A Friday morning in mid-July: opening day at the Saratoga Race Course. We’re in the final throes of a heat wave that’s been smothering the entire Eastern Seaboard for days on end, and this morning the thermometer reads 97 — with the humidity, it tops 100 in the shade. I’ve worked days like this before, and it’s daunting, thinking of the eleven sticky races that will stretch on into early evening. I head across town, following the long dip of East Avenue down and then up again, and as I pass the Oklahoma training track, the festooned iron gates of the main race course blossoming out before me, I worry absently about the temperature and the safety of the horses.
If the crowd inching towards the admissions gates looks diminished, perhaps it’s because they’re drooping beneath the punishing sun. A good number of them will give up by the sixth race or so, throwing out a rash of perfunctory bets for the rest of the card. “I’m melting out here,” half a dozen men tell me, soaking through their tank tops, beads of sweat colonizing their upper lips. “You guys got air-conditioning in there?” I manage to bark out a laugh every time. “Don’t worry, honey, you still look good,” one woman assures me — without provocation — and I am surprisingly relieved. We’re all melting, outside and inside the Paddock, the converted barn in which two long rows of pari-mutuel clerks sit taking bets and counting cash. Sweat collects in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision as I punch out $2 exacta boxes.
The heat eventually breaks after dark, when a series of violent thunderstorms sweep in and knock the weather into submission. Half the town loses power. Finally, maybe a little inexplicably, it really feels like summer to me; I throw open the windows and listen to the thunder retreating, the gentlest rumble now beneath the steady pulse of the rain.
I’d returned to Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, four days prior. My hometown had seemed largely unchanged as I drove in (as if I were coming home from the war or something — in fact I was here at Christmas), though the sidewalks are now littered with enormous disembodied feet encased in ballet slippers, each one individually painted and nearly as tall as man. It’s some sort of project to showcase local artists, but the freestanding feet are perhaps creepier than anyone probably intended, like the collected crime scenes of a giant serial killer.
I’m happier with the track’s anniversary logo, a red oval with a golden horse blazing through it, which has been plastered all over town — affixed to front doors and printed on flags and at the track itself, on banners and t-shirts and tote bags. The Saratoga Race Course opened in August of 1863, though it hasn’t quite been 150 consecutive seasons since — it was shuttered a few times, like when gambling was outlawed in New York state in 1911, and during the Second World War. Still, it’s billed as the oldest continually running thoroughbred track in the country. The track is a constant in this town, the six-week season an anchor around which the year rises and falls.
Saratoga is humming in anticipation, the population visibly swelling as crowds collect and loiter along Broadway. It’s hard for me to avoid sentimentality when it comes to the racing season, but I can almost feel a sort of romantic momentum picking up as the town sails towards August — the ornate Victorian mansions, thrown open for six weeks of garden parties, or the bars, heaving with tourists flush with winnings from the big race, waving cigars and spilling beer in the streets. We all cast our glances backwards a bit when the races begin, and before long the real world ebbs away, at least for a few weeks. I’ve always found it a little funny, though, that for all the nostalgia and the celebration of tradition, at the track you have to take it one race at a time. Thirty seconds, a minute at most — if you’re lucky, a tight, dramatic finish, and if you’re luckier still, a winning ticket — and then it’s on to the next race, just twenty-eight more minutes to post.
I join the crowd trudging through the stultifying heat on opening day and it all seems to be the same as it ever was: the admissions gates give way to a long, broad footpath and a sea of red-and-white-striped awnings, and there’s the Dixieland band, wailing away, and there are the hat sellers, the boys hawking the Daily Racing Form, the stands charging obscene prices for lemonade — it feels like nothing so much as the distillation of summer, everything lazy and affable beneath the unrelenting sunshine. The park stretches out on both sides, swaths of patchy green covered with picnic tables and banks of televisions displaying the morning odds, and the back of the grandstand looms ahead, white lattice and flowers and ushers standing guard at the entrances.
A ribbon of gravel flanked by a pair of white fences cuts a sharp channel through the park: the route along which horses are led from the stables to the paddock. Security guards pull chain-link barriers across a gap in the fences as the horses pass, and they are an astonishing sight up close, sleek and muscular and so much larger than I ever expect they’ll be, tongues lolling out, nosing slightly to one side or the other as they are led with what appear to be the lightest of touches at their reins. Today they pant a bit in the heat. I won’t see another live horse for the rest of the day.
Eventually I reach the grandstand, and as I walk inside I am greeted by a blinding expanse of white: maybe a few hundred people milling around, greeting each other after eleven months away like it’s the first day of school, clad in white-collared shirts and toting lunch boxes and already a bit weary, as if the first race has gone off and some angry drunk is shouting that their mistakes have cost him a huge trifecta. These are my people: these are the pari-mutuel clerks.
We take bets. It’s the simplest explanation for a job that’s more nuanced than I’d ever have guessed, before any of this, before the track was something more than a disruptive abstraction on the east side of town. I learned the basic logic of horse gambling ten years ago, hovering over a keyboard as seasoned tellers called out sample bets, struggling to understand the terminology and the different combinations, exactas and doubles, keys and partial wheels, ten-ten on the eight horse, Seabiscuit in the fifth. I’ve learned a lot in the intervening decade, like how to harness the patience to explain the fundamentals to a novice, or how to decipher the ramblings of a drunk. I work hard to be effortlessly adept when professional gamblers come to the windows, printed stacks of racing stats clipped together, the carefully-calculated permutations of a morning spent handicapping printed at the top in neat pencil. Each series of bets, each exchange is a single moment encapsulated: beneath the numbers, horses and dollar amounts, it’s flirtation or anger or joking banter or the drudgery of playing a game only the very lucky can seem to crack.
