Rose City Racecourse occupies a lowland shelf where the Willamette River kinks, nestled on its west bank in the shadow of majestic Forest Park. The horse track camps beside Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge 5.1, with a clear view north toward the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland and south toward an industrial panorama embracing the Swan Island Ship Repair Yard, petroleum docks, barge and rail car fabrication plants, bulk cement import facilities, two grain elevators, and Port of Portland Terminal.
Along the east bank of the river, the water runs brisk and true, flowing under the steel spans of the bridges and continuing north for several miles before sluicing into the Columbia. Along the west bank, however, the Willamette appears to curl back upon itself, the slope here cut deep and reinforced with pilings and piers and levees, survivals of the decades prior to construction of the bridge, when steamships, barges, and ferries trafficked the waters. At this point, the water idles by, deep and dark and still-seeming, shying away from the shadows cast by the bridge, creeping instead into a narrow inlet that stretches to the south and east for nearly a mile before terminating in marsh.
Horses run at Rose City every year from late August until early June. It is a track built for moisture, sand with a base of clay, engineered to soak up torrents of rain without turning into a bog. In the evening, the fog sometimes rolls in from the river, obscuring the sand oval. When that happens, horses disappear into a thick, impenetrable mist around the first turn. On other occasions, ice storms freeze the track solid, and then the horses can neither train nor race. But most of the time, the rain simply packs the sand granules more tightly together, as waves congeal beach sand.
A huge expanse of glass encloses the grandstands at Rose City, protecting patrons from exposure to the elements. But it can be a hazardous business for the horses. Cheap horses run at Rose City, horses not bred well enough, not fast enough, and not healthy enough to run at the classier California tracks, or even in Seattle, where Longacres has also fallen on hard times. They race for meager purses. And they race often, because this is the only way owners and trainers can hope to make money. For this reason, they may be asked to run upon a poor and unforgiving surface when they are not fit. Horses break down at Rose City. They shatter cannon bones and explode stifle joints and rip apart flexor tendons and some die on the track.
No hint of this darkness troubled the racecourse on Saturday afternoon, though. There Eli and Harry stood, squinting and blinking by their table in the Turf Club. Sunlight poured through vast windows fronting the grandstand. Rising above the firs and cedars, Tillamook State gleamed and sparkled from the bluff across the river. Horses straggled through a grove of conifers and across the infield, heading toward the paddock for the first race of the day. A red farm tractor pulled a harrow around the dirt oval. In the center of the infield, ducks swam proudly across a pond.
Harry had called early that morning, around 8:00. “I have some good news and some bad news, Eli” he said.
“I’ll take the good news first,” Eli said, standing by the coffee machine in the kitchen. A terry robe barely sheathed his loins, but Gerald was still asleep and Jane, who habitually rose before six, had already swept through the kitchen and left to run errands. Eli cradled the phone against his ear while he poured coffee into his mug.
“Well, let’s see,” Harry said. Eli could hear him manhandling the newsprint. “There’s Cartbeforthehorse in the first. That’s good news. Mendacious in the second. Very good news. Culture Vulture in the third. I could go on. It’s a dream card, Eli.”
“How many of these sure things is Blade T riding?”
Harry rustled his Form. “Three. He’s on Cartbeforethehorse in the first, and a few other horses I like quite a bit later in the day.”
“What do you think of Blade as a jockey? You know he’s not much as a student.”
“Probably just as well. You get a jock on a half-ton horse rattling down the backstretch at 40 miles an hour, you don’t want him to be thinking about Hegel and Marx. You just want him to fucking ride ride ride. Blade T’s a good jockey. At least compared to other mosquitos riding at this dump. He’s the real deal. Only problem is he whips his horses a little too vigorously. At least for my taste.”
“What else did you want to tell me?”
“There’s still the bad news. Shahid’s in your class as of Monday.”
Eli sipped his coffee and stared bitterly out the window.
“You still there?”
“Where the administration on this, Harry? He’s going to ruin the course. You know that.”
“There’s nothing to be done, Eli,” Harry said. “Shahid got a lawyer. The lawyer thinks we’re violating his civil rights. But Shahid says he’ll forget about it if T. State simply allows him to enroll. You don’t have much choice. The school won’t back you up on this one.”
