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Nothing stinks up a rail car so quickly, so effectively as an old man digging into an open can of Vienna sausages.
Green Jacket rattles his plastic fork around the insides of the small tin. He takes the occasional breather from his pungent lunch by reaching a shaky, spotty hand for a cup of red goop—Jell-O? pudding? borscht?—teetering on the inch of seat available between his legs. After a few sweet gulps of this runny concoction, he’s back to attacking those miniature franks, stabbing down hard, swift, and strong. He’s making quick work of them, too, popping the fatty little devils into his craw as if the possibility of their escaping the clutches of his fork is very real indeed.
Across the aisle from Green Jacket is his buddy, Red Jacket, munching on some crackers. Red Jacket is oblivious to the thick sausage stench clouding up the train—this stench: like raw bologna long forgotten and left to bubble in the August sun. Older than Green Jacket’s most certain 80-plus years, Red Jacket is wheezing out in jubilation, speaking a string of words that ring like code: “Didja hear? Aqueduct. Superfecta. $79,000. That’s a record.
Green Jacket lets out a muffled grunt—”Hermph!”—then returns to his lunch. He stares longingly into his can of sausages. Empty. All gone. So he raises the can to his lips and slurps down the Vienna juice, every last drop. He then swirls his tongue around the insides of his cup of red goop. That’s gone, too. Green Jacket tucks both can and cup into a brown sack by his feet. Lunch is over.
“Gentleman, how are you today?” the conductor asks, grinning at the two passengers.
“Hermph!” snorts Green Jacket, unfurling a newspaper in his lap. “The Camden Line broke down coming back yesterday. Just broke down. We had to take a cab back. $25!”
The conductor nods his head—he almost certainly knew this was coming—but his grin gets wider: “Yeah, I heard about that. I’ll get a number you can call. Maybe we can get you guys reimbursed.”
“Yeah,” Red Jacket says, wiping cracker crumbs off his belly and raising a crooked finger at the conductor. “I want that number.”
Today is Friday, and the men are on the 11:20 a.m. MARC train that runs on the Penn Line connecting D.C. to Baltimore. Green Jacket and Red Jacket are sitting at the hind end of the last car. As the train speeds up, their gruff voices get lost in the rumbling rush of steel on steel. Only snatches of conversation are available for strangers sitting behind them.
“Is this Odenton coming up?” Green Jacket asks Red Jacket.
“This next stop. Is it Odenton? O-den-ton!”
“Odenton? Oh no. Gosh no. We’re not even at Bowie yet.”
This gives them more time to study: Green Jacket, a crisp copy of the New York Daily News; Red Jacket, the Daily Racing Form, which he twists and mangles in fevered concentration. With ballpoint pens clutched tightly in knotty hands, with bald, freckled heads hovering close to the pages, with bespectacled eyes combing over so many tangles of names and times and, God willing, future payouts, Green Jacket and Red Jacket resemble heroic mathematicians, working with furrowed brows to crack mankind’s greatest numerical riddles.
The train screeches its brakes and stops at a couple more stations: Seabrook….Bowie State. One or two people get off; one or two people get on. Green Jacket and Red Jacket pay no mind to the curious ebb and flow of midday riders. Their conversation has now all but dried up; every few minutes, one will croak, “Vega, four in a row,” or the other will blurt, “Rose, scared to go wide,” but, besides that, silence. The mathematicians are locked in.
“Our next stop is Odenton. Odenton,” the conductor announces.
Green Jacket and Red Jacket stand (sometimes, standing is hard) and start making their way to the front of the rocking rail car. But it’s not just these men who rise and hobble their way down the narrow aisle, punctuating each cautious step with more spirited gambling code. Look again: There are myriad men (only men) squeezing into the crowded aisle of the train—20 men, maybe even 30 men—just as well-aged and clutching those same newspapers.
Everyone’s leaving. Everyone’s going to…Odenton?
“Laurel Park,” the conductor explains, glancing at the line of passengers funneling off the train. “The racetrack. They catch the bus in Odenton. They go every day.” He breaks the word “every” down into four, drawn-out syllables.
Laurel Park. The racetrack. Green Jacket and Red Jacket. And all their buddies.
