I heard that advice from Billy, a security guard at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. I heard that advice from Tim, the teller at the horse track. And, I heard it a third time from John, the friendly guy who let us share a seat on an outside bench at the Monticello Gaming & Raceway. “Always play the numbers,” they each advised.
Monticello Raceway promises “World Class Racing Action.” On Thursday afternoon, Ed and I would see eight harness races at this track. We were boondocked in the parking lot of this New York gaming spot.
John told us he’d been coming to the track regularly for 20 years “just for the entertainment.” Over the years, he’s learned horses can disappoint you. “If a horse wakes up with a headache, no matter how good that horse has run in the past, no matter how good the jockey rides, no matter how hard the jockey cracks the whip…that horse just isn’t going to win if he doesn’t have a mind to perform.” With that explanation, John justified the theory we’d heard repeated “always play the numbers.”
John revealed us more than this tidbit of advice. He told us horse racing is an “old man’s sport” as he encouraged us to look around. John is 65. He didn’t expect to live to be this old. “I never worked regular jobs, got paid under the table most times. I thought I’d die young so what was the point of saving money and building up a reserve in Social Security.”
As we sat on that bench, John explained that he grew up in New York City, the youngest of three kids. “My brother and sister turned out okay, did well for themselves. I just decided that the 60s was a wild time and I was going to enjoy myself, and I did.” John admitted that in his younger days he slept all day and went out at night much to the worry of his parents. He avoided the draft by running away, and then paid the price a year later racking up legal fees for his Mom who helped get him out of trouble.
Back in 1969, John didn’t come to the Woodstock Concert although he tried to make the trip. He and his friends were headed to the concert when they heard on the car radio that a massive traffic jam shut down the New York Expressway. “I knew if I got up there and couldn’t get back with my Dad’s car, he’d be furious and report it stolen. I wouldn’t take that chance with Dad’s car. We turned back to the city.”
We learned about John in those 16 minute gaps between each race. And, we learned more about horse racing, the “scuttlebutt” he called it. He’d comment on the jockeys. He liked the guy with the asthmatic condition but sometimes the asthma attacks could knock this jockey out of the races for weeks at a time. He judged it “unfair” that the track photographer got fired for cashing a ticket left behind in a slot machine by a forgetful gambler. “The guy was just trying to make a buck.” He added sadly, “Why not let it go?” He pointed out owners whose horses would run in some the day’s races. Some were big time money people others were not. “Look at that guy’s clothes,” observed John. “You can tell his horses aren’t making him any money. He’s dressed like a bum.” Joe complained that some betters take the race to seriously. “They shouldn’t get mad, it’s horse racing for goodness sake,” he said with a shrug. “You cannot predict what a horse will do.”
All the while that John was talking, he was not betting. “You folks are saving me money today. I don’t need to bet. I am having fun talking to youse guys.” Then, he explained how the odds posted on the board change when off-track bets are added to the mix. From John, I learned about Trifectas, Perfectas and Exactas. We talked about Big Brown and speculated on the outcome of the June 7th race at Belmont. “But what do I know,” said John, “I’m just a mo mo.”
In the seventh race of the afternoon, Ed and I finally placed our bets. Ed’s Exacta Box was 4, 5, 6 and I went with 1, 5, 6 – all numbers associated with our birthdays or age. A long shot came in the winner surprising even the best guys playing at the track. In race track tradition, they slapped their tickets to the ground.
June 5, 2008
Monticello Gaming & Raceway is located along New York Route 17B in Monticello, NY.