At Large A Day at the Races
posted by August 6 at 14:19 PMon
I just got back (this morning, 2 am) from a week in Albany, New York, which is a beautiful, crumbling town. It’s not a big place, but it has a kind of density and substance that I never feel in the West.
Here is a picture of old Albany:
Here is a picture of new Albany:
The weekend’s highlights included a wake, a funeral, and an awkward conversation with a priest who wanted to know why I was on crutches. (“Well, you see Father, a couple months ago, I jumped out of a window onto the roof of a school bus. No, no, it was parked—I’m not crazy.”)
The day after the funeral (for the family matriarch—she was buried on her and my dead granddad’s wedding anniversary, which has a nice symmetry), us aunts and uncles and cousins were in confusing cloud of mourning and recklessness and celebration. So what’d we do? We went gambling, playing the ponies up at Saratoga Springs, the country’s oldest sporting venue, and the place where Matt Graves, a sportswriter for the Albany Times-Union and father to one Jen Graves, works as a handicapper.
The track was a mix of elegance and effluvia—women with white dresses and elaborate violet hats elbow-to-elbow with drunk, desperate-looking men with bad dandruff. There was a surprising number of children and a surprisingly big bazaar devoted to crappy horse-racing art.
How many paintings does the world need that look like this?
Apparently a whole fuck of a lot.
(And is it possible that the proliferation of bad horse art influenced the career of one Jen Graves? That, at an early age, she saw the gap between the beauty of a horse and the ugliness of an unskilled rendering of a horse? That her child mind decided to explore that gap, turn spelunker, and become an art critic?)
Anyway, I loved it. Gambling is beautiful—a little bit math, a little bit magic. I spent the afternoon sitting with my uncles, learning all the different ways to bet:
• Bet on the horses: Get a racing sheet, see which horses have been winning, bet on them. (Didn’t work.)
• Bet with the crowd: Watch the big reader board on the field, showing the odds and how much people are betting on each horse to win, place, or show. Bet accordingly. (Worked sometimes.)
• Bet with the experts: Tear the racing page out of the Albany Times-Union and pick the ponies Matt Graves likes. (Worked sometimes.)
• Bet your whims: Do you like Truman Capote? Do you like Southern writers? Bet on the horse who parents were “Capote” and “Southern Letters.” (Didn’t work.)
• Bet your gut: Visit the paddock. Find a horse or jockey you like the looks of. Bet accordingly. (It worked!)
• Bet over your head: Walk up to the bet-window and repeat one of the exotic betting systems you’ve read about in the racing form: “Gimmie a four-dollar exacta box on two and eight in the fifth.” After the race, show your ticket to an uncle and ask if you’ve won. (He will laugh.)
• Court bad luck: My younger brother kept saying he should stay away from us, insisting he was a “cooler.” It was true, we kept losing when he was around. Then I asked him to pick a horse. It won. My aunt asked him to blow on her ticket. She won. Then my mom asked him to blow on her ticket. And she won.
And then the day was over. We went to an Italian restaurant, talked about death and health care and estates and wills. The next morning, we scattered back across the country, back to our homes—some to Rhode Island, some to Vermont, some to Seattle.
So. Which way to Emerald Downs?