The train snaps shut its doors and rumbles on to points north. I’m all but alone in the rail car now. Just me, the nostril-numbing specter of Vienna sausages, and a simple little question that will nag me all the way to Baltimore.
Who are those guys?
“Oh, you are too kind. Too kind. I’m gonna tell my niece about you. You’d like her. She’s shaped like a Coca-Cola bottle: 37-24-36. Whoo-ee!”
I’ve just passed a cigarette to Ted McBane, and the 57-year-old retiree wants to thank me by handing over the keys to his niece. It’s a nice gesture, but there are more pressing matters to worry about right now. Such as the fact that the potbellied African-American man with the rumpled brown coat and bloodshot eyes is getting his ass kicked off-track-betting in Aqueduct. (A 35-to-1 horse won the first official race of the day: “That’s a bad omen for us,” McBane says. “That’s not good at all. I knew something was fishy about that horse. Damn, baby, this hurts.”) And how the snow falling at a rapid clip—nasty weather that has already canceled the live thoroughbred racing this Thursday at Laurel Park—is making him worry about that MARC train home.
But McBane has family issues. He takes off his maroon reading glasses; one of the earpieces has been snapped off and lost. He removes his tan cap, grimy and tattered. “I don’t know if my nieces are too proud of me,” he says, wiping a hand past his tired eyes and then up through his thinning brown hair. “Both of them graduated from University of Maryland. But I got drafted. Vietnam. Vietnam.”
McBane is sitting in front of an overhanging bank of televisions at the north end—relatively blah and beige, like a ’70s-era bus station with small, cramped betting windows—of the massive gambling complex. There are fancier places to watch the simulcast races at Laurel Park, most notably the Wilwyn Theater, a spacious, pay-to-sit area modeled after a casino sports book, where gamblers—hunkered down in their own private consoles—monitor a wall of oversized TVs like NASA technicians preparing for launch. There’s also the emerald-green Clubhouse, at the building’s south end, where sharp-dressed tellers smile like rental-car agents behind wide counters, where the glistening, horseshoe-shaped bar looks like something from the Sands. And then there’s Longshots, Laurel Park’s energetic hub, a noisy, smoke-choked watering hole that swallows the thirstiest patrons as they trundle through the front gates. (Only a handful of loyalists take the escalator to Laurel Park’s second floor these days, and this is a shame. Upstairs, true gamblers can hide from the betting public in either a shadowy, teal and black betting area that resembles a set from a Preston Sturges movie or the Kubrickian, tulip-chair-filled lounge that looks like the rec room from 2001’s doomed Discovery.)
But in empty Laurel Park today—that snow, where did that snow come from?—McBane is hanging out where it’s emptiest, with only 15 or so people seated near him in the endless rows of straight-backed metal chairs. Yes, this is fine right here: The blessed silence helps a gambling man think a little easier.
McBane extends a hand: “What’s your name again? Sean? Oh, Sean. Double-O, right? I remember now. Vietnam. Does things to the mind.”
McBane, who moved from Washington to Silver Spring some time ago, has been coming to Laurel Park for 15 years. He says he’s reduced his visits lately “to about once a week.” He worked 26 years with the General Services Administration before calling it quits and says he now spends his nongambling hours “going to the YWCA. No, wait, the YMCA. YMCA. Gotta keep doing my sit-ups.”
Although he can’t quite manage to shake this place, McBane doesn’t want his nieces knowing where he goes. He’s afraid they might like it a little too much—like their uncle: “No, I don’t want them gambling. They don’t need this stuff. This stuff will ruin you.”
McBane looks up at a TV screen showing the action down at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Change of weather, change of luck? Maybe, just maybe. At Gulfstream, there are 12 minutes to go until the next race, which is more than enough time for McBane to pick a winner—or, in his case, a third-place finisher.
“I bet the shows,” McBane explains. “That’s what I do. Once bet an 80-to-1. Paid $58 to show. That’s my best. And I’m about to win big again, too. I think I have a chance at that 7 horse. Nine to 1. I have a chance for sure, I think. A lot of my POW/MIAs are thinking of me today. I can feel that.” He shakes his head: “But I can’t be like no Chuckie Norris or Rambo. I can’t get back. I can’t help them. I used to move like a deer and an antelope. I was so fast. Not anymore.”