* * *
Bettors poured into the grandstands, a surge of skinny men and fleshy women, eyes bright with anticipation, talk brash and boastful. An enormous black woman lumbered down the aisle, pink polyester shorts busting at the seams. She waved cheerily at Harry.
“Yo ho, Jolene!” Harry returned the wave.
“Harry, honey,” she panted. Her breath escaped in sharp bursts as she fumbled in her purse for her cigarettes. “You have to give me some winners, baby. My numbers came up empty yesterday. You should have been here. Funny stuff going on, you know what I mean?”
Harry, seating himself, laughed. “There’s always funny stuff going on, sweetheart,” he said.
Outside, near the rail of the track, a little man, head and face swathed in dirty gauze bandages, peered into one of the trash receptacles. He pulled handfuls of discarded tickets from the trash bin, yesterday’s detritus. He stuffed the tickets into a plastic bag. Eli watched silently for a moment, then turned his attention to the first race of the day in his Racing Form.
Harry, too, was silent. Only 15 minutes remained until post time. He was preoccupied with the immediacy of the task at hand, his ritual of preparation. He piled the table high with the tools of his trade, binoculars (for watching races and replays on the television monitors hanging from the girders), notebooks (for recording information about each race and each wager), multicolored pens (each color possessed a different meaning), old programs (containing running lines and trip notes from previous races), and stacks of old Racing Forms. Finally, when all was in order, he smiled at Eli. “Let’s kick some butt, boy. Tell me what you see in this first race.”
Harry had introduced Eli to the handicapping basics in the car.
Rule One. Narrow the field to legitimate contenders, horses with a chance to finish in the money.
“This is the easy part,” Harry said. “Here classical handicapping techniques apply most directly. You’re looking for class and consistency. I put a twist on the process, though. At this point, I am looking more for horses to throw out, horses with no chance.”
Rule Two. No horse runs alone.
“This is the hard part,” Harry said. “At the track, as in life, the fastest or the best horse does not always win. Races are interactive. An early speed horse may fold because the pace is so fast he burns up. Which can leave an opening for a deep-closing nag to win who normally runs second or third, or not at all. Horses also get bumped back, pushed wide, pinned to the rail, shut down behind traffic. These variables all matter. Enormously.”
Rule Three. Focus on the human element.
“Horses are like athletes on a baseball team. You can’t win without them, but they don’t make important decisions that enable the team to contend for a title. The brains of the outfit. That’s what you monitor. On a baseball team, the manager and general manager make those crucial decisions. In a horse race, it’s the trainer and jockey. You can throw out some horses at this stage because of what you know about the personnel. That this trainer over-races his stock. Or this jock just switched agents. By the same token, some of these guys are pure class. They’re winners. They’d be winners anywhere.”
Rule Four. Establish motivation.
“Why is Old Gluestick running in this particular race today? Why did this jockey elect to ride him? What is the point of this particular workout pattern? When you perform this analysis for every entry in the race, you should have a pretty good idea about the contenders.”
Rule Five. Consider the odds.
“How does everyone else evaluate the race? The crowd will figure out important stuff. The betting favorite wins a lot of the time. But most people act like herd animals. And they die by degrees. Over time, you cannot make money playing favorites.”
* * *
Eli reviewed entries for the first race in the Form. Harry’s handicapping Cliff’s Notes had done little to make its hieroglyphs meaningful, and so he found himself drawn to Simon Short’s column on the front page, signified by an artful drawing of a horseshoe hanging at an odd tilt from a nail. Shrewd Simon Short Shows You the Angles, it read. For the first race, Shrewd Simon Short was also recommending Cartbeforethehorse as a Simon Short Sartainty!
Eli also watched the post parade, and there he saw Blade T, in blue and white silks, perched atop Cartbeforethehorse, chatting up the pony girl, that same big grin splashing his face like sunshine. The race was for maiden claimers, horses that had never won a race. Cartbeforethehorse was indeed the obvious selection. She had finished second in her last race and was running against many of the same horses again. The crowd had already bet the horse down to even money. But Eli liked the looks of a horse called Roller Blade. This horse finished fourth in her last race. But she’d made a big run in the stretch, closing to within two lengths at the finish. Eli thought Roller Blade might catch the frontrunners this time.
