When I was younger, my grandfather and I would don dark fedoras, throw suspenders over our white t-shirts and head down to the racetrack. We’d push through greasy men, who smoked thin cigarettes held between stained fingers and who reeked of gin. Eventually, we reached the dirt track. In his youth, “Poppy” played the ponies and sixty years of attempting to project winners had left him with a very blue-collar bank account.
Prior to race time, we’d wander over to the paddock to watch the grooms ready the horses and then stare wide-eyed as colorful, miniature men hopped atop the mounts to walk them past racing fans, who would calculate which steed looked like a champion. I remember pawing at the air, trying to touch their manes as they passed.
In the early races, my grandfather would often stake his claim upon the rookies, noting the snot congealing about their nostrils, the hot breath, the sweat lathering between their legs. “That’s a sign of their nervousness,” he’d say, “it means they are hungry for victory.” Once in a while, our horse would thunder down the home stretch with his nose in front and we’d cheer with the crowd and then make our way to the betting window and I’d peer up as the bookmaker’s assistants handed over a wad of dollar bills. More often, we’d toss our torn tickets into the air like lost dreams and then lament as they rained down to wash away our tears.
Grandfather always hated race number eight, complaining there was only one race remaining in the day and that he wasn’t ready to leave his hours of enjoyment. I remember how excited he’d get during the final race though. He’d flip his worn fingers through the racing program, call out the thoroughbred’s birthdays and then dole out a handful of wrinkled Andrew Jacksons, declaring, “A hundred on the old boy, to win!” It was his habit to bet the oldest horse in the last race. I imagine it was a tribute to his own life, staving off age for one last shot at glory, a chance to reach the finish line ahead of all the others just one more time before they put the old fella out to pasture to live a life of “remember whens.” Old men probably do that more than they realize.
We’re getting near the final race in Melbourne, Australia. There are only eight horses left and I’ve been sitting in front of the television, nursing a one a.m. bowl of ice cream while a photo of my now-deceased grandfather stares out at me from the fireplace mantle. On screen, there’s this lithe horse, a bit long in the tooth now, sporting a thinner mane and wearing colors only a blind jock would ever consider. A commentator just announced his birthdate – a year when Cold Wars turned hot, and twitter was something curious hummingbirds did – and then my grandfathers’s photo fell. I laughed. “Yes, Poppy, I remember…
“Hello, 10sballs.com, gimme a C-note on Roger. I’m bettin’ the old boy to win!”