Took a little journey out to the racetrack today, with a few friends, and made the mistake of bringing a notepad with me.
Santa Anita has a one-mile (1,609 m) natural dirt main track, which rings a turf course measuring 9/10 of a mile, or 7 furlongs plus 132 feet (1,448 m). Too, there’s an unusual hillside turf course, which crosses the dirt and is primarily used to run turf races at a distance of “about” 6½ furlongs (exact distance 64½ feet [19.7 m] less than same, or 1,288 m). Which is all to say these horses are going to be fucking exhausted.
To comply with a State of California mandate, Santa Anita replaced its dirt racing surface with a new synthetic surface called CushionTrack, a mixture of silica sand, synthetic fibers, elastic fiber, granulated rubber and a wax coating but returned to an all natural dirt surface in December 2010. The experience was a bit like throwing on a condom and then deciding to bareback it, although that analogy is so rife with equine perfection, it’s a shame to waste it here.
The site occupies 320 acres, has a 1,100-foot (340 m)-long grandstand, which is a historic landmark that seats 26,000 guests – most of them ample chain-smokers who draw down on the PAYDAY loan store about ten minutes prior to post.
The grandstand facade is Art-Deco-rendered, and though there are some modernizations, a look into the place’s bowels reminds you the track was built amid the Great Depression. There arecracked beams, plasticky chairs, and enough initial-carved tables to indicate the site has withstood some serious seasons. The track’s infield area accommodates sandboxes, hot-dog covered picnic tables and hundreds of small, brown, ice-cream-eating children accelerating along monkey bars and shrieking like Hades has risen. To access it, one travels through a catacomb-ish tunnel and if you accidentally happen to be down there when horses run overhead, it’s a bit like Thor pummeling hammer blows upon your skull, I’d guess. Since the infield can accommodate 50,000 or more guests, you can imagine there’s a lot of adolescent urine in those sandpits, and there is. On that note, the Park also contains 61 barns, which house more than 2,000 horses, and an equine hospital, presumably to handle nosebleeds – because anything worse requires a gun. One final note regarding the infield. Back in the post-Pearl Harbor 1940’s, the area was used to inter Japanese Americans, and on occasion, one could see them squinting at the horses traversing the track, which is horribly offensive and yet also true.
When you arrive at the sub-San Gabriel mountains park, there are twenty-two black-slacks-wearing valet parking attendants, and if you are fortunate enough to have acquired a free parking pass, they greet you with the sort of adhesive smirk and total disinterest one expects from guys who spend their days sprinting beneath a hot sun. This is in great contrast to their approach five hours from now when those smirks will widen into professional smiles as you reach your tipping-hand into your pocket.
Inside the gate, one of several heavy-set women will stamp your hand and wish you “ ‘aveanicedaysir,” with the sincerity one can only develop by crouching inside a 3×3 cubicle for six hours in 90 degree temps. I remind myself to bring her a cocktail before noon strikes.
If you arrive early enough, touring the grounds provides insight into racing history. There’s a statue of legendary horse, Seabiscuit, surrounded by flowers, although track personnel become testy if you ask questions like, “With all these flowers, why the long face?” Several tourists pose for photos in front of the statue and at least one youngish woman lurks beneath the horse in a way that makes this reporter very uncomfortable, but if we’re being honest, also a little curious. Too, there’s a statue of John Henry, who was a steel-driving slave from folk tales, but whom I now know is also a pretty famous horse.
A bit further onto the acreage, the horse paddock hosts an active group jockeys, grooms, and the celebrities du jour, horses. Dressed in various shades of silks – jocks used to wear silks but new technology now offers speed silks, which are made from Aero Dimplex material, and the line also includes helmet covers, jockey pants and boot sleeves – jockeys look a bit like anthropomorphized lollipops. The silks originate in sacs inside of spiders and it was some pretty time-consuming and, you can probably guess, boring, research to determine that that fact didn’t matter. Inside the jockey locker room, there are six racks of silks; each containing about 100 outfits and the place vaguely resembles a costume room for The Wizard of Oz.
That the jocks wear really fast, air-splitting colored silks to distinguish them from each other is enough for now. Along with the silks racks, the jockey room hosts two simulated horses (the kind of thing you find in deep Texas saloons, although without the bucking). Too, there are treadmills, several beds, assistants who polish mud off of boots, and many rusty metal machine/instruments for which this reporter cannot even fathom a use.