Like Simon Short, Harry saw no way Cartbeforethehorse could lose. He planned to bet her on top with one other horse in both his exacta and daily double bets. But he did not conceal his surprise, dismay even, that Eli might squander his money on Roller Blade.
“Christ, Eli. What rock did you look under to find that horse? I don’t want to rain on your post parade, but she’s a career maiden. And she’s jumping in class!”
“She made a good effort last time out.”
“No early speed, Eli. No heart. No class.” Harry had already dismissed the horse. He was busy now, writing down his own bets, an elaborate scrawl of numbers, slashes, and dollar signs. “Cartbeforethehorse wins the race. That’s clear enough. But what finishes second? What did you think of She’s Mexican?” Harry didn’t wait for Eli to answer. “She’s dropping from straight maiden company. Decent figs. Good jock. Solid trainer. A bit of early speed. Blinkers on.” Harry glanced at the tote board. At five-to-two, She’s Mexican was the second choice of the bettors. “I hate to play the chalk, but the other horses in this race might as well be three-legged donkeys.” He finished writing and smiled at Eli. The decision had been made. They would both play Cartbeforethehorse and She’s Mexican. “Time to print some money, young fellow. Let’s hit the windows.”
* * *
Harry waited in line at a window for high rollers, mostly older men, lean cats, sporting Stetsons, string ties, Tony Lama boots, hand-tooled money belts. They smoked cigarillos and stroked thin mustaches. They spoke slowly and easily, as if it didn’t mean much, one way or another, whether their horses came in. But there was Harry, too, with his Yankees baseball hat, and behind him was another member of the faculty, an engineering professor named Aviel Schoenberg.
So it’s true, Eli thought. About people from Tillamook State at the track. But where are the students? Schoenberg and Harry spoke casually, with confidence, about the horses they favored in the first race. Schoenberg nodded in Eli’s direction. Fresh meat, Eli thought he heard Harry say. The two men laughed.
Nervous energy snaked through Eli’s line. He stood amidst the small-time players, weekend fans. They didn’t want to miss a bit of the action. And it seemed many of them were eager to learn the wagering selections of the man who presently occupied the betting window, leaning in with a languor befitting one of the Tony Lama bettors at the high rollers windows. But this man mostly consorted with the common folk, for they (he would be the first to admit) were his bread and his butter.
Based on Harry’s description, Eli instantly deduced he was standing behind Simon Short, whose patter before the pari-mutuel clerk was clearly also earmarked for all within earshot. Simon Short, with his sharp sideburns and shady smile.
“Let’s start off this fine day on the right foot, sweetheart. Let’s put the Cartbeforethehorse! Hahaha.” Simon Short munching on his cigar, smirking, and snorting. Deviously peering behind him to make sure the others in line had taken note. Trumpeting, “Two hundred dollars on the nose of this nag! Ahahah, twill musically make the sweet sound of victory, methinks!”
Standing in line behind Simon Short, a sawbuck balled in his fist, the delay didn’t trouble Eli. Harry’s unwillingness to consider Roller Blade had shaken his resolve about betting the first race anyway. He stared at his Form, trying to decide. In his mind, the horses no longer pranced around the track, creatures of flesh and blood and bone, of need and desire. They had become ciphers, strings of numbers, pale abstractions on a strip of greasy newsprint.
Simon Short leaned more deeply into the betting window, speaking more quietly. Among those in line, only Eli could now hear him. “Actually, sweetheart. Let’s not put the Cartbeforethehorse. Let’s put the money instead on She’s Mexican.”
When Simon Short finally abandoned the window, horses for the first race were beginning to travel toward the starting gate. Eli had felt amused contempt for the urgency of bettors ahead of him in line. But anxiety now crept upon him like a cat. He still didn’t have a clue which horse to play.
