on a six horse race you had a better shot anyway.
We walked on in the hot sun past the street vendors who were sweating as hard as I was and passed the paper men, hot dog salesmen and fruit carts and a gelato man who was sweating worse than all of us. I looked up at the sun and then back at the paper with my highlights on it as we walked and then gave it over to John to keep. He had his own too with a hell of a lot more notes than mine. I watched another gelato man sweating badly and thought about how six horses gave you a better shot anyway. This was a dirty lie but it is what I was telling myself. I put it down past the diamond stores and shoved through the warm bodied-crowd.
Inside it was cool and nice without the burn. This is not a good trade in many people’s books. At the office the women and men don’t know a damn thing about a place like this and we always knew we wouldn’t see any of them here during the day. You always traded something though. We traded on the smell which was like sweetened throw-up. It was covered up by freshening but never really fresh or covered and the smell seeped through no matter what you did.
Above the back posting board they have an old yellowed sign that reads ‘no urinating on the floor.’ I don’t know if old men can see that far up. The smell was up strong today and smelled like sick people and urine. With the cover up smell a lot of times though if you thought about it hard the whole thing could smell just like the strip club. It had that same soured sweet smell.
I was thinking about the strip club way when we moved into the lined crowd and walked to the form booth. You win some and you lose some, I was telling myself today in the small, back room. I had stopped breathing with my nose. You always won some and you lost some. You won some and you lost none. You won and you won some more, I told myself. That was the spirit of the track. I was working hard to have it right today. You win some and you win some more. Yes, that is it. No, you win some and you lose some. This is a very good thing to learn. It can put down any smell and all the elevator chatter and meetings where no one wins or loses and if you really learn it well enough it can put down really any stupid thing at all.
John had the forms already while I finished the rest of my Dr. Pepper down and checked over the four main screens. Saratoga was off and running at the middle of the track and Philadelphia was lined up to go in less than a minute. I looked down and scratched off my Philadelphia highlights.
There was a race on in Finger Lakes that was starting in four minutes so we took this one with no plans and went to the counter to write in the bets. We took it small this round and put in ten each on the second horse who had six-to-one odds and a jockey John said he had seen run a few good ones before. I took his word and sent him in to place the bet.
"You think he's got it good this time?"
"He ran a good one at Belmont before," he said.
"A few though."
"Yeah last three he’s placed. And we won pretty good on him when we were up there, Tom Day and me."
"Always good to score a little in the day."
"The only way,” he said. “Say, you think we can head over to Dooley's afterwards?"
"I think it might be tight.”
“Ah, come on.”
“I couldn’t care less about getting back. But I think it’s tight, you know.”
“We can make it work.”
“I just think it’s tight, that’s all.”
An old man saddled up next to us and was checking his receipt over and over. He had a dumb lost look like he already forgot who his money was on. His face was red and tired looking and so were his eyes, and he was covered in lines of wrinkles that ran down through the sun spots. The old man had on a blue suit with loose strands coming out at the collar and the cuffs. He had a clean white shirt on with one of those old fat-knotted ties. He looked dirty like the other old men here but carried himself much better and had on a weathered fedora that matched the tired suit.
"You got anything on this?" the old man said without looking up. He sounded like one of the Russians.
"We just come in," I told him. I thought this would quiet him.
"But it looks good," John ran his mouth.
"How you mean?" the man asked.
I flashed John a look and then nodded up at the boards.
"It looks good. That's all," John told him.
"I bet it does. Your first race today?"
"Yeah," John ran on.
"First race is always a good one."
“Yeah, we know it.”
We were all looking up at the monitors. Our horse had the drawn the seventh slot, right close the inside rail.
"Well, I got my first race lucky today but then,” the old man stopped himself.
The gates opened in a big burst and all the horses were off and running hard eight wide. The soft green turf was getting a pounding as the first leaders ran strong down the long straight and made their moves. Our man had a good distance going but was third and then fourth in the pack and looking good down the first straight as he made his way over to the inside of the track and got his run steady. I was feeling good now and looked over at the old man. He had his ticket clutched in the wrinkled hand up under his chin and looked at the monitor so hard you would swear his red eyes were going to shoot straight out of his old head.