It’d be unacceptable to ignore the jockey-to-horse size ratio. These animals are large, weighing in around half a ton, whereas the jockeys look like the figurines on wedding cakes or trophies, and it would take a few trips to In’N’ Out to help them bust the scale’s triple digit mark. Imagine Kate Moss’s midget sister competing at Sumo and you’ll get the idea.
As for the grooms, they’re a bit like Presidential Cabinet advisors. They scrub and braid and feed and scoop – the grooming of these animals is centerfoldish – performing all sorts of significant but unceremonious jobs in order to make meddling owners happy. With small paychecks and frequent 4 a.m. rise times, one wonders what drives these men. When interviewed, they say things like, “I gonna like the animals. They my friends.” There are many Central American grooms here.
The horses are less animal than athlete. Spending a few minutes in the paddock – the pre-race warm up area – you can see them Alpha-dogging each other and whinnying their dominance in some pretty forthright equine dialect. They strut and shake their manes, rear-up and pound hooves, and nip at one another’s haunches, in what can only be called bizarre pre-race convention. It’s a bit like a boys high school locker room, although the horses would need bigger towels. With regard to that issue – and it is unavoidable when one visits the track – there’s some pretty impressive equipment there. One can really get a feel for phrases like “hung like a horse” and “piss like a racehorse,” and if I were transporting a young daughter to Derby Day, I’d avoid the whole scene for fear of…well, you get it.
According to the track staff, the horses also have some interesting habits. They like to chew at the bandages the grooms place on their legs. Consequently, the grooms spray the bandages with chili powder, at which some of the horses express serious dismay. Others, humorously, have grown to like the powder and will lick the bandages for hours, although you can probably visualize the aftermath of a horse eating spicy foods. Not pretty, right? When horses retire, many of them stay on site, pulling race officials around the track and spending evenings nudging up against other elder ponies. Interestingly, when photographically matched with the descended faces and large snouts of the track audience, there is more similarity than difference.
A few MTP, (minutes to post, or “race time” for track virgins) the horses parade from the paddock to the track. While hundreds of fans look on – everyone tries to see something in the horse’s character that might indicate a win that day – the grooms march them in a circle around Seabiscuit and then make the fifty-yard trek to the track. Young children lean over fence rails to try to touch the horses, and cigar-smoking grown men, in fedoras, rapidly scratch notes onto their racing programs. Several people bust out camera phones and shoot photos of the animals, which frankly, feels grotesquely paparazzi-ish and makes me wonder where they’ll be putting those photos later. You hear soft ooh’s and aah’s as children watch the horses, sounds which quickly turn pornographic when some idiot reaches over the rail and gets bitten.
Next to me, Louie, an old Italian man, with one of those voices that sounds like Miss Piggy swallowed a cheese grater, asks me which one I like. “I like the 3 horse,” I reply, to which he smiles and for a moment I feel like I’ve properly navigated the racing day etymology. Louie puts me in my place quickly, however, responding,“He’s too small.” I am tempted to say “Well, you’re a little hoarse, yourself, Louie.” but refrain for fear of laughing myself to death.
Speaking of language, the track has a hold on proprietary lexicon. For those who’ve never been down the rabbit hole, here are a few terms to learn:
Smart money- guys like Louie have been here since the 60’s studying horses, jockeys, track conditions, and equestrian dietssince they were big enough to ride Disneyland rides. Though these are animals, Louie and his brethren can call many of these races accurately. When they bet, it is termed the smart money. That Louie lives in an apartment in Arcadia, which is pretty much the sphincter of California, implies smart money may be a misleading term.
Exacta Quinella Trifecta- ways to select different combinations of winners and also-rans
Pick Six– pick the winners for the last six races of the day and you’re considered track royalty, exiting with enough to buy a new Mercedes, with some left over for champagne. That these are animals with rampant injuries, sleep problems and gastrointestinal issues, not to mention some don’t like this whole running thing all that much, your odds of winning the pick six are about the same as dating HalleBerry.
Inquiry– basically the race judges determine whether someone cut someone else off or pushed a fellow rider (wouldn’t mind having this on the LA freeways).
Handicapping – not the normal usage and very offensive when used that way, evidently.