Simon Short brushed past Eli, moist lips flapping about his cigar, fat finger stubbins adjusting his suspenders. He winked at Eli and bellowed frothy words of cheer to others still waiting to wager. “Cartbeforethehorse! A Simon Short Sartainty! Haha!”
The pari-mutuel clerk at the window smiled at Eli. She sighed. “You meet only quality people at racetracks, don’t you, Professor?”
“Jeez! Antoinette. What are you doing here?”
Antoinette laughed. “This is how I support myself. What’s your excuse?”
“A friend dragged me out,” Eli said. He looked around. “I saw Aviel Schoenberg over there. Where are those students the Que Dog was talking about?”
“Oh, they can’t afford the Turf Club. Mostly, you’ll find them in the grandstand and outside along the rail.” Antoinette stared curiously at Eli, as if she was still wondering how he found his way to the racetrack. “But you can see some now.” She nodded toward the large windows fronting the track. “Walking across the railroad bridge.”
Eli could then see a thin line of people, too small to identify, marching solemnly across the bridge. “What about trains?” he said. Antoinette shrugged. “Not much train traffic,” she said. “And everyone reads the timetables.”
“How far across the water?”
“Maybe half a mile. Ten minutes.”
Eli, glancing down at his Racing Form, thinking he’d better make up his mind about his bet, suddenly found himself staring into décolletage. Racetrack management required mutuel clerks to wear outfits with a vaguely Old West flavor. The men each wore a cowboy hat fashioned from cardboard, and slung arms through a black vest. The women wore hats, too, along with a facsimile of a buckskin dress, fringed and, on the younger women at least, cut low at the shoulders. Eli supposed he’d never seen such a cheap effort to manufacture atmosphere. Nonetheless, his eyes kept straying from his Form.
Antoinette pushed her hat far back on her brow, folded her arms across her chest and smiled at Eli. “I didn’t choose to wear this dress, you know,” she said.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” he said. “It’s quite fetching, though.”
Antoinette smiled. “Aren’t you going to bet?”
From a monitor mounted on the wall, Eli could see the last of the horses filing into the gate. Quickly, he thought. Make the bet. Any bet. “Ten dollars to win on the Two horse. The Cartbeforethehorse.” He blushed. His idiocy consuming him.
“Is that all?” Antoinette’s fingers rested lightly on the tote machine, ready to record the bet and print the ticket.
“Wait! Make it a win on the Four.” Eli was back on Roller Blade.
“Mmmm,” she said. “A man who knows his mind.”
* * *
Back at the table, Harry stared glumly at the track. Three other men had seated themselves there since Eli left to make his bet. Harry was not talking to them, though, and Eli could not fathom his thoughts.
Before the race, Harry told Eli that She’s Mexican would sprint clear of the field. Cartbeforethehorse would track the pace set by She’s Mexican down the backstretch, pull up alongside her on the turn, and gain the lead in the homestretch. But Blade T gunned Cartbeforethehorse from the gate and the two horses hooked in a speed duel. The blistering early pace exhausted She’s Mexican, the less classy of the two horses, and she faded badly down the lane. With Blade T hand-riding hard from the gate, Cartbeforethehorse tired too, and Roller Blade, of all horses, nipped her at the wire. The career maiden, absent a victory in 17 lifetime starts, benefited from fast early fractions and roared past the front-runners in the stretch. She paid 36 dollars and change for the two-dollar win ticket.
“Fucking Blade T!” Harry said to Eli as he strolled up. “He can’t rate a horse to save his life. That little move of his at the gate just cost me two bills.”
“That little move of his at the gate just made me two bills,” Eli said, not wanting to gloat, but barely able to contain his pleasure.
“What?” Harry cocked an eyebrow. “You played Roller Blade?”
Eli smiled at Harry. “I bet ten dollars to win.” Thinking, so this is the candy Harry comes here for, this pure feeling. The chaos of the Form, the riot of numbers pulling him this way and that, had resolved itself, had come into focus. He’d taken the risk. He’d wagered, not with Harry, but with his heart, his instincts. And not two minutes later, he’d received his reward. The pile of crisp 20s now folded into his wallet. Antoinette teasing him. “This is your lucky window,” she said.