When I looked back at the monitor our horse was still running strong. The first horse was out good in the second turn though and making it fast around and this was the breaking point on too many races. He was out good going and I knew John was looking at me and then so was the old man. He was sweating a good one out. Our horse made it nicely at the second turn. I looked at the old man then. He was sweating it good now and without him saying a word I knew right then that he had his money on the long shot who was starting to dip back and then back more and losing good now. The race was looking heated and our man was up in the front pack but nothing doing as he steadied in traffic and the leader held to his pace.
On the front stretch out of the turn things were looking better and the loud cries started. Things were looking good and the old white men and few Jamaicans and Dominicans were yelping loudly and a few were rapping their rolled up papers against their legs whipping their horses home.
Things were good and then worse as our jockey held on as the number two bucked a little heading against the rail and I thought then that it could be over now. I looked on as our man did suddenly have a chance again and was creeping up into second in a convincing way as they came hard and fast down the last bit. It was a good stride and he made it look better as he stuck to the inside and took a leap on the first horse in the middle all alone. It was just the two out front and I already had bought the drinks in my head with these winnings and was making it real solid and celebratory for the night.
Our man started kicking up some real grass and I knew then we had won and he was neck and neck with the lead and making it fast and smooth down the middle of the track, the sandy colored earth kicking up with the dark green at his heels and the jockey's red silk jersey coming into strong focus on the screen as they passed the lead and made it all stick real good.
I was slapping my paper on my thigh now bringing him home. It was right then that he kicked a little too much dirt, buckled and stumbled while the first horse caught up, took the lead with his nose and ran hard on to the finish and killed our lead and our win and made both of our stomachs turn with the same sad disgust that was being let out across the room from all those holding receipts that looked just liked ours.
That was that. Losing wasn't the worse that could happen. This is what John told me when he slapped me on the back and I stared on up at the monitor as they posted the official results with our man a clear second. That was that alright.
John always just laughed it off. He slapped my arm again and smiled and we headed straight for the next papers to see what was good. There were three minutes to the sixth race at Monticello. John penciled in the bet. We had a good medium stake with a four to one odd on the fourth horse named Not Forgotten with a jockey named Alvarez. The seventh horse named Passing Ships had it twenty to one in the papers but moved up to sixteen which was as good a sign as any. So we took them both on an exacta. It looked real good when we checked the screen and our first man had moved into seven to one odds. This time we each went with twenty to make it a little more fun and even and I went to the counter to pay.
Some old Jamaican was giving it good to the woman behind the counter. She was losing and the line wasn’t moving. Then John had come up and told me not to worry because we had missed post time anyway and the race was starting so I got out of line and fell back in with him and the old man and the smell and the others who were stuck, necks cocked back, staring at the screens.
When you get the lock on something as free as a horse it is a good and rare thing. I don’t care what those writers put in the paper, they have no idea. They do really, and maybe they know better than us. They just don’t put it in the paper. Instead they type up their lock of the day and get you excited till you look down and see that in the fourth it’s a two-to-one odd in a dog race. That is expertise for you. So I felt real about losing our lock.
I was starting to feel a lot better though when I looked up and saw it was harness racing. I don't really know how in the hell both of us missed that one.
"No good ever," I said.
"That bastard is never is a good idea."
"It’s a real bastard too. And it never works ever."
I shut up when I saw the old man staring at us. He had taken off his hat and was wiping his spotted forehead. I took the paper out and headed back to the counter to do some work.
"We got time for one more.”
"I saw one starting in five at Saratoga.”
"Good. Who you taking?"
"I got this one Wine Over looking strong. The odds are good, five to one,” I said.
"He’s got it five to one?”
“Yeah, five to one.”
“Alright I’ll bite on that then,” John said.
“You know that damn Monticello race could have been ours."
"Stop with that. It's never good on harness."
"I know but it could have been.”