By the time the horses get to the track, most of the guests have entered the racing arena to place their bets. Crowds here are diverse. In the track’s bowels, there are cafeteria-sized rooms where the average patron is forty pounds overweight, smokes two packs a day, wields ample facial ticks, and seems content to lose a week’s pay in search of the big score. There is a fixed digestive smell about them and it’s rare to see this many missing teeth. Besides the hundred or so betting windows, a host of food service stations exist, all offering the same ectomorph-supporting fare of Nachos, Churros, Hot Dogs and Beer. By their waddling gaits, no one here could make one lap around this track. Your more compassionate doctor would enter this area and cry.
If one can overcome the pinniped-like demographic, it’s interesting to note the studiousness of this population. Most of them are engaged in a curious prognostication ritual where stacks of newspapers, green sheets, yellow sheets, blue one-pagers, and magazine notes pile high around their table to the point where the human-like creatures can barely see out. Imagine a toothless, well-aged Ziggy comic strip and you get close.
Two levels up, the track offers a swimming pool sized bar, where some pretty unbelievable patrons imbibe their way into oblivion. Drunkenness here reaches new levels. People move as though there is a constant earthquake and at least three attendees are face down on the counter. One finds slurring that borders on mild retardation and the whole concept of aiming has not found its way into the bathrooms. Betting windows also lurk here, although observing these folks making their way from the bar to the windows is like watching Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) fake a heart attack.
The Frontrunner restaurant sits five escalatored levels up and overlooks the home stretch. Tie-wearing waiters serve three-course gourmet lunches to those willing to shell out the $65 (includes valet parking) and who fashion themselves in sport coats and pleated slacks. The “house” provides professional handicappers for this clientele, although if we’re speaking bluntly, they suck. I know this because ours was named Bill. Bill has been handicapping races since 1994 and lives four minutes from the track, which is to say in a one-bedroom apartment that may or may not be evicting him soon. Today, Bill is one for seven, and the one he picked right actually came in second but the winning horse was disqualified. Thus, Bill considers today a successful one. I hate Bill.
The custom of picking horses is more cerebral than expected. Navigating through the various handicappers’ suggestions, past finishes for each horse, the jockeys who are currently “on fire,” and which horses have registered to race but scratched (pulled out) prior to race time, is a labyrinth that requires some serious gray matter. Prior to the second race, I pulled the intellectual oar for about twenty hyper-focused minutes, after which I hustled to the betting window to give them my pick. A woman whose eyebrows wanted to be noticed took my twelve-dollar bet and handed me a ticket. Since I’m being truthful here, I flirted a little. If you’ve ever seen the Mona Lisa, that was the response. When the race ended, my horse was about as successful as my flirting.
Races start on the half hour and begin at 1:00 p.m. Long shadows now stretch across the turf and we are getting ready for the final trek. Those once wearing sport coats, currently stand with collared shirts wide open and the sort of sauna-ish sweat one expects when high stakes are on the line. Two men are still in the running for the Pick Six (call the winners in the final six races) and stand to gain six-figure winnings if they nail the last one. Half the restaurant is drunk and most people are so exhausted from the anticipation/climax parabolic wave that many folks resemble beached fish.
The Vatican Guard-dressed bugle blower blows the horses into the gates and the announcer screams “And they’re off!” Race fans have a way of rising to the occasion. Here, screams escalate like college fraternity houses, and by the time the home stretch comes around, everyone is jumping up and down staring toward the finish line. Neither Pick Six horse comes in and enough ripped tickets rise into the air to make one think of a Manhattan parade.
As folks filter out toward the parking lot, the weathered, the drunk, and the wealthy merge into an economic Pangaea. I pass the cubicled-woman at the front gate and she appears ten years older. As they run for cars, the valet crew has their tip-generating smiles ready and I reach into my now-empty pockets for a few bucks. For a brief moment, I can reflect on the day.
Horseracing is losing its impact upon the sporting public. For two minutes, eight times per day, miniscule men maneuver atop massive steeds, driving them to go faster. People, who can’t afford to lose money, lose money, and people who can afford to lose money, lose more money. There is speed, intensity, and the unnerving feeling that these animals might not want to run this fast. Overlaying the entire affair is an addiction to gambling, the naïve hope that, upon the backs of these beasts, life can be better.
I’m not certain what to do with it all yet. But then, I guess the “not knowing” is what makes it all worth doing, right?
One thing I know for sure: From now on, I should leave my damn notepad at home!