“Well, way to go, guy! A home run in your first at bat!” Harry stretched his palm toward Eli. “This is Eli’s first time at the track,” he told the other men seated at the table. “He’s the bright new star at T. State. And not too shabby as a handicapper, it turns out.”
Harry introduced Eli to his older brother, Jordan Hamish, his betting partner, George Kleinberg, and a younger man named Seb Kroll. Jordan didn’t look much like Harry. About 50 years old, his hair, while curly, was brown, not red. Jordan wore ill-fitting shorts and an unevenly buttoned cardigan sweater, at least one size too small. His stomach heaved against the buttons, threatening to pour out through the gaps between them. Eli noticed, too, that Jordan was rocking his head back and forth over the Racing Form, fidgeting, drumming the table arhythmically with his fingers. Jordan murmured to himself, not words but strings of numbers. Every few seconds, he stopped to write what looked like immensely long calculations on a sheet of paper.
Eli turned toward the other two men and nodded. Kleinberg, of course, he already knew about. Perhaps 40 years old, he was heavily set and rough-hewn in appearance, his face a roadmap of experience. Harry had told Eli more about Kleinberg during the drive to the track. They were both Jews from New York, kindred spirits really, out on the great Presbyterian frontier. Kleinberg was a professional horseplayer. Some years ago, he left New York, where competition amongst the hardcore betting set is fiercest of all. He hopped from racetrack to racetrack, eventually landing in the Northwest. He expected players on this regional circuit to be rubes. He expected to feast. Northwest players proved to be savvier than he expected. But Kleinberg stayed on anyway, eking out a living, waiting for the big pop on a P4 that would set him up for good.
Eli had also heard about Seb Kroll. Grandson of the timber baron who built the Rose City track during the 1930s, Seb had recently graduated from Harvard, where he majored in history and philosophy. He drove a burgundy Jaguar, dated beautiful women, and loved to bet the horses. Bet big, Harry emphasized. Bet wild, too. He was all over the joint with his handicapping. One day, he’d play early speed. The next day, he’d focus on all the horses dropping in class. According to Harry, Seb simply had too much money for his own good. It robbed him of discipline and accountability.
Seb greeted Eli warmly. Tall and thin, his sharply pointed nose added length to an already reedy, bird-like neck. He wore a Lacoste shirt, Khaki Dockers, and canvas boat shoes. “I’ve heard about you, Wheeler. Your old man, too. He’s a hoot. I’d like to chat historiography with you. Not now, though. Cassandra’s got me on the short leash.” He looked over his shoulder and waggled a hand at the blonde seated three tables away.
Cassandra smoked a cigarette, clearly bored beyond belief. Seb stood up and sighed. “We went at it all night,” he said to Eli. “The sex was to die for, but she didn’t sleep.” He sighed again. “Hence, she didn’t want to drive here this afternoon. Hence, she wanted to go to the Multnomah Club for a massage. Yadayadayada. What was I supposed to say? Harry may have told you. I’m in the fourth month of an exciting longitudinal study of early speed horses coming off layoffs. Of course, I need to be out here.” Seb lowered his voice and spoke confidingly in Eli’s ear. “The results so far are actually quite interesting. We have a few minutes before the post parade. Let me tell you about them.”
For the moment, Seb forgot about Cassandra. He droned on, while Eli shifted foot to foot. Harry watched this exchange for a minute. Finally, he rolled his eyes and shuffled his chair closer to Jordan’s. He leaned into Jordan’s shoulder and whispered into his ear. Jordan pointed in the Form to a horse running in the next race and laughed. Harry clapped him on the back and laughed too. George Kleinberg, who exchanged a pleasantry with Eli before Seb corralled him, had also returned to a concentrated study of the Form. When Seb finally wandered back to his table, Kleinberg looked over at Eli, his bluff face red with irritation. “Don’t pay attention to Sebby,” Kleinberg said. He nodded toward Harry. “You want to see a master in action, here’s the guy to watch.”