McBane pushes himself to his feet—”Like George Peppard said, ‘Give me somethin’!’”—and starts his measured walk to a teller window, one of 350 in the entire place. “That 7 horse. Gotta be that 7 horse.” He checks to make sure the hot-pink comb sticking out of the back pocket of his worn gray slacks is still there. Then he pulls out his cash. There’s not much of a wait at any of the windows, not today at least, and McBane quickly has his ticket clutched firmly between his fingers. He makes a slow loop back to his seat, passing his friend Finn with a nod—Finn looks happy; Finn must be winning—on the way.
It takes a while—three or four of those long, deliberate trips to the teller; tugging the wallet out, stuffing the wallet back in; sidestepping to the ATM, where users are gouged with a $4 surcharge—for me to realize that McBane strolls the same sure-footed path to and from every bet. This makes perfect sense, of course: Superstition, the bastard son of Lady Luck, is alive and lurking at Laurel Park.
“Looks like the snow is stopping out there,” he says, squinting through the glass doors to the silent, suddenly white dirt track. “Maybe the train will come on time after all.”
Outside, the snow is falling even harder than before. There’s already a couple of inches on the ground. But if the weather didn’t stop McBane from getting here, it sure as hell isn’t gonna stop him from staying to pick a few good horses. In fact, this day at the races is just getting started.
“You’re right: It is still snowing, isn’t it?” McBane says. “Gosh. Look at that. My eyes aren’t too good, you know. Vietnam. Vietnam does that.”
McBane returns to his tip sheets—lines zigzagging, numbers circled, names Xed out—and forgets about Vietnam for a while. He may be a few years younger than most of the scattered Laurel regulars today, but he more than understands the unofficial laws of this land. Chatting up your buddies on the train to and from is fine. But once the threshold is crossed and a seat—that lucky seat—is found, idle chitchat is for suckers. There’s work to be done now, private work. McBane is sitting a few feet from faces he’s known for more than a decade, but he doesn’t say a word to them. And his peers remain just as hushed.
McBane watches his race at Gulfstream, then walks outside to the silent track. Visibility is poor, and the empty winner’s circle a few feet away is nothing more than a faded sketch. The endless rows of viewing benches set up along the homestretch are empty, save for the random sea gull pecking for salty morsels through thick layers of frost. Looming in the infield, the long green toteboard—where odds and payouts and times are spelled out in bright, white bulbs—is dark.
With eddies of wind and snow swirling around his sneakered feet, McBane reveals that he never saw any hard-core action in Vietnam. Instead, he traded his gun for a clipboard: He was a commissary clerk.
“They had these giant ovens in the kitchen, as tall as the ceiling,” McBane says, sucking in the freezing breeze and smoking the second half of his complimentary cigarette.
And to show just how skyscraping those ovens were, he waves his losing ticket—McBane’s horse at Gulfstream, Noble Prince, came in a lousy fifth—high in the air, then tucks the slip of paper into his coat pocket.
Laurel Park—situated halfway between Washington and Baltimore, and spanning some 360 acres—first opened its doors to the betting masses on Oct. 2, 1911. This was a blessed boom time for the sport, thanks to the introduction of state-legislated pari-mutuel betting—and the eradication of back-alley bookmaking, the negative buzz of which had almost ruined the sport three years earlier.
In 1914, Col. Matt Winn was signed on by then-Laurel Park owner James Butler to be the general manager. Winn was the person responsible for promoting the hell out of a horse race—that would be the Kentucky Derby—until it became the most thrilling annual event in sports. Butler wasn’t a New York City millionaire for nothing: Hiring Winn was a brilliant business move.
In 1917, thanks to Butler’s dynamic personality and Winn’s heavy influence, Laurel Park hosted its first big-time match race, pitting Hourless, the winner of that year’s Belmont Stakes, against Omar Khayyam, the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby. In a mile-and-a-quarter showdown, Hourless overtook Omar Khayyam in the backstretch and won, by a length, in a time of two minutes, two seconds.
