Taking the Money Out of One Pocket and Putting It in the Other

by Jeff Nazzaro

On a clubhouse table I set a hot dog with a thin line of mustard down the middle beside a cold cup of MGD just starting to sweat, dropped the folded Daily Racing Form from under my arm onto the table, and sat down to eat. I left the Form folded and the golf pencil tucked behind my ear.

At the booth across the aisle a man with dark, thinning hair in a striped sport shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows glanced over. He had a beer, a Form, a park program, and two ballpoint pens, one black and one red. Across the table from him sat a little girl.

No more than four, the girl periodically dipped her fingers into a sandwich bag full of Cheez-Its and sipped from an apple juice box. Sprawled across the table were a coloring book, several sheets of blank paper, and a boxful of Crayola crayons.

Biting into the hotdog, I watched the girl munch her crackers and color, putting the finishing touches on a thin strip of green lawn underscoring a typically square, triangle-roof house beneath a solid blue sky. The house had a rectangular red door surrounded by four square windows marked with crosses for panes. Finishing the lawn in a jagged green flourish, the girl spun the paper 180 degrees, as if to imagine a world of green skies and upside-down houses teetering on blue lawns. With a black crayon she marked a line of dashes, then drew what I imagined to be a little blue bird in the green lawn-sky, as if gravity had forced open the windows and freed the bird. The girl giggled and spun the paper back. Her father looked from his Form to the program and back to the Form, then inked a thick red X over a black question mark beside the 9 in Race 3. There were already red Xs beside the 1 and the 5.

It was seven minutes to post for the third race, a mile-and-a-quarter claimer on the weeds. I was sitting it out. Though I’d gotten pretty good at handicapping the races based on this videotape I’d seen on TV and sent away for, it was a limited sort of good. I could unravel the entries in the Form well enough, but I’d learned the hard way to avoid races longer than seven furlongs, turf races, and anything on sloppy tracks. As far as strategy went, it wasn’t much, but it left plenty of action.

“How’d you do on the first two?”

It was the man with the little girl.

“Picked them both, plus the Early Double.”

The man jutted his lower lip, tilted his head to the side, and nodded. “Both heavy favorites,” he said.

“Yeah, and I bet light, too. Two bucks to win. Two-dollar double.”

“Ah,” he said, extending his hand and flipping it palm up. “You’re just taking the money out of one pocket and putting it in the other.”

“I guess.”

He glanced at the spread on my table. “You’ll be here awhile? Keep an eye on her for me while I place my bets?”

“I usually go outside to watch the races.”

He gave a little chuckle. “I’ll be back well before post.” He said something to the little girl and left.

I looked at the girl. Across from all the betting slips on the table lay her open coloring book. She was coloring in a butterfly with large circles on each wing. There were smaller circles, too. One of the large circles she colored in orange and the other large circle she colored in green. I took another bite of my hot dog. The girl’s father returned. He offered a quick thanks and sat back down at his booth, arranging his fresh betting slips, nine of them in a three-by-three grid— boxed trifectas. The third race settled, he picked up his paper and folded it back to the fourth race, flipping the program to the same. The little girl never looked up from her coloring book.

At two minutes to post I stuffed the rest of the hotdog in my mouth, grabbed my beer, and walked outside to lean on the rail and watch the race. The old man in the trench coat with the long hair and beard was down at the rail, too. Every time I went I saw him. When the horses hit the homestretch he’d start bellowing, wordless and guttural, slapping his folded-up Form against his thigh. The little guy in the porkpie hat and vest was there, too. He always cheered loudly, right out of the gate, in a thick accent. Race 4 was back on the dirt, but it was a mile and a half, so I decided to watch the third, then spend the rest of the time until the fifth—six-and-a-half furlongs on the dirt—studying the Form.

