A Humbling Day at
by Mad Dog
I felt prepared for the races. After all, I’d played the
part of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls when I was 10
years old and can still sing “I’ve got the horse right here. His
name is Paul Revere. And there’s a guy that says if the weather’s
clear, can do.”
||There comes a time in
every man’s life when he needs to bet on the ponies, and that day was
Sunday. It turns out there weren’t really any ponies there, just
horses. And I didn’t place a bet, though it wasn’t for a lack of
trying. Yet in spite of those setbacks I was able to fill a longstanding
Damon Runyon-esque hole in my life.
It was Dollar Day at Golden Gate
Fields—dollar admission, dollar program, dollar parking, dollar hot
dogs, and dollar beer. If there’s anything better than a day at the
race track it’s a day at the race track wholesale.
I felt prepared for the races. After
all, I’d played the part of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls
when I was 10 years old and can still sing “I’ve got the horse
right here. His name is Paul Revere. And there’s a guy that says if
the weather’s clear, can do” and chime in with the other parts too.
I’ve seen the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races umpteen
times, can sing along with Queen’s album of the same name, and once a
long time ago went to the Camptown Races in Ashland, Virginia, where I
probably said “Doo-dah” at least 75 times. And yes, I’m sure I was
the only person to ever have done that.
But that was a plain old horse race.
No betting windows, no racing forms, nobody named Two-Bit Harry trying
to convince you that Ain’t Gotta Chance is a shoo-in to win the
seventh. It was about tailgate barbecue, mint juleps, and Bubbas mixing
it up with Muffys. I’m sure there was betting going on in the crowd.
And equally sure that no degree in Information Technology was needed to
I can follow instructions, figure out how to use a complex
computer program intuitively, and even read a manual if it comes to
that. But I couldn’t figure out the automated betting machine.
After watching the first few races at Golden Gate Fields I
decided it was time to place a bet. I asked each person in my party to
pick a horse to win. The odds, morning line, and horse’s running
history weren’t important, we chose our horses based on their names. I
went to place a bet on each of the horses to win in the fifth race.
The lines at the betting windows were
long, but a lot of the automatic betting machines were free. That should
have tipped me off. Keep in mind that I built my first computer from
parts 25 years ago. I can fix most anything that’s mechanical,
electrical, or spiritual. I can follow instructions, figure out how to
use a complex computer program intuitively, and even read a manual if it
comes to that. But I couldn’t figure out the automated betting
I bought a voucher from one
machine—that part was easy—then inserted it into the betting
machine. I followed the instructions, but each time it said there was
something wrong with the wager. Meanwhile Fatface Frankie and Donnie the
Dumbbell walked up to the terminal next to mine and placed what looked
like 42 bets in four seconds.
Feeling self-conscious and defeated,
I got my machine to spit out the voucher and stepped back, trying to see
what others were doing without being too obvious. After all, no one
likes to have people looking over their shoulder, especially at a race
track where my bet could water down their winnings from the hot tip
they’d gotten from the guy who cleans the restrooms.
I tried three different machines, entering various combinations
of win, bet amount, and horse. No luck. Each time it appeared to take
it, then said there was an error in the bet and started laughing. Or
would have had it a voice. I finally thought I had it figured out when
the betting screen went blank. The race was starting.
learned that there’s a reason the lines at the betting windows are
long while many of the betting machines aren’t being used. And that
the phrase “A fool and his money are soon parted” is a truism.
I ran over to watch the race. I had one ticket in my hand for a
$2 bet on the Exacta, though I had no idea what the Exacta was. I
didn’t even know approximately what an Exacta was. But in trying
different amounts and horses, I placed $2 on the Exacta, then couldn’t
figure out how to cancel it.
The two horses I’d accidentally
picked for the Exacta finished 6th and 8th. I still didn’t know what
the Exacta was—it turns out to be your pick for first and second place
winners in order—but I was pretty sure it wasn’t to select two
horses at random to finish last and near last. I went back to redeem the
voucher and at least get a few of my bucks and a modicum of self-esteem
The machines that sell you vouchers
apparently don’t redeem them. Or not that I could ascertain after
feeding it my slip three times. The lines at the windows were long so I
decided it wasn’t worth waiting just to get three dollars back. I
walked away holding the most useless souvenir since the first time I
went to Paris and put money in the machine on the street that said
“Paris Carte” to buy a telephone calling card only to find out I’d
just bought a parking permit for a car I didn’t have.
I’ve since learned what the problem
was. It turns out you couldn’t bet win, place or show on that race,
you could only bet fancy things like Exacta, Quinella—which is not to
be confused with the Peruvian grain popular in vegan restaurants,
Trifecta, and various other combinations with Pig Latin names. It would
have been nice if the machine had told me that. Or let me know why it
rejected each of my bets. It also would have been good if I’d had even
the slightest idea what I was doing.
But that’s not all I learned. I
also learned that there’s a reason the lines at the betting windows
are long while many of the betting machines aren’t being used, that
the phrase “A fool and his money are soon parted” is a truism, and
that Dollar Day is a better deal than you think. Not only were
admission, programs, hot dogs, and beer a dollar, but the peanuts in
salted shells were only $2, a third of what they cost at the baseball
game a few nights later. Though they were worth it since I didn’t have
to worry about betting machines at the baseball stadium.
©2009 Mad Dog
Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
These columns appear in better newspapers across the country.
Read them while waiting in line to place a bet.