In the span of years between World War I and World War II, horse racing would experience the euphoric heights of its popularity—and Laurel would add more and more to its ever-expanding property. This was no longer just a sport for the rich and the tuxedoed; radio broadcasts of races featuring legendary thoroughbreds Man O’ War and Seabiscuit would often entice 40 million Americans to gather ’round the radio. The next day, the thrilling exploits of these horses would share front-page space with the evildoings of world leaders.
And then, in 1936, 25 years after the track’s grand opening, an affable gent named Finn—no full name, please: He doesn’t want the powers that be back at his Arlington retirement home knowing where he goes—strolled into Laurel Park for the very first time.
Finn would hang around during the sport’s post-WWII down years in the ’50s and ’60s. He would watch in awe as three horses—Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed—would each win the Triple Crown in the ’70s, bringing racing back to the national forefront. But Affirmed would be the last equine to capture those three coveted races. And, with not a superstar to be found, Finn would watch his favorite sport steadily lose more fans and more money in the ’80s and ’90s.
Of course, it’s too late now for the 89-year-old (“I’ll be 90 in April”) Finn to stop coming to Laurel. After 65 years, a man can get into a rhythm.
“I take the Metro to Union Station, then the MARC. Three times a week,” says Finn, who—with his cap, his glasses, and his soft pink face—looks like a kinder, gentler version of dastardly Uncle Junior on The Sopranos. “If the people at the home knew I was coming here, they’d be…’Whoo!’ But they don’t know where I’m coming. You just don’t talk.”
(“You’re not married, are you?” Finn will later ask me. “I hate to see the married guys come here. Me, it’s OK.”)
Finn, who once worked for the Navy “shipping ammunition across the country,” moved into his retirement home in 1998, the same year he finally handed over the keys to his precious mid-’80s Chevy Impala to the Salvation Army. “I have good public transportation now,” he says.
“I was 15 when I first came to Laurel,” he says. “Brought my first-ever paycheck. But I don’t bet that much anymore. Coming here three times a week, you have to be careful.”
As if seeing, for the very first time, the highlights (and lowlights) of his betting history flash before his eyes, Finn—who stands ramrod-straight in a natty yellow golf jacket and a clean navy-blue “English cap,” and who doesn’t look a day over 70—coughs up a surprised chuckle: “Can you believe it? I’ve been coming here 65 years!”
Of course, Finn’s math doesn’t exactly add up too neatly. In his case, the shoddy arithmetic may be nothing more than the minor slippage of a well-worn brain. But all too often at the racetrack—any racetrack, actually—factual mismatches, especially financial ones, have nothing to do with age. After all, this is a gambler’s world, a relatively private place to suffer and celebrate as you please. And sometimes, truths, half-truths, and mistruths get tangled and blurred in the steady stream of sure-thing losses that always outnumber those big, beautiful wins.
And sometimes, the wisest thing to do is just keep certain matters—name, occupation, how much of that paycheck you just flushed down the crapper—to yourself.
Finn and the rest of his MARC-riding gang of regulars—most of them well into their golden years, all of them dependent on mass transportation—are certainly not high rollers. That’s for the younger guys. The guys with jobs and cars. Finn enjoys putting a few dollar bills down on an exacta—the first- and second-place horses—or a trifecta—1-2-3—or even, when he’s feeling especially frisky, the superfecta—1-2-3-4. And if there’s a long shot filly with a winning sparkle in her big brown eyes, Finn will take his small-stakes chances on her, too. But for the most part, these men—men who all go their separate ways come racing time—show up at Laurel Park largely to pass the time. If they lose, well, that happens. And if they win, well, the guys on the train had better get ready to hear about it.
When our first conversation hits a lull—and there’s not a segue to be found—Finn says, “My wife’s been dead 23 years.” And he leaves it at that.
This is the end of my first day at Laurel Park. The February sun has broken through the winter ceiling, and stayed awhile, for the first time all year. That vicious snowstorm—the storm that will worry Ted McBane (in between his show bets, that is)—is still a few days off.
In my pocket are a handful of 50-cent pieces. (“Do you mind 50-cent pieces?” asks Michele, a mutuels teller, when paying out a small win. “Some of these guys don’t like them, because it lets their wives know where they’ve been.”) Also stuffed among the fat coins is a wrinkled train ticket back home.