While he wrote in the numbers I took a look back at the monitor. The horses were rounding the last turn and it was a whole stream of buggies neck and neck like at Daytona. Our man was racing up the outside from fourth and looking good on the last furlong and I was biting my lip as he took on second place and kept running strong and lunging forward took the whole race way out front. Damn harness racing, I thought. Damn harness horses and damn their stupid buggy jockeys.
"You didn't want to see that."
"What happened up there?"
"We won. That damn harness won."
"Damn," he said.
"Dirty harness racing."
“I put that twenty each back in on this"
“Good. Paper says he likes the hard ground?”
“That’s what it says.”
“Good,” John said. “We can take this one. I got that good feeling.”
"Damn those harnesses."
"All you need is when you got a good bet on one of those damn horses and then the fucking jockey flips out of the cart. I've seen that stuff happen more than you’d think. Damn stupid racing if you ask me."
"I know it"
"Good. I never even bet on that stuff when I’m dying for some action."
“I forgot it already,” I smiled.
"But I was looking for that win."
"We'll get her this round."
"I need a win under me today."
"We'll get her good today."
The old man came over with a minute left till the start. I was watching the horses in their slots. The third and fourth ones were bucking a little. The old man was still talking. H said he had been on the Monticello race but that things were not good today for him and he chalked it all up to some bad luck still running from the weekend. It was Wednesday. I wasn't looking for any bad luck. I'd rather the old man move over and keep his damn bad luck on the other side of the room. I was starting to feel a sick and sad disgust for him but I put it down pretty quickly. The smell was picking up again and I stopped breathing with my nose as the freshened over smell moved its way up.
"We got this one," John whispered without taking his eyes off the monitor.
“We got this one good,” he said again and slapped me on the arm.
The bugle sounded. They were off and our horse was out the fifth gate in the middle and running on the smooth Saratoga grounds fast and hard. He looked good and was back in sixth right now which was fine with me. The first straight was long. It looked forever and reminded me of the way the first straight at Monza looked on the television a few weeks ago. It was as straight and as long but this wasn't Michael Schumacher and our old horse was no red Ferrari so I watched on and clinched my fist a little as our man came down further into the middle of the straight and I hoped for the inside but he didn't have it at all.
He didn't have it coming out of the first turn either and still didn't have it as the came running hard three wide into the second. I lost him there as the leaders pulled ahead and the cameras forgot about our horse. I was wishing real good then that our first horse was Schumacher and something I could bet on without really betting. I was feeling much better about this than normal since the horse leading was a fifteen to one odd and would fade soon. I was only wondering why he hadn't faded back already.
"Look he's fading now," John whispered.
"I don’t see it."
He wasn't looking worse but the next four were closing the gap hard. Our man Wine Over was right there with the pack. He had taken the inside and was keeping a good pace with the three others.
Come on, I was thinking. Come on you damn horse and don't lose now. Come on and finish good and make this first place damn horse know his place. The old man leaned up against me and I looked down. He was real red and biting his lip trying to see the action. I watched on as they made the final turn and then beat hard into the last straight. Our horse was looking good and pulled into third and made his move to the inside of the track. He looked good and moved side by side with second place but the long shot wasn't fading. The jockey whipped our horse hard and then leaned into him and I clinched the paper and looked on hard as our horse was running on up into second. It was only a few yards left and we had a good chance of making it stick. He was half a length off then and then closer. It just couldn't stick though.
He made it strong to the line but he had nothing on the numbers out in front.
"I want to know who had the damn long shot,” John said.
"Damn that would've been great."
"Who had that?"
"Not us," I told him and tore the ticket in half and dropped it to the floor.
“But who had it?”
"No, not us. Damn horse. I thought we had her good that time."
"Me too after that last turn."
"Damn horse. Who had it?”
“Not us, Johnnie, not us.”
He slapped me on the arm as we headed towards the front and said it was a good donation anyway. Whenever someone says that it means they really hated losing the money worse than ever. He said it again as we saw the old man looking red and gone and knew he had taken that last race real bad.
"You think we oughta ask him for a drink?"
"He won't come," I said.
