I’ve been to a lot of racetracks. I’ve spent my entire life around racetracks in one city or another. Wherever I have lived, I’ve made the nearest racetrack a place of respite, no matter how large or small. I’ve even been to Gulfstream Park down in Florida once or twice. But when I went down to Gulfstream for this year’s installment of the Pegasus World Cup, it felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. There was something off about it. Something just didn’t feel right.
When I got off the airplane in Fort Lauderdale, I immediately sensed something was off. The giant LED sign that greets visitors as they descend the escalators to baggage claim shone bright in our faces: “Run With Us” and “The Richest Race in the World.”
Clearly, the Pegasus World Cup was a big deal. I wondered how many of my fellow passengers had also flown in for this race. They certainly weren’t in town for the weather. It was going to come a storm.
The racetrack on Pegasus Saturday didn’t feel too full, but what racetrack does at first post time on a Saturday? OK, but other than Saratoga what racetrack? The rain was most likely keeping people away. And among those who arrived early, there were some seriously grumpy patrons, loudly complaining about “a hundred bucks down the tubes” as they stared at the rain-soaked apron. As the first three races scheduled for the turf came off the grass because of the rain, people wondered how long it would be before the Pegasus World Cup Turf would be taken off as well, or canceled and rescheduled.
But as the rain subsided, so did the bad feelings, and the crowd began to grow. Soon, it felt downright jubilant as the apron was so thick with gamblers I could barely see the track near the finish line from the back of the pack without standing on my tiptoes. The ring around the paddock filled up with spectators. A stream of tinted-window Suburbans dropped off well-dressed passengers out front. The valet received Maserati after Ferrari. The fancy dresses and tailored suits came strolling down the red (well, blue) carpet for photographs. And the lines for food and at betting windows and terminals got annoyingly long. It was starting to feel like a feature race-Saturday.
The other thing that made it feel like a big Saturday at the track to me was the fact that I was stuck about three-hundred bucks about halfway through the card. I had yet to cash a ticket. I had been trying to beat the chalk in every race and I was failing miserably. I told myself to hang in there, that I’d only need to hit one big one to get even. But as my hole grew deeper, I’d need to bet even more to get even on my one longshot, which in turn dug the hole deeper still. It was getting desperate.
Before the eighth race, I took a long walk to settle my nerves and try to focus on making good bets. I wandered through the crowd outside to the path that leads from the paddock out onto the main track. There a phalanx of security were keeping the baying horde on the apron from crossing over to the strange, makeshift village constructed on the other side of the track along the stretch. I flashed my press pass and was allowed across into this other world. It was like walking out of waking life into a lucid dream.
This was the LIV Stretch Village, a multi-level nightclub-style party constructed along the stretch just for the Pegasus. There were sofas surrounded by security guards in nice suits where fancy and beautiful people got bottle service, each bottle of champagne carried by scantily clad servers to much fanfare and poured for the guests by young men in pink suspenders. There was a DJ spinning all the latest club bangers, the volume all the way up, and a dance floor filled with ladies bouncing in heels and men without socks milly rocking. There was a stage constructed for performances later that night from Snoop Dogg and Mark Ronson. The DJ, in between calling attention to bottle service and beckoning us all to get on the dance floor, would let people know how many minutes were left before post time, and when each race was about to begin. And, as each race did begin, the trance of being in this strange nightclub in the middle of the afternoon would be broken by a mass of Thoroughbreds thundering by less than a stone's throw away from the dance floor.
This club was right on the track! There was a horse race happening practically inside this club. Or was there a club happening inside the horse race? It felt too strange to me. What would Damon Runyon think if he saw this abomination? Is this what racing needs? More sideshows and infield parties and T-shirts that say: “What Horses?” But while the lines at the bar were long, the lines at the betting terminals were nonexistent, so I chose to stay at the LIV for the next few races for convenience’s sake, and promised myself I’d make up for it by reading some Bill Barich on my Kindle in the middle of the dance floor as a silent protest. For now, I needed to get to work. I had loaned Gulfstream too much of my money and needed to collect on this race.