* * *
The afternoon lengthened. Losing tickets littered the table and tumbled to the floor. Cardboard cartons, greasy paper wrappers, and emptied cups accumulated on the table. Smoke from surrounding tables settled upon them, bitter in their throats, stinging to their eyes, acrid to their noses. Harry and Eli squinted through a thickening haze. The mood at the track had soured. The levity and the sense of anticipation had fled. No one was smiling. Eli looked at Jolene. A river of sweat poured down her neck.
Harry proved true to his word, though. He did not play another favorite the rest of the day. Throughout the afternoon, he attacked the races, confident of his ability, through sheer force of will, to obtain outcomes producing monstrous payoffs. He seized scraps of information. An abundance of early speed, a horse with a bad post position last race out, a jockey with a tendency to fan his steeds too wide on turns, another horse that repeatedly steadied in its previous race. With them, he constructed a vision of the upcoming race pregnant with prophecy. He never doubted himself, and argued on behalf of his choices with the certainty of the born optimist. Still, as the afternoon began to wane, Harry, for all of his pronouncements about the right way to play this race and the wrong way to play that race, had yet to cash a winning ticket.
Eli, however, had crushed the first four races. He possessed a supple mind, and he quickly grasped the fundamentals of handicapping and wagering. Once he understood how to interpret the information in the Form, the glyphs transposed before his eyes into a kind of immanent, embedded truth. He began swiftly to relate variables such as speed, consistency, and class, and to imagine simple outcome scenarios. Betting progressively larger increments and constructing gradually more sophisticated wagers, Eli managed by mid-afternoon to parley the 40 dollars he brought with him to the track into well over 300 dollars. Harry was now salaaming him after every race, while Seb Kroll, ever alert for a new angle, had begun to sidle by their table a few minutes before post time.
Eli almost smiled at it all. He had labored for years on his dissertation, in a solitude of his own making. That had been his choice, the conscious decision to renounce desire and impulse, to apply himself systematically to a task. The vast reservoir of energy he directed toward the project distinguished him from his peers. Other graduate students at Berkeley might work until eight or ten at night, call it a good, productive day, and reward themselves by drifting down to a bar or pool hall on Shattuck Avenue. Eli would wrestle with a page, with a paragraph, until two or three in the morning, and then force himself back into battle again four or five hours later. That was the difference. The others had interests. They had lives. Eli did not. Eli wrestled the bear. Eli fought his shadow. It was not a salubrious affair. It was a war.
Eli’s prodigious capacity for work reminded some of his father. Eli knew better than anyone how right they were. But he also knew the day would come when his life would change, when, the carapace outworn, he would step, as it were, from dissertation to daylight, to a Nietzschean type of health or completion. The metaphor of the chrysalis did not elude him. He entered graduate school as a caterpillar, as an unlovely creature, low to the ground. He would emerge as a butterfly.
But somehow that was not how things worked out. Kelly entered his life midway into graduate school, almost at the moment he began his dissertation. He fell into her arms, grateful for what she offered him. The promise of happiness. His connection to her, his time with her, had been his meat, his marrow. But the promise had not been fulfilled. He had remained unhappy, angry, embittered, and three years later, she left him.
The issue, he began to realize over the summer, concerned the meaning of freedom. His freedom. He remained imprisoned. And nagging doubts about the move to T. State, to any school, really, drew upon this awareness. The academy had become for him a hall of mirrors. Tobias was the man he saw in every reflecting surface. But now, here at the track, without fully understanding why or how, Eli experienced a strange and exultant sense of release. It was as if, when he and Harry squeezed through the doors of this building, some invisible energy field sliced through the tether binding him, to his past, to his family, to whatever ailed him. In that first race, he witnessed the wonderful, rhythmic surge that carried Roller Blade past horse after horse down the stretch. And then he felt, not for the first time, but in a new, exhilarating way, what it meant to soar.
Soon enough, the eighth and feature race was upon them. Twenties bulged Eli’s wallet. He wedged the excess, smaller bills balled like pellets, into the corners of his front pockets. Into his shirt pocket, too. He guessed he’d earned close to five hundred dollars on the day. By contrast, Harry, still winless for the afternoon, must have been down more than a grand. Eli marveled. The day had been a lifeless desert for Harry, so far as the handicapping had gone. But his confidence remained unshaken, his mood upbeat. “Okay, men,” he said, as the horses completed the post parade for the eighth and cantered out around the clubhouse turn. “It’s bailout time.”