"Come on, could be fun to have one of those old timers at the bar."
I turned to ask the old man how he had done and he told me it was the same as the rest of the afternoon and that he didn't really want to talk about it with me. I told him that it was a good donation but he didn't like that either. I couldn't blame him. I asked him if he wanted to forget about it over a drink at the bar.
"I don't think so boys."
“On me,” John told him.
"No kid, not today.”
“Ah, come on, this place is kicked for today."
“No. No good I said kid.”
"You can come back and take her tomorrow," John told him.
"Nah. You boys run along. You must have won good huh?"
"Nope. We lost every damn one of 'em."
"Well. You have one for me too then." His eyes looked shot all the way through.
"I got a few more post times left and some more work to do," he said.
We left the old man at that and walked through the crowd of dark old men scratching on their papers and headed back outside into the hot sun. There was the trade again. On the other side of the street we got into what shade there was for the walk to the office. It felt real bad to head back to the office like this.
The shade felt good. The sun was still beating down and cooking the streets. It was already late. I hadn't won a damn thing at the track. That meant I wouldn’t win a damn thing all day. What the real hell, I thought. You win some and you lose some remember, I told myself and reached into my front pocket to see how much of the money was left. You win some and lose none. You win them and all of them are not lost. But then you lose and the losing goes on and there is no win in the day. I walked on in the shade in the silence of the traffic and the noise and worked to quiet down the noise in my head. I pledge allegiance to the win of win for which it wins one win under a win indivisible with life, liberty and another thing. To our win who aren’t in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy win be done, something, something, something.
We had at least a few more minutes while they the office was out for a Starbucks and another smoke and it wouldn’t matter at all. I pushed it down and we went to the pub for a quick one before the office.
Inside the bar was cool and quiet and empty except for a tourist couple at the window on the near end and the waitresses smoking in the back. We sat down in the middle and I ordered a very cold bottle of Red Stripe and John had a Bass drawn up. The bartender put down two felt mats on the counter and the beers were both dripping and soaked the mats. The beer was very good and crisp clear. This is always the best time for beer. The bottle felt nice so wet and cold in my hand. I took another long sip and didn’t think about a thing as we sat in the silence.
"Must be a bad day for that old man," John said after a while.
"I bet it's always a bad day."
"Not when you win."
"I wish we could have won something."
"It's just a donation," John said and we both laughed a little.
"Those were some real degenerates in there today, huh?"
"I don't mind. Kinda like it," I told him.
"Real," I said.
"Better than the office stiffs."
"I can't bear to make it much longer there."
"I know it.”
“That guy Olav told me a funny thing about it.”
“He said it’s all a real shit sandwich you know,” John said.
“Maybe it lost something from the translation. I think he’s from Spain.”
“That sounds pretty right to me.”
“Yeah, for sure. We’re all on the grind. Even that old man in there.”
“It’s not the same though.”
“No, not when you’re winning. That’s for sure,” John said.
“Even when you lose it’s not the same thing either.”
“That guy was really something though.”
“You know he was having a real awful day. Damn bad luck."
"But he had it coming you know. And more of it tomorrow," John said.
"How you figure?"
"People shouldn't be betting on that damn harness racing."
"To harness racing," I said and raised my bottle.
"To the damn awful sport of harness racing and the carting league."
"You say CART league?"
"Just drink up."
"I can't tell you how bad of luck that mess is," John said.
"You should do a rosary for him. Or a Hail Mary."
"I should. But I bet he was losing even before that.”
“Guys like that always lose.”
We settled up and I took the last big cold drink of the beer and we got up to go.
"You should do a Hail Mary for us Johnny."
"Don't I know it."
"No really. Do one for us next time.”
“Or maybe just me."
"No, I’ll do one for us."
"Yeah do it for us sometime."
We opened the door and headed back into the sun and the heat and exhaust up 47th and passed between buildings down the long, dark corridor. It was cool and I lit a cigarette and tried hard to not think anymore about work or sandwiches and eating them day after day and the papers all over my desk nor the line of sweat that started dripping down my back ever since we sat down in the cool pub.