Getting here, I took the 11:20 a.m. train to Odenton, where I boarded a crowded Yellow Motor Coach. (In Odenton, a conductor offered simple directions: “Just follow these boys here. They’ll show you where to go.”) On the bus, which rumbled through the cut-and-paste suburban sprawl of Odenton, and then, a few minutes later, past the weepy commercial strips of sad-eyed Laurel, news of the day crackling from the radio mingled with muffled discussions of racetrack action. There was increased scribbling on those weathered racing forms, as if putting pen to paper somehow gave a 50-to-1 an extra boost.
After 20 minutes, the bus pulled in front of the looming racetrack, a well-scrubbed brick-and-wood edifice lined with greenery and dripping with double-your-money promises. “Look at this guy,” an impatient man grumbled while waiting to exit. “He can barely walk, and we’re stuck behind him.” This angry comment did not help the small, hunched Asian man in the tan windbreaker and too-big tan baseball hat—I’ll come to call him the Ancient Gambler—struggle out of his seat any faster.
The return trip should be easier: Laurel Park sits right on the Camden Line, and from the racetrack to D.C. is 30 minutes away. The return train is boarded from a cramped wooden platform right outside—and up a steep flight of stairs from—Laurel Park’s doors.
Finn is the first one up on the platform today. Laurel Park has one more race to run on its nine-contest card, but for the loyal MARC riders who want to catch that 4:29 train home, there’s usually no time for a last chance at financial redemption. Finn is soon joined by Yoshi, a 60-something Asian man in a crisp gray suit, a long gray overcoat, and a soiled white baseball hat. Yoshi is here most days, too.
“How’d you do today?” Finn asks Yoshi.
Yoshi rockets out a substantial loogie—thwock!—on the wooden platform boards and shakes his head: “I lost my ass today. That’s how I did.” He paces around the small area: always babbling, always spitting, always digging into the far reaches of his crotch. “I lost $500. That’s not good. I lost my rear.”
Yoshi stops and looks at Finn—Finn casually inching away from this herky-jerky carrier of bad, bad luck—and issues a challenge: “How’d you do?”
“I made a few bucks,” Finn replies with nonchalance—but just a trace of a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.
“Where do you play?” Yoshi asks.
“Where do I play?” Finn laughs: “I play Laurel.”
“Laurel? No. Laurel’s no good. Aqueduct. That’s where the money is. There’s no money in Laurel. Gotta play Aqueduct.”
Yoshi gives me a look: “What are you writing? Are you writing about how much money you lost? Ha ha!” He hocks up another yellow spit bomb—thwock!—then points at Finn: “Are you writing about him? He knows a lot about this place. He knows how to lose! Ha ha!”
At that slight, Finn also starts peering over at what I’m writing, but he gives me a reassuring look through his thick glasses: “I don’t see too well anymore.”
Soon enough, more and more men (only men) walk up to the platform. Everyone is wearing a worse-for-wear hat; everyone is wearing a what-in-the-hell-just-happened look in his eyes. And all are properly questioned by an obsessively expectorating Yoshi:
Thwock! “How’d you do today?”
“You know, I paid my dues.”
“How’d you do?”
“Been better. Been better before today.”
“How’d you do?” Yoshi asks the Ancient Gambler, who says nothing in return.
“How’d you do?” Yoshi asks Shades.
Shades’ real name is Don—but I prefer to call him Shades for those thick Roy Orbison-esque Esprit specs he almost never takes off. An 80-something man who rarely gives a short answer—and who keeps his black baseball hat pulled low—Shades worked for the Justice Department for 20 years. He is now retired and living in Crystal City. In related news, Shades just had half a cancerous lung cut out, used to smoke and drink all the time, now doesn’t touch booze or cigarettes for fear of getting screamed at by his doctor, and has been coming to Laurel Park almost as long as Finn. “I’ve bet everywhere from Maine to Florida,” he will tell me. “I used to go up to the track in Atlantic City. That’s where I saw the Supremes, at the Steel Pier. That’s when they were still talking to each other. Before Diana Ross went off with Berry Gordy.”
Shades gives Yoshi a scratchy chuckle: “Oh well, it all comes back to you, doesn’t it? How to lose money. It all started with an $8 exacta. Bleh. I bet 7-10 in the box, and, hell, I think those horses are still running.”