I am assigned a window in the Paddock, a self-contained bay of sixty betting machines populated by cheerful crowds on both sides of the windows. The customers are a mixed group, but on the weekends, it’s a lot of picnickers, juggling their programs and Miller Lite tallboys, cigarettes dangling from their lips. I draw the first bills of the day, close to $1,000, and as I count my money and the reunions continue around me, I feel unexpectedly out-of-place. It’s been three years since I worked a regular season at Saratoga, and I have lost both my seniority and my points of reference. I’m not eager to talk about how it’s been just a few days since I left behind my entire life in New York City. In the slow minutes before the first race, I am eager for the steady flow of customers, for the grounding effects of a long, impatient line of gamblers.
Eventually a nondescript man saunters up and leans in against my window. “I’ll take a dollar tri box: 1, 6, 8,” he says distractedly, laying a pair of bills across the top of my machine. I punch the ticket and as he plucks it out I wish him luck. It’s extraordinary how quickly everything slots back into place; taking bets is mostly habit by now. By the time the horses are called to the post, I’ve travelled back across the past decade, suddenly deep in a long stretch of late summer spent sitting behind the betting windows, fingers working in a sort of rapid, monotonous variation, rote transactions punctuated by the most genuine human interaction, when then entire world narrows to a fine point, just me and my customer, exchanging cash and one-liners and the smallest slivers of each others’ lives. Another man comes to my window, and then another, and then another.
Once the heat breaks, the threat of rain hangs over the rest of opening weekend. It’s around the seventh or eighth race on Saturday and the strip of sky I can see is growing murky. A customer is lingering at my window, checking over his tickets, and I ask him if he thinks it’s about to rain. He leans in, eyebrows raised. “Why?” he asks. “You got a tip for the mud?”
It does rain soon, a few quick, furious downpours, sending the crowds sprinting for cover. A woman wanders past my window in polka-dotted cowboy-boot galoshes. They’re just flash storms; the track isn’t sloppy yet. A supervisor once described a steadily rainy afternoon as a “telephone-number day,” when track conditions made things so unpredictable that the only way to pick a winning combination of horses was to toss out random numbers, an address or a birthday. “Little old ladies will be cashing ’em in like crazy,” he said. I know the type — women who come up and tell me, slightly abashed, that they’re here to “play my numbers.” We’re not quite there yet: the professionals are still hard at it, betting slightly too much in the heady rush of opening weekend. “Will you be my lucky girl?” a few guys ask, and I assure them that I am an especially lucky teller, but this weekend, the lie feels more barefaced than usual. I sell a lot of tickets, but I cash next to nothing. I collect tips in dimes and quarters rather than bills, relegated to weary offers to keep the change. Men are down hundreds, thousands already, and it’s only day two.
A large, ruddy-faced man with a Boston accent cashes a big ticket — a few dollars bet, more than a few hundred won back — and as he’s about to pocket the stack of money, he pauses. I do my best to avoid looking too eager. Then he holds up a hand and indicates I should cup my palm, and when I do, he drops forty cents into it. “There you go,” he says. “For your scholarship fund.”
I like the little dramas of the racetrack, the smallest fortunes, rising and falling from one race to the next. I like the completely bizarre cross-section of people, the brusque and the flippant, or the guys that lean in and tell me their life stories. They wear shirts unbuttoned too far and masses of gold chains resting on curling chest hair, or white linen suits with matching pocket squares and straw boaters, or the blandest suburban dad uniforms, khaki cargo shorts and neatly-tucked-in polos. When the rain begins, the lines dry up, and in the slow stretches, I watch people walk by — groups of women in dagger-like platform heels, hunched in on themselves for balance; groups of women strutting past in flip flops beneath super-short dresses; a woman wearing a tiny top-hat fascinator, feather jutting from the band, maybe something swiped from an enormous bird of prey. A man hollers across the pavement, “I gotta use the can!” He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt open over a red t-shirt that reads THING 1. There is no sign of THING 2.
The Monday after opening weekend, the weather has settled into something spectacular, mid-seventies and sunny, fluffy white clouds and a light breeze; the track is fast and the turf is firm. Early this morning, an essay I wrote about leaving New York was published, and it is hard to think about all of that as I key out dollar pick-3 part-wheels, but I do think about Joan Didion a little bit — my essay is partly a meditation on her famous leaving-New York essay, “Goodbye to All That.” There is a line in there that gave me pause, something about New York, like the rest of it, but a phrase that followed me up through the Hudson Valley to Saratoga Springs: “…the trees just coming into full leaf, the lament air, all the sweet promises of money and summer.” Didion is on 57th Street; I am at the betting windows, but the phrase turns perfectly here.
It’s only money, some of my customers say. But it’s only money, for a lot of them. Across the park, through the grandstand, past the bleachers and out on the dirt, the horses are being led to the starting gate. I walk up and down the long row of tellers, catching dozens of single moments encapsulated, people handing over cash, people calling out combinations, people laughing, shaking hands, fist-bumps for luck. It smells like sunscreen, and the cloying heaviness of cigar smoke. I return to my window and flip open my money box, and a customer appears out of nowhere, bets scrawled across the top of his program. “Are you ready for me, sweetheart?” he asks. I look down at the screen, the simple architecture of a bet laid out and waiting — dollar amount, type, horse, and the tiniest stroke of luck — and then back up at him and nod. “Go ahead.” He squares his shoulders and begins to rattle off numbers; I begin to take his bet.
Next: On Luck
Images courtesy the author