Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Recently I finally became a whole person.

This act of spiritual confirmation occurred the moment I entered the gates of the famous Santa Anita raceway on a stunning saturday afternoon in the cultural heart of the northern hemisphere known as Arcadia, Southern California.

Yep, folks. I went to The Track. The Santa Anita Race Track, to be specific. One of the shrines of horse racing in North America.

Did I leave with pockets stuffed with cashola, arms raised in giddy triumph? Let's forget about winning and losing for the moment. Nobody goes to the races to win money anyway. Maybe you didn't get the memo, but gambling ain't for winning. It's for frivolous fun and judging by the people I saw on show that day, it can be the kind of frivolity that takes your house and most of your socially acceptable clothing.

There were some characters on display that day, that's for sure. As someone who can not currently call himself an ex-con, I felt out of place.

A quick digression here to discuss some of the better horseracing movies that have been made. If you want to get a feel for the kind of human being that seems to proliferate at the Santa Anita, you might want to give
Let It Ride a try. Richard Dreyfuss captures that particular blend of charm, sleaze and manic despair that I experienced perfectly. You can positively smell him through the screen. What else? Well, for a slightly more idyllic version of the event, Seabiscuit comes to mind. Love that movie. Rocky on four legs. Then there's The Black Stallion, a movie about a boy who is shipwrecked and saved from drowning by a horse. What a premise- how did the writer come up with that? Wouldn't a dolphin have been a more sensible choice? Can horses even swim? Anyway, the film has the obligatory climactic race at the end (I won't ruin the suspense by telling you who wins). A note of warning: if you're planning to run to the nearest DVD website after reading this post to order the movie, make sure you don't order the, uh... other Black Stallion. The easy way to differentiate between the two movies is to view the posters: the horse has the smaller appendage. If you like the movie (the one with the horse), you can always have more of the same joy by watching The Black Stallion Returns. What a film. Who said sequels couldn't be wonderful? In this one, the horse is retired and overweight, drinking and carousing every night, over the hill. The boy talks him into coming out of retirement one more time to fight a Russian and against all conceivable odds he- hang on. I'm getting my actors mixed up. Forget it.

Australia has also had its share of equine heroes. Phar Lap (also immortalized in a movie of the same name) was our version of Seabiscuit. The horse was so unbeatable it was thought to have been fatally poisoned by rival trainers. It won 37 of 51 races and in 1931 set the track record while winning the Agua Caliente Handicap, at the time the race with the largest purse in North American racing history. While the autopsy conducted soon after his mysterious death was inconclusive, the coroner did make an unexpected discovery: Phar Lap's heart was abnormally large, allowing the horse to sprint at its top speed throughout an entire race, explaining how he was able to continuously mow down his opposition from seemingly impossible positions, well back in the group heading into the final turn. He was not speeding up; the other horses were simply slowing down. The heart now sits on display at the Australian National Museum.

But enough of the education. Let's get back to the Santa Anita, a lovely old racetrack with its own long history, none of which interested me or my friends as we swept through the gates and headed to the betting area. We had bought our form guides on the way in and now it was time to study and I had no doubts, based on my perusal of the different histories and form of the horses in Race 1, that I would win a motza (Australian for "a lot").

Just to be sure, however, we then went to view the horses. They do a little parade outside so that the punters have a chance to get a little "inside" info on the horses and/or jockeys. Wait a minute... does Hasty Trend look a little morose today? Cross him off. No Cream Or Sugar just gave his jockey some attitude... they're finished. I came away from the viewing with absolute certainty of my winner for Race 1.

His name was Warren's Operator. I liked the way he strolled around the paradey-concoursey-viewing thingy area. He was sleek; muscular legs holding up a toned and ripped torso, veins bulging... I started to fantastize about Warren's Operator and I going parking... but sexual fantasy aside, I was positive this horse would win. I checked the odds: 30-1. Hmm. The guide said he "appears an outsider". Well, darn it- haven't we all surprised the world at some time in our life? Weren't outsiders dangerous? Didn't they sometimes sweep in and take the whole pot? Warren's Operator winked at me as he walked back to the stables to meditate and limber up. We were connected now by fate; nothing would get in the way of our triumph.

The short version of this story is, of course, that Warren's Operator....



As his flaccid, sloppy body and its four left feet drooped across the finish line, I joined the long list of crushed souls who had thrown their ticket down in outrageous disbelief. This horse had conned me. That surreptitious wink that he'd thrown my way didn't promise romance and boundless treasure; it was an evil horse's inside joke, only known to him and Satan: they had found another sucker.

I wanted to bury my head in Victoria's arms and sob. This was only Race 1. Nine more to go. As the day went forward, I watched my hard-earned tumble down the gurgler. Junkies, deadbeats, fat and smelly losers and drifters with no talent or initiative surrounded me. Ladies and germs, these were not my fellow gamblers.

They were the horses I bet on.

Pocatello Wild Kat, Sweet Patricia, Yankee Frankie, Screamin Express.

Movable dog food, the lot of em. This was false advertising at its finest. "Screamin Express" should have been renamed Broken Down Piece of Crap That Stops at Every Station. Hard to call during the race, I know, but at least it would have been truthful.

Horse racing is not a sport, people. I'm convinced of this. It's a leisure activity, kind of like poker with circus animals. Actually, I would put it more in the professional wrestling category. I'm sure all the jockeys and trainers are out the back laughing at us. "Go ahead Joe (everyone involved in horse racing has to be called Joe, Frank or Tommy to get into the union), you win today. My nag needs a rest anyway. Just leave the suitcase in the trunk of my Cadillac on your way out."

Bums, morons and gangsters, the lot of them. The wiser among us want to ban horse racing, citing cruelty to animals.

You bet it's cruel. For the animal writing this essay today, once was enough.

Pictures: from top, Santa Anita racetrack, 1908. Richard Dreyfuss
in "Let it Ride", Paramount Pictures, 1989.
Bottom: Phar Lap's heart, Australian National Museum display.

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