“Ha!” Yoshi thinks this is very funny. “Forget about it! It’s all shit! I lost my rear!”
This same-old, same-old bantering among this most unusual fraternity—different races, different backgrounds, different ages—goes on and on until one thing becomes perfectly clear: Losing your rear is the great equalizer.
Shades spots Finn and gives a wave. Then Shades points down the long flight of steps leading up to the platform. Someone is coming. Verrry slowwwly.
“Look at him!” Shades cackles. “He’s like Old Man Winter. Here he comes. Old Peg-Leg. Hold the rail, Peg-Leg, and when you get up here, you can slide back down.”
Finn walks over to Shades and checks out the huddled lump of gray coat and gray hat doing his damnedest to join his pals.
“Oh boy,” Finn says. “Here comes Stan.”
The Camden Line platform outside Laurel Park is small but wide-open, with two sets of tracks set perilously close to one another. There’s a wooden fence protecting pedestrians from the parking lot behind them, but there is no fence protecting pedestrians from the trains in front of them. Neither is there a divider stopping people from walking from one side to the other. To go from the southbound Washington platform to the northbound Baltimore platform is to walk 20 feet across rickety, pummeled planks.
And today, stuck between those planks a mere 3 feet from the Baltimore side is a filthy blond wig. In the bright light of the sun, the synthetic hair glows like a beacon.
“Here comes the train,” Yoshi announces—thwock!—to the now-15-strong gang of gamblers. “Here it comes. It’s late. Four minutes late.”
“Not only is it late,” Finn says, taking his bad eyesight on that long trip down the tracks, “but I think it’s coming on the other set of tracks.”
Oh, Jesus: Instead of barreling down the southbound tracks to D.C., the 4:29 p.m. MARC train is barreling down the northbound Baltimore tracks…to D.C. Which means, of course, that everyone on the correct side will have to cross those 20 feet if he wants to get home. That is, before the train—that big, fast, steaming wall of steel—travels a mere 500 yards.
(Sometimes, walking 20 feet is hard.)
At first glance, Stan, 94 (Finn thinks), and the Ancient Gambler (“Who knows how old that guy is?” Shades says) look like Muppetized renderings of old men. Their small, round bodies are supported by dark-varnished wooden canes, and rarely do their faces meet the sunlight: At the point where their stomachs meet their chests, Stan, with a frozen madcap grin on his deep-creased pale face, and the Ancient Gambler, with a gentle smirk on a head that is far too large for his body, have folded over at near-perfect 90-degree angles. With their free hands, they cling to the back wooden fence and say nothing. When Yoshi starts in again about how much money he dropped—and punctuates his costly losses with more free-flowing loogies—Stan and the Ancient Gambler emit tiny gurgled expressions of concern—”Ooohhh”—and scrunch even farther away from the crowd.
“Oh jeez, those guys are never gonna make it,” Shades says, once the group—save two—has finally made it safely to the Baltimore side.
The Ancient Gambler keeps chugging along; Stan is a few paces behind him. The train is now 100 yards away and has begun to screech its brake pads. The Ancient Gambler, perhaps catching a gust of wind, somehow makes it to safety.
But Stan has stopped; his forward progress has ceased. Stan moves like a broken record: step, jerk, repeat; step, jerk, repeat.
Right in the path of the train.
“Look at that!” Shades says. “Stan’s stuck on a wig!”
“What’s that wig doing there?” Finn asks.
“It’s getting Stan,” Shades says. “That’s what it’s doing. The wig’s got Stan.”
The evil blond wig—soiled with mud, rotting leaves, and various platform detritus—has indeed snaked itself around the bottom of Stan’s cane. And the more he tries to wrench free, the more the cane gets tangled in the menacing fake hair.
“They’ll stop for him,” Finn says, tossing worried looks between his imperiled pal and the oncoming locomotive. “At least I hope they’ll stop for him.”
“Lay down on the tracks, Stan!” Shades shouts.
Somebody goes out to help Stan, to free him from the wig, but Shades says, “No, don’t do that. He doesn’t want help. He wants to do it himself.” Then, as a quiet aside to Finn: “I don’t know if I like this ‘other tracks’ business.”