That morning when I first looked at the eighth race, I had picked the #9 horse, Santa Monica. Santa Monica, of course, was going off as the favorite, and I would not get even on that horse. I looked for a longer-priced horse to beat her. The Argentine horse Si Que Es Buena stood out. She had raced twice in America and in both races posted Beyer Speed Figures good enough to beat any of these horses, including Santa Monica. Her last race was on this very same Gulfstream turf course — which was now yielding and the races were back on — and she won. She had won six out of 14 starts and, while she didn’t have all the graded stakes experience of Santa Monica, she seemed as primed as any horse could be to win their first graded stakes. Her two American starts showed improvement, one over the other. She was trending upward while Santa Monica was dropping down in stakes. I know the general rule is that dropping in stakes is an advantage, that a horse like Santa Monica should handle these horses easier than her most recent opposition in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, but there’s something also to be said for horses who are on that climb up. There is something to be said about the momentum of building up a head of steam. Then, I saw that Si Que Es Buena was 8-1 on the toteboard. Que es buena, indeed. Que es muy buena. I backed up the truck.
I situated myself to watch the race along the edge of the dance floor, the booty shakers occasionally bumping me farther and farther outside of the awning and into the rain. The race was a long one, 1 1/2 miles, so two trips around the oval. I tried not to feel anything until the final stretch. I tried not to worry about my horse’s position, or that of Santa Monica, since these long turf races tend to shape up at the very end, with the field changing position, sometimes dramatically. The DJ announced to the dancers and revelers that the horses were rounding into the final stretch.
I don’t know if anyone noticed. I don’t know if anyone thought I was weird, pounding my racing form into my hand, punching at the air and shouting, “Dig deep! Dig deep!” I don’t know if I bumped into any sockless champagne drinkers as I ran along with the horses down the stretch, along with Si Que Es Buena as she ate up the field and gained on Santa Monica and Semper Sententiae, getting a head in front, then half a length, then a full length. I don’t know who was watching, if anyone, as I jumped up and down and threw my hands up in the sky at my good fortune. Good God! What will this pay? How many times did I have the exacta? Who got third? Oh my God, did I have the trifecta, too? For one dollar or two? I thumbed through a stack of tickets, letting the (blessedly) few losers trickle to the dance floor below me as I reviewed my winners. All I know is the DJ somehow seamlessly transitioned from Truffle Butter to the Talking Heads, and I was no longer being bumped from the edges of the dance floor but swallowed up inside of it, gyrating and bouncing and scooting my feet.
“And you may find yourself … in another part of the world ...”
And before I knew it, I wasn’t at the racetrack anymore. I was in some kind of weird Miami nightclub with rich, young, beautiful people.
“This is not my beautiful wife!”
And I found that I was no longer uncomfortable. Nor was I any longer silently judging these people. Somehow I was one of them. And somehow, inexplicably, I was having fun.
“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
And I realized that if Damon Runyon had been alive, he would not have thought twice about this scene. In fact, he may have been right in the middle of it. What separated a glitzy Miami nightclub from the midtown theater district of the 1920s? Weren’t they each in their own time a scene? Or rather the scene? Wasn’t that where all the action was, wherever the young and beautiful people with money to burn spent their time? Wouldn’t he have preferred to watch the races in this way, with these people?
“My God! What have I done?”
This is the trouble with nostalgia for the past. It feels superior to the present in its difference to the present, but in its own time it had none of that contrast. It was merely what was. Would a crumudgeon like me have lived through the 1920s wishing things were more like the good old 1860s? Would I have stood around at Aqueduct wondering whether any of those rubes liked Stephen Foster ditties or what Walt Whitman would have made of the scene at the track? Honestly, probably yes. And I would have been as insufferable then as I am today.
Or at least, as I was that day before the eighth race. Because I was now UP. I was out of the hole and then some. It was a new day for me. A fresh four downs. And in addition to money in my pocket, I had a newfound appreciation for my surroundings, strange and curious as they might have been. In that moment, I felt that there was no hole in my bankroll I could not pull myself out of, given the right horse in the right situation. And there was no scene I couldn’t acclimate myself to, so long as I had the winner in the last race.
“Same as it ever was.
Same as it ever was.”