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In honor of the upcoming Independence Day holiday, and as part of America’s newfound freedom from COVID-19, I went to Louisville, Kentucky, and met up with a longtime friend who lives on the East Coast. We spent a day at the racetrack at Churchill Downs on one of the last days of the season.
If there is a sport with more specific forms of jargon than horse racing, I do not know what that sport is. Horses are measured in hands, tracks are measured in furloughs, and jockeys are measured in times in or out of the money. Guests are in turn judged by whether they know what it means to dress in “track casual,” and by whether they can distinguish between a Woodford Spire and an Oaks Lily.
Upon arrival, spectators are welcomed to the stadium by a statue of Barbaro, a beloved Kentucky Derby winner. Unlike elite Triple Crown champions, however, Barbaro holds the distinction of being shot after he failed to win the Preakness Stakes. His demise solidified his legendary status to the point of inspiring an entire society, “The Friends of Barbaro.”
Next, guests are presented with programs containing the daily facts and figures about the lengths of the various races, the jockeys, the horses, and the horses’ colors. Charts are detailed and include how much money the horse has won cumulatively over its career, when it last raced, how it races in dry conditions versus wet conditions, and its projected odds of winning.
Given we were at the racetrack, we reasoned it was only logical that we start betting. Unfortunately, it is a moral failing of mine that I never carry cash. My friend, however, thoughtfully brought $23 to the track, and we amiably agreed to spend $10 of her money.
We walked up confidently to the ticket machine and inserted the bill. After that, there was nothing for us to do but stare at the complex mix of buttons and blinking lights displayed on the screen. There were options for a horse to “Win,” “Place,” or “Show.” We could bet the “Daily Double,” “Exacta,” “Trifecta,” or “Superfecta.” And that does not even include the “Pick 3,” or “Pick 4.”
We argued a bit, debating what each bet would mean.
“Daily Double means we can bet on two things at once,” I pronounced, based on no evidence.
“Pick 3 is that you can pick three horses in the same race,” she countered, sounding equally confident.
In between assertions, we stared open mouthed at the screen. We spent so much time gawking that our session expired, and we received a ticket printout, but no $10.
“Wait,” she asked. “But what did we bet on?”
Nothing. We bet on nothing.
We pulled the ticket out and gaped at that for a while. It most closely resembled the test print sheet when setting up a new printer.
We looked around, wondering what to do with a $10 slip of paper tied to no discernable value.
Behind us, there was a long line of desks where people could place bets, but there were signs reading, “$50 minimum.”
We walked up to the nearest desk, where an old, stooped man looked at us curiously.
“Hi,” my friend spoke loudly, and to the point. “We have this ticket here –”
“Oh, did you win?” he twanged.
“Well, no,” she laughed. “Our session expired.”
He took the ticket and examined it.
“It’s for $10,” she explained. “Can we exchange it for a bet on something else?”
“Sure, sure,” he agreed.
“But it says it’s $50 minimum. Can you help us?”
“Ma’am, I can do anything I want.”
“How would you bet?” she asked. Then, doubting her straightforwardness, “Or, are you not allowed to tell us?”
He looked at her wryly.
Yeah, yeah, we know, you can do anything you want.
We opened the program, and together, the three of us poured over the nine or so races to take place. As we only had $10, we decided to bet on the next race only. Among others, we could choose from contestants known as Good Penny, Cuzzywuzzy, and Parking Ticket.
“So, it’s $5 per bet, and you can bet on horses to win, come in second, or third, or you can bet on a horse to come in either first, or second, or third.”
I wasn’t sure what the difference was, and apparently, neither was my friend.
We looked back at the booklet.
“Who do you want to bet on?” I asked. It was her $10, so it seemed only fair she should choose the horse.
“Oh, I don’t care, whoever looks good to you.”
I peered over the complicated rankings in tiny print with my nose pressed close to the page. Good Penny won the most money, was not the crowd favorite, and had the luckiest name. All of these seemed like good omens.
“Can we put $5 on Good Penny to finish first?”
The ticket agent’s expression told me what I needed to know. I could do anything I wanted.
“You mean Number 11? You want to put $5 on Number 11?”
“Uh, yeah that’s right.”
He entered the information into his computer.
“Alright, how about second?”
She and I frowned.
Appearing to be talking to the deeply dense, he spoke slower.
“You can also bet on him to come in second. Do you want to do that?”
Yeah, that sounded good.
“Alright,” he nodded, “what’s the next bet?”
Cuzzywuzzy had the same ranking as Good Penny.
“$5 on Cuzzywuzzy to win?”
He looked at me pityingly.
“You mean $5 on Number 5?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s what I mean.”
He pulled our new tickets out of his machine.
They were indistinguishable from the first ticket test printer page.
“That will be $5.”
My friend, who had been somewhat disinterested in the horse picking process, snapped back to attention.
“We had $10 in credit.”
He was really looking at us like we were hopeless now.
“I know, that will be $5.”
She and I squinched our faces.
“I don’t understand,” she challenged. “If we paid you $10 for two $5 bets, then how do we owe you $5?”
“When you bet on the same horse twice, that’s $10,” he rattled back impatiently.
Feeling like those instructions had been less than clear at the beginning, we forked over another of her $5.
Racing math ultimately proved to be its own entire field. In addition to the vagaries of paying $15 for a $10 bet, we eventually discovered that one can win $7 for a $30 bet. By the end of the afternoon, I was holding my head and muttering that I was never going to retire at this rate; gambling, by gosh, is just not a good investment.
Still holding my head, I bought us each a round of mint juleps, and we went back to our seats to watch the respective fortunes of Bodacious Baby, Buy Me Candy, and Slim Slow Slider.
Passing through the rows of fastidiously arranged green folding chairs –
“What is that?” a scandalized voiced bellowed from our left.
Another man, similar in advanced age to the ticket teller, pointed accusatorially at our drinks.
While I am prone to ignore comments made about my food and beverage selections, my friend has never met a stranger.
“Mint juleps!” she replied enthusiastically.
He shook his head.
“You two aren’t from around here, are you?”
Well, this was obvious because my friend and I also didn’t know what it meant to be dressed in “track casual.”
“I could tell because you’re drinking those,” he continued, nodding to our drinks. The mint was so voluminous, it looked like we were carrying around tiny gardens in commemorative Kentucky Derby glasses.
“You don’t like them?” My friend sounded genuinely surprised.
“Yeah, no locals like them,” he scoffed.
“Well, what do the locals drink?” I asked.
He held up a can of Budweiser.
Honestly, though, the joke was on them. My friend won $74 on Good Penny, and I got three servings of my daily vegetable intake.
Sarah Brown is straight edge. Feel free to invite her to things that are risky, hedonistic, or otherwise a good time, but honestly, she’ll just kill your buzz. Instead, find her on Twitter @BrownsClose1. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.