I was standing in the Off-Track Betting sight on Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan right on the edge of Chinatown minutes from the biggest horse race of the weekend. That's right: the eighth race at the Belmont. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do but did hear one voice trying to help me. Maybe he wasn't yelling at me. Maybe he was just talking to himself. There seemed to have been a proclivity for voicing inner dialogue in that room anyway. Or maybe he was shouting at the couple looking up at the Kentucky Derby sheet on the wall.
"People here have given up on life already. But you, you are still trying for something," he said.
He was wearing rec-spec goggles, the kind James Worthy wore back in the 1980s, strapped tightly around his greasy, shoulder length curled hair. I guess he thought his best shot at the girl was to yell gambling tips at her. It was definitely a long shot. But, hey, this was an OTB facility up the street from City Hall and next door to the New York City Rescue Mission where bearded men without beds wore old sweatshirts and smoked cigarettes outside on the curb with their eyes glazed over like blind men. It's place was made for long shots and on June 15th the first legal off-site betting operation ever in the United States will close its doors forever.
"You're amateurs," rec-specs yelled, "You don't look like trained gamblers. Come ova' here and I'll tell you whose gonna win this race."
The couple quickly booked it out and left me standing next to the only white guy to sport a jeri-curl since Weird Al Yankovic. I had already dropped fifty bucks and part of me was considering asking him what he knew and the other part was asking myself, "Christ, what the hell does a trained gambler look like anyway?" If I found one in the next few minutes, I thought, it might be possible to glean some information.
If the population of the room was any indicator than the lion's share had to be Chinese. They wore faded, frayed shirts as if the dullness of the room dictated beige and white colors be worn at all times and you could tell that the city mandate on not smoking in government buildings really hit the Lafayette street Off Track Betting site hard. The place was basically an ashtray shoved between a bank and Chinese convenience store that had the same depressing gloom of a DMV that many government run operations do. The entire place was gray. The tiled floor was faded gray. The walls were gray. The upstairs betting room and the downstairs betting room were gray. Even the people were gray, most of them hardly ever blinking, never smiling, with gaunt faces constantly in a squint like Van Gogh's "Scream".
"Watch the five on the outside. He's got the kick," an old Italian man said. I was standing in front of the monitors watching the Churchill Downs and Belmont racetracks with my race booklet in my hand and it was like being in a giant birdcage and trying to understand the chirping. So, when I heard an English voice not wearing goggles or condemning the ethnicity of a horse named Oedipus O'Neal for being "half Greek and half Irish", I naturally gravitated toward it.
"You know Tommy Crates, the bootlegger, told me long time ago that the Hudson's gonna be warmer than Florida one day," the old Italian said. He was sitting beside two fellow Italians, all of them comfortably in their eighties wearing khakis with sleepy eyes and slicked back white hair. They held race tickets in their hands and I strained to see who they had bet on so I steal from these ole men. But, their tickets were empty. In fact, they seemed to talk about everything but racing.
"The Chinese and Spanish gonna take over 'dis country," the Italian with thick rimmed glasses said as his friend, the one with his pants pulled up over his belly button, replied, "It's 'cause the Italians ain't makin no more babies." Then, they talked about a five year old kid in Jersey City who can hit an 80mph fastball and after that seamlessly went into a discussion about how "the linguini with the mixed fish" was excellent at one joint which apparently led one of them to say, "Remember if you hit the L-Train at the park it was a home run? You know I did that once."
None of this was helpful to me. I was on the verge of quitting, ripping up my race ticket and adding it to the hundred of other paper dreams torn to pieces on the floor. Then, a man in a suit walked up to the three Italians. He had a Marine pin on his lapel and had the look and swagger of an ex-cop. He talked with the three men congenially and passed on to the betting window. I waited to hear what the Italians thought of him before picking him as 'my guy'.
"I know him twenty-five years," one of them said, "He's an assistant D.A. or sumthin'. I used to go to the courts to watch the murder cases and I met him there in the bathroom takin' a piss." A former Marine who solves murders: this undoubtedly was my guy. He was the trained gambler I needed. But, when I followed him up to the window he was talking about dollar doubles, trifecta boxes, and playing it across the board. I might as well have gone back and tried my hand at Chinese but I was already in line and we were only three minutes short of the race.
I quickly scanned for some trained gamblers making simpler bets that I could understand and spied a few young men in suites swarming the window. They were placing bets on the Derby and fiddling around with their blackberries and rec-specs told them, "I already figured whose gonna win the Derby. I'll tell ya after the race."
I'd seen young men like them all over the city but here they looked odd. No one had a cell phone much less a blackberry at the OTB. I figured the gamblers either didn't want anyone to know where they were or in matter of importance to them, gambling money came before phone bill money. These young men had their phones out and nice suites on though. They really looked like yuppies. Maybe a trained gambler is the guy who looks like he's loosing money instead of making it. Maybe I was that trained gambler. I certainly looked it and I was certainly losing.
The teller was arguing with a Chinese customer over a dollar bill at the window. "It government money. It good money," the man said and the teller cried, "Get 'dat outta here. Get it out." The man cursed him in Mandarin and I stepped up. The teller put his bottom teeth back into place with his tongue and asked what I wanted. I haven't stuttered that badly since the first time I asked a girl to the prom. The tellers were always staring at you. Even if you tried to look away and turn back quickly to catch them not glaring with intimidation at you, nine times out of ten they'd still somehow be locked onto your pupils.
I looked in my race booklet at the horse names calling out to me: Past the Point, More Than A Reason, Honest Man. I didn't know the lingo but I knew I needed a win. It was time to be a trained gambler. I bet twenty on Honest Man, took my ticket, and stood in the swarm of other trained gamblers yelling at a screen where small men rode very stupid animals.
The room went quiet. The horses came out of the gate. This was the race of races. They turned the corner and the shouting began. Chinese, Spanish, English dialects crying out "Come on 6!", "Come on 4!" and then suddenly came the boyish cry "Come on 5! Come on you dumb bastard! Kick!" And it was me.
Closer to the line they came. The rattle grew louder. The horses kicked and everyone spurred. The gamblers, a few lawyers and one kid ten years younger than everyone else stretched their faces up to the finish line waiting for the result of the biggest race of the weekend for us, the eighth at Belmont. The end was near. There would be no more gambling in that small room after mid-June. They would shut the doors and the old Italians, the lawyers from the courthouse down the street, the man in goggles and the yuppies at the window would have to find a new way to make horse racing run. But, not yet, and all we cared about then was the finish of the eighth. 'Honest Man' was gaining ground and with ten more yards he could win. The horses made one final burst and the noise crested for a moment and then ebbed.
My eyes squinting, my nerves frayed and a need for a cigarette on my lips I looked up at the standings with what now seems an embarrassing amount of lust for victory. My horse needed a few more yards to win. But, an 'Honest Man' came in fourth, just out of the money. It probably didn't matter the yards weren't there at the end. A loss is a loss and often times for the men at the OTB the yards are never there. But, until the doors close on June 15th, there will be another window and another bet for these trained gamblers to get the fix and feel the rush because every race here is the most exciting two minutes in sports.
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