I didn’t need that much time. In less than two minutes I’d zeroed in on a horse called Whitey’s Delight, the number one favorite entering the race and also a consensus pick by the park handicappers. Two of them had him as their number one overall selection for the day, and the third had him as his second pick. The track’s leading jockey, Rudy Fenstermacher, had the mount, and the horse was trained by the park’s leading trainer, Bull Gerber. It was a fast track. Starting in the fifth position in a seven-horse race, Whitey’s Delight, with early speed and a taste for the winner’s circle, was a lock.

After quickly making the choice in my head, I scanned the entry for glaring weaknesses or major adjustments, recent poor results or bad workouts. There were none. He wasn’t moving up in class and didn’t have any equipment changes listed. They hadn’t put him on Lasix or taken him off. Sure, he was carrying extra weight, but I’d never seen that to be a factor, especially in a sprint. Already at 4-5, down from even odds, Whitey’s Delight was the pick. I took the golf pencil from behind my ear and circled his name in the Form. Then I did something even I didn’t expect. Maybe it was because of what the man with the little girl had said to me, and maybe it was just my gaining experience and confidence, but instead of my usual $2.00 bet to win, I went to the window and bet $20.00 to win on the 5 in Race 5. I passed a $20.00 bill through the slot in the window and took the betting slip the clerk slid back.

“Good luck, honey,” she said.

I found a seat in the grandstand. It was a Friday afternoon in Salem, New Hampshire, September 1991. Across the rings of the track and the little artificial pond in the infield you could see the massive shopping mall that had opened up in the spring. The mall got a lot more action than the racetrack and would continue to do so long after the track stopped hosting live cards, reduced to simulcasts and Texas Hold ’Em tournaments for charity. In June I’d taken a job at one of the smaller bookstores in the mall. This was back when there were still small bookstores in every mall, back when there was still live thoroughbred racing in New England.

I had the day off. I’d parked at the mall, picked up my check, cashed it at the bank on the first floor, and walked to the track, using the season’s pass for free admission I’d gotten with my friends Hop and Noah as part of a Memorial Day promotion. Getting the passes was the first part of a plan to basically spend the summer at the track, make it our hangout, our new thing. That first day, Hop and I played the $2.00 Daily Double and both hit it, without having any idea beforehand we’d picked the same two horses. Of course, it was one of those doubles where the favorite won each race, so the payout was small. To me it felt great to win a Daily Double and all the better because Hop had picked it, too. I figured it would keep him interested, but really my picking it somehow ruined it for him. He always had to be the smart one, Hop. Just being at the track had somehow ruined Noah’s day. He was moody like that. I kept offering to buy him a beer or something to cheer him up, but he refused. He bet long shots all afternoon and lost every time. Playing it safe, Hop and I cashed our share of tickets and pocketed a few bucks, but the three of us only went to the track together once more after that.

I went by myself. I got the job at the bookstore in the mall. I got a credit card and ordered that videotape on handicapping and watched it over and over. Still cautious, I never bet big, so I never lost big. I never won big, either. I guess it was like the guy with the little girl said: taking the money out of one pocket and putting it in the other. I didn’t care. I liked the track, the atmosphere, the sport of the races. I liked deciphering the entries in the Form, trying to figure out which horse would win. Even if it was the heavy favorite, it was a thrill watching a horse you’d picked come around to win, and it sucked in the most exhilarating way when your horse got nosed out of the money. When a long shot charged down the stretch under the whip to win at the wire, the place was pandemonium. I liked watching the other bettors, the fist pumps and high fives, the ripped-up tickets tossed in the air, raining down from the grandstand, sailing out of the windows of the Turf Club high above the track like ash belched from a burning building.

While Hop and Noah were back at school for their senior years, I was on academic suspension again. An English/history double major who didn’t want to teach and didn’t want to go to school for the rest of his life, I was close to done with it. That winter I’d be twenty-two, living with my parents, working at the bookstore, going to the track.

When Race 4 went to post, I found my way down to the rail to watch. I should have handicapped it, just for the practice, but it was nice to take a break. Twenty minutes between races usually wasn’t long enough to evaluate all the information for each entry, on top of which I was easily distracted by big favorites with gaudy results and times, so it was nice to fold up the paper and just sit in the sun and sip a beer. Maybe I should have brought a book. I got a discount on them at work, but so far I’d only bought one, a paperback collection of D. H. Lawrence short stories, the one with the story about the kid who picks the winners of the horse races by riding a rocking horse until he knows, until finally it kills him. It kills him, but he knows.