Eli scanned the Form and saw only one horse with more than a remote chance of winning. Itty Bitty Too Too had shipped in from Longacres, the Seattle track. This stakes-placed horse had dropped into a soft allowance field here at Rose City. As it turned out, Blade T had the mount. Money cascaded in on the horse. Itty Bitty Too Too, it seemed, would be the bailout horse for a lot of people.
Harry snorted and waved his arms theatrically. “The nag hasn’t raced in three months. She’s shipping. She’s a sprinter, not a router. Blade’s going to pound the shit out of her. And the bitch always gives up the lead around two turns anyway. I’m looking elsewhere.”
Seb Kroll wandered to the table, grinning slyly. It had also been a long day for him. Cassandra had demanded he call a cab for her after the fourth race. But Seb didn’t care. He pointed to Itty Bitty Too Too in his Form. “This is the one, gents. You know my system for layoff horses with early speed. This pretty little filly meets all the requirements for a smasher! This old barn will go into hock to pay me!”
A few minutes later, the plebes in the grandstand roared. The numbers on the tote board had gone berserk. Sebby had wagered $100,000 to show on Itty Bitty Too Too.
“Sebby’s a damned fool,” Harry said. “He knows the track has to pay him a minimum of five percent, even if the pool won’t cover his payoff. But the horse is going to finish out of the money, Eli.” Harry’s eyes glowed. “Show prices will be astronomical.”
Harry pointed to another horse in the Form, Betsy’s Baby, and asked Jordan to perform some calculations. A moment later, he grabbed Eli’s sleeve. There were only four minutes to post. “This is the horse,” he yelled. “Bet her to show! Bet her to win! Key her in your exactas and trifectas. Key her with these two horses. Job and Squeeze the Charmin. Let’s take this Baby to the bank!”
Harry borrowed money from both Eli and Kleinberg. This would be his biggest bet of the day. Eli did not see how Itty Bitty Too Too could lose. But the horse was going off at one-to-two. He’d join Harry and chase the flyer, Betsy’s Baby.
Eli visited Antoinette’s window throughout the afternoon, reluctant to disturb the winning rhythm into which he had fallen. By the eighth race, her sparkle had faded, worn down by the demands of bettors, smoke and noise, excrescence of losing. But her face lit up when she saw Eli at her window.
“Hello, there! I’m not sure I have more good luck to give you.”
“That’s okay,” Eli said, anxious to return to his table before the race started. “You’ve given me enough luck for one day.” He shoveled two 20s under the security bar and reeled off a string of bets on Betsy’s Baby. Mindful of the imbalance in the show pool, he even placed a ten-dollar show bet. “If the favorite runs out of the money, I’ll split the winnings on this ticket with you,” he said.
Antoinette shook her head. “We’re not supposed to bet,” she said. And my supervisor is standing behind me.” She reached under the bar to pat his hand. “Save it for your girlfriend.”
Betsy’s Baby was a deep closer. Jordan’s pace figures suggested she could romp past the fading speed down the stretch. For her to do so, however, Rafael Santana, the crafty old jockey who had the mount, would need to rate her kindly. Additionally, one or two other horses would have to challenge Itty Bitty Too Too before she reached the clubhouse turn.
That was the scenario. But Itty Bitty Too Too blew out of the gate lengths ahead of the field. Betsy’s Baby lagged back, ambling around the first turn, trailing the rest of the field by ten lengths. Eli noted Sebby’s smug smile. Seb and Harry had exchanged bitter words before the race began.
Harry, his binoculars trained on the field, tracked the horses into this first turn. The race was not setting up right, and Harry’s muttered stream of curses as Itty Bitty Too Too pulled further ahead of the field would have curdled new milk. He smiled, though, when the announcer called out the fraction for the first quarter mile, a lightning fast twenty-two and two.
“Yes! I knew it!” Harry continued to watch the race through his binoculars. But he could not forbear from exulting to Eli out the side of his mouth. “The nag’s too fresh. She can’t hold this pace and win.”
