In my life I've spent a lot of time around horses. I started riding when I was seven on the bridle paths that traversed Chicago's Hyde Park. Soon, when I wasn't riding horses I was drawing them. Or reading everything Walter Farley ever wrote. I grew up and my honeymoon was spent on a horse round up in Wyoming and riding in the back country of Yellowstone Park.
But I have never spent time at the racetrack. If I were going to be around horses, I wanted to be riding them. There had never seemed to be much point in sitting around and watching other people ride them. Needless to say, the thrill of betting on them has always eluded me.
A couple of days ago I had a chance to spend my first day with girlfriends at Arlington Racetrack. Bad body parts prevent me from riding anymore. So over the years I've embraced horse-racing with growing enthusiasm -- on TV at least. Especially after a wild ride years ago on a bullheaded thoroughbred steeplechaser. That pigheaded horse gave me a heartfelt appreciation for what it feels like to race like the wind on an animal that may or may not stop, no matter what your plans are.
It was a hot, humid day at the track, but we sat in box seats in the shade of the high canopy. And there was a wonderful breeze blowing to keep us cool all day. The view was spectacular -- a panoramic sweep of the sky, which entertained us all afternoon with imaginative cloud formations.
Before each race we could walk over to view the horses in the paddock on their way to the track. Arlington Park is beautiful and spotless, every blade of grass groomed to perfection. But, despite the elegant surroundings, or perhaps because of them, there was something missing for me. I love the smell of horses -- the straw, the leather, everything about a barn. Unfortunately, those smells are considered declasse and therefore banished from the track. [I wonder who has the Febreze franchise?] I guess the scent interferes with the flavor of the $38 shrimp cocktails and other expensive foodly delights they want you to order. Despite my longing for the barn smells, I must admit I appreciated having a delicious, scent free lunch, washed down with some of the best lemonade I've ever tasted.
Our hostess for the day, who was over ninety, came from a family that owned a racehorse or two in their day and she spends a good part of each week at the track. When we arrived in her Lincoln Town Car [circa 1978], everyone seemed to know her by name. I'm not sure whether that was because of her driving or not.
She made sure we all got our programs so we could make our educated two dollar bets on each race. I quickly realized that figuring out the multiple betting options was way beyond my skill level. Trifectas and superfectas are all Greek to me.
I was also surprised to discover that while waiting for each race at Arlington, you also could watch and bet on the races at other tracks around the world, from Churchill Downs to Australia. No sense in sitting around when you could be losing more money.
After reading through my program to review the multiple opinions of the experts and check out how fast each horse had run in its last five races, I picked my favorites to win by the color of the jockey's silks. Especially if they were coordinated with the horse's tack.
But I didn't have as much luck as my girlfriend's mother who made her picks by choosing a horse whose name she liked. She had three outright winners in eight races and a two of them were real longshots. So she walked away a couple of times with a nice payoff on her two bucks. I remember thinking I could have paid off my house with a thousand dollar bet on just one of those ponies.
I guess that's why they call it gambling. But, for my first real foray into the sport of kings, I was happy enough with the view, the weather, and the delicious lemonade. The late afternoon Dove bar was pretty good too.