For Race 5 at Rockingham this day, I didn’t need a rocking horse. I barely needed the Form. It was a surer bet than the first two had been, a surer bet than the three winners I’d picked the week before or the four I’d picked the week before that. I hadn’t won much money, but I’d paid for my day each time. A day at the races paid in full, a pocketful of dimes to the good.

Standing at the rail, it crept into my head to go back and double down on my bet. What was twenty bucks to me, anyway? About four hours of work after taxes so not nothing. Still, my biggest winner to date had been blind luck. That was the last time Hop and Noah came with me. I bet $2.00 to win on the 3 thinking I was betting Race 4 at Rockingham, when really the woman working the window punched in a race simulcast from Saratoga. The horse I picked at Rockingham shit the bed, but by then I’d realized my ticket said Saratoga and took it back to the window just to check. Sure enough, it paid $23.40 on my $2.00 win bet for a 10-1 horse whose name I never knew. That was the last straw for Hop, who wasn’t winning anything. He called me Lucky Fuck the rest of the day. Noah, who this time was drinking and not betting, cheered up because I said the beer was on me that night. I bought a case of Bud longnecks on the way home, and we drank them together in Noah’s backyard, but our plan to hang out at the track all summer sort of went out the window with my blind luck.

I didn’t mind going alone; in fact, I kind of liked it. Here I was, a few months of experience under my belt and my day already paid for thanks to Rudy Fenstermacher bringing home the 1 under the whip to win me Race 2 and the Daily Double. Thinking about the little guy in the porkpie hat raising his arms and shouting, “Rootie Kazootie!” and then laughing with joy, I thought Old Rudy definitely had one more winner in him, and I’d be the one yelling out, “Rootie Kazootie! Yeah!” Then I thought about what the guy with the little girl had said. Still occupying the same booth, he sat there puzzling over the Form, with a pile of betting slips and a fresh beer, the Cheez-Its down to crumbs and the little girl conked out on the table, her head resting on tiny arms folded across the open coloring book. I couldn’t see the picture. I gave her a little wave goodbye, like I knew her, though I don’t think she’d even glimpsed my face. Asleep on the table, she looked sweet and peaceful. It was no place for a kid, I thought, the track, but maybe it wasn’t so bad, either, being with her father, with snacks and crayons and pretty horses to watch on all those TVs.

Pulling myself out of a sort of daze, I made my way back to the betting windows. After waiting a couple of minutes for a man to finish placing his bets, I took a single long stride to the window and told the clerk through a suddenly dry throat, “Rockingham, Race 5, $50.00 across on the 5.”

It was most of what I had on me—my paycheck plus what I’d won. It was the same window where I’d bet the $20.00 to win.

The woman looked up and through the glass and said, “Fifty? Five-Oh?”  

I nodded. She punched it in.

“One-fifty,” she said.

I counted the cash and slid it under the window. She slid back the slip.

“Good luck, kid,” she said.

Whitey’s Delight went off at 3-5. At that price, I wouldn’t get rich, but I’d pick up more than a few dimes and build my confidence. You had to bet big when you found sure things at low odds. You had to take the money out of one pocket, slide it through that window, then take more money out of that window and stuff it back in the same pocket. Even if it lacked the excitement of a long shot or the glamour of a big stakes race, this was a gimme, a hopeful owner padding an up-and-comer’s resume for a future claimer. Still, I’d hedged my bet by spreading the buck-fifty across the board, so unless Whitey’s Delight fell to fourth, I’d at least get a chunk of it back. And how could he finish fourth?