Eli wondered. Heading into the backstretch, Itty Bitty Too Too appeared, if anything, to be picking up steam. She had stretched her lead to four lengths. But when Harry heard the half-mile fraction, he put the binoculars down and looked over at Eli. “Race over,” he said emphatically. On this track, no way she can carry 22.2 and 45.3 to the finish.”
The horses galloped down the backstretch. Itty Bitty Too Too maintained her lead. However, as Harry pointed out to Eli, Blade T was at this point sitting anything but chilly. Going into the far turn, he applied a vigorous hand ride. His arms stroked up and down the horse’s neck, trying to force every last bit of juice from her, evidence to Harry that the horse was tiring.
Squeeze the Charmin and Job inched up on Itty Bitty Too Too around the far turn. As they entered the homestretch her lead had diminished. The fraction for six furlongs suggested a horse rapidly running out of gas. But Betsy’s Baby had only now started to rally, and she still trailed the field by a good eight or ten lengths.
Bedlam reigned at Eli’s table. Squeeze the Charmin and Job pulled up alongside Itty Bitty Too Too halfway down the stretch. Rafael Santana tilted forward but an inch or two on Betsy’s Baby and the filly leapt forward as if struck by lightning. With a furlong to go, she had pulled within four lengths of the leaders. Squeeze the Charmin and Job both inched ahead of Itty Bitty Too Too. Blade T took his whip to her flanks with the left handed chopping motion for which he had become locally famous. But her exhaustion was evident to all. The only question now concerned Betsy’s Baby. Would she get up in time?
Half a furlong remained in the race. Squeeze the Charmin and Job strained toward the finish. Nothing but a head bob separated these two horses. Betsy’s Baby flashed past Itty Bitty Too Too and zeroed in on the new leaders. Fifty yards remained. She still needed to make up two lengths. Thirty yards remained. One length now separated the three frontrunners.
Eli, Harry, Kleinberg, and Jordan roared and stomped with excitement and delight. Eli heard himself yelling. “Go Betsy! Go Betsy! Squeeze that Charmin, Girl! Squeeze that Charmin!” Ten yards to the finish. Betsy’s Baby pulled nearly even with the other horses. “Yeee-Hahh!” Harry slammed his hand on to his hip. “Roll on Now, Gal, Roll On Now!” He could have been riding the horse himself.
At the wire, Betsy’s Baby surged past the other horses. Photos confirmed her victory, and when the tote board flashed the official results, Eli’s table erupted once again. Knocking Itty Bitty Too Too out of the race had indeed produced titanic show prices. Betsy’s Baby paid more than 22 dollars to win. But she offered an extraordinary 56 dollars to show. Harry waved his tickets, worth at least three thousand dollars, in the air. He shouted out his triumph. “Yes! Yes! Yes! The King is dead, but Long Live the King!”
Eli stood to cash for just under a thousand dollars on this race himself. He threw his arms around Harry, his face wreathed by a smile he could not efface.
As for Seb, well, he ambled over soon enough, a tight smile planted determinedly upon his face. He held out his hand to Harry. “Congrats to you, old boy. No question, you were the better man, today. No tears from this end. That was tremendous handicapping. Wizardry, let’s call it. I’d doff my hat to you if I were wearing one.”
The final race of the day was anticlimactic. Eli bet a hundred-dollar bill on a 20-to-one longshot. The horse jogged home in last place. But Eli didn’t care. And then they were hustling toward the exits, grabbing Sunday’s Racing Form on the way out, wind in the parking lot light and cool upon their faces, joy palpable in their hearts. Jordan, who lived in a group home near Kleinberg’s apartment, waved happily to his brother. Eli and Harry, heading south toward the city, piled into the Triumph. Even as they drove out through the stone gates, Eli had begun to scan Sunday’s Form. Two horses in the first grabbed his eye. Chamois and Salty Pepper. A tasty exacta payoff, for sure.
They turned left and drove south toward downtown. Forest Park heeled up in the darkness to the west. To the east, hard by the racetrack, under arc lights by the river, the line of shadowed horseplayers, marching slowly on to the railroad bridge.