With a minute to post, I scooted down the ramp out of the clubhouse and made my way to the rail. Dipping in the late afternoon sky, the sun reflected at eye level off that fake infield pond, so I used my rolled-up Form as a makeshift visor and drummed my fingers on the rail, not quite as nervous as I’d felt at the window. I’d bet enough big favorites, watched them streak around to win, collected my $3.40 on a $2.00 bet. This time the excitement would build, though. This time I’d jump up and down and shout at the top of my lungs with the man in the trench coat, the man in the porkpie hat.

Whitey’s Delight broke fast and led at the first call. I knew it was over and I knew I should have bet it all to win. At least I hadn’t gone my usual two bucks, or even my initial twenty. A hundred and seventy dollars was a lot of money for me. I only made six an hour. Even after buying a Form, a hot dog, and a beer, I was up close to twelve. This was good. I was getting smarter, bolder.

Into the first turn, at the far side of the track, through the sun, I lost track of the 5. I lost track of the call. The man in the trench coat started whacking his paper against his thigh, bellowing every three whacks; the man in the porkpie hat was yelling, “Lessgo, lessgo, lessgo!”

The pack rounded the second turn into the homestretch. I scanned for the green cloth framing the white 5, strained to hear the name, but Whitey’s Delight had disappeared. Then came the pack, bunched at the rail. And then, like a miracle, shot a horse on the outside, pushed wide and charging hard. The crowd roared. I jumped up and down. But it wasn’t the 5. It was the 7. The 7 was 40-1. Twenty lengths back came Whitey’s Delight. Rudy Fenstermacher didn’t have him under the whip, he had both hands bunched up in his mane. Standing up, leaning back, his boots pressed into the stirrups, his toes pointing almost straight up into the air, he seemed to be pulling back on those thick fistfuls of horsehair. I watched all this in a sort of tormented slow motion as the roar for the 7 grew and grew as she closed on the pack and won by a neck.

A couple of guys ripped up their tickets and scattered the pieces in the air. There were a few loud whoops from the grandstand. Everyone left the rail. I stood there, numb, until they posted the official results.

The 7, a mare named The Two Debbies, paid $81.80 to win. In the winner’s circle they took her picture with the jockey, trainer, and owner. But I didn’t watch any of that. I waited for Rudy Fenstermacher and Whitey’s Delight.

I always cheered when I won, but I’d never yelled out in anger at the track, and I’d certainly never cursed. Seething from the loss, though, when they went by I called out, “Hey, Rudy, at least make it look good!” And when he didn’t so much as glance, I yelled, “That was fucking bullshit!”

Though three sprints remained on the card, including two for the Late Double, and I still had a few bucks in my pocket, I left. I wouldn’t enter another thoroughbred racetrack for ten years, by which time I’d moved to Los Angeles, having sort of run away from a stagnated life. Giving up on school, the winter after I lost the buck-seventy at the track I switched jobs from the little bookstore to one of the big department stores at the mall, where I tried to sell men’s shoes. I wasn’t very good at it. I worked on commission, and I didn’t like rejection. If a guy wanted to buy, I helped him buy, but I had trouble pushing for sales, stretching truths, telling them what they wanted to hear to get them to lay down the plastic.

Around that time I met a girl online who lived in LA, so in the spring I moved out there with a little money I’d saved. I got a job at a supermarket, one of the smaller ones, more like a grocery store, I guess. After a year they put me in charge of the dairy and fresh juices, so I spent a lot of time in the cooler. It reminded me of winter back home.

One balmy May day I took my girlfriend up to Santa Anita, bought a program, a Form, and a couple of beers and, while she chased long shots with pretty names, I picked six winners out of the seven races I bet—seven sprints on a fast dirt track under the Southern California sun. It was a gorgeous day at a beautiful racetrack and a very good day for favorites. Through a cloudless sky, free of smog from a steady breeze, snow glistened on the San Gabriel Mountains. It felt good to scan the Form, place bets, watch the races, cash tickets. So what if it was just taking the money out of one pocket and putting it in the other.

Jeff Nazzaro lives and writes in Southern California. His short stories have appeared in over a dozen online literary venues, including the Angel City Review, Oddville Press, WORK, and Blood and Bourbon.

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