With the train only 50 yards away—those brakes wailing like tortured screams, a conductor visible in the engine window flashing a you-gotta-be-kidding-me wide-eyed stare—Stan gives his cane a final tug and, lo and behold, escapes. Sweet freedom has now quickened his pace, and Stan crosses the safety line in the nick of time.
“That was a close one, Stan,” Shades says, patting his silent friend on the back. “You almost got smushed.”
For the record, as the train was charging down upon his huddled mass, as the wig was twisting its serpentlike synthetic strands around his cane, Stan never looked up once. If that’s not grace under pressure, I don’t know what is.
Harold Still is taking a long, slow walk in the rain. Without an umbrella.
The Yellow Motor Coach that picks up riders on the 12:20 train from Union Station (almost everyone takes the 11:20…) has rudely dumped Still off on Route 1 just outside of Laurel Park (…for this very reason: the 12:20 connector bus from Odenton doesn’t bother taking riders to the front door).
The heavy rain that has swept into the region has subsided from an old-fashioned downpour to a nagging mist. With Finn, Yoshi, and the Ancient Gambler having arrived with the rest of the boys an hour earlier, Still is the only latecomer from D.C.
I’m about to learn two very valuable lessons.
“I haven’t made a bet in seven years,” says the tall, burly black man, scratching his gray-flecked beard and keeping his eyes on the racetrack in the distance. “Last time I bet, I won $40. That’s not too bad.”
Wearing a dark-green coat and a floppy brown hat, Still—his age: “retired”—says he splits his time these days between living in Spain and Germany: “I come over to visit my family in D.C. every three or four months.”
But Still doesn’t want to talk about betting the ponies during this lengthy walk. Any gambling questions thrown his way are instantly discarded on the puddled blacktop. Instead, Still wants to talk politics: “What do you think about this Marc Rich business?” “Is D.C. still bankrupt?” “What’s that Anthony Williams like? Better than Barry, I hope?”
Still is an affable guy, but there are certain aspects about him that, ahem, mismatch. Although he says he hasn’t made a bet in seven years, he knows his way around a racetrack—the terminology, the trends, the payouts. When he claims that he doesn’t follow Laurel Park’s horses, jockeys, and trainers, he quickly adds that he’s “from New York. So I usually bet Aqueduct.”
And when he finally arrives at the Laurel Park entrance—wet, a touch winded, but ready to go—Still is kind enough to hand me a complimentary pass. In fact, in a small envelope he pulls from his pants pocket, Still has a thick stack of complimentary passes to hand out to new friends.
“And you say you haven’t made a bet in seven years?” I ask.
“Good luck to you, Sean,” Still smiles—and then effectively disappears among the jet stream of betting masses.
This is the first lesson learned: Don’t believe everything you hear at Laurel Park.
In Longshots, all but one of the tables is full, and all of the ashtrays on these tables are smoldering with cigarettes and cigars. Next to me is an old white man in a faded blue Planet Hollywood baseball hat; he’s carrying an oxygen tank around in a backpack and a pencil behind his ear. There’s a middle-aged woman—whose bright-red nail polish clashes with the black-and-blue under her eyes—pacing back and forth in front of a wall of TVs. A 20-something woman rolls a baby carriage through the bar to where her husband and son are sitting at a table; the son is flicking butts from a dirty ashtray, while Dad, cigarette dangling Andy Capp-style from his bottom lip, checks the daily simulcast edition of the Maryland Racing Action Program. Everyone in Longshots seems to have a wet, choppy cough: They all either smoke, used to smoke, or might as well smoke. The lone bartender leans over to a chain-smoking broken-down guy every now and then, slipping his buddy a wad of cash; the friend soon returns with a few betting tickets that the bartender tucks in his vest pocket before pouring the next Bud draft.
I’m rewarded for my patience in Longshots when a tall gentleman with a pincushion nose—and a hunch that, in a few years, will rival the Ancient Gambler’s—taps me on the shoulder.
“You don’t have a New York paper, do you?” he asks.
“No. Sorry. Just the Post.”
“Oh, OK. A friend of mine gave me a tip for the seventh at Aqueduct, but I can’t remember the horse’s name.”
Pincushion, however, returns several minutes later: “I got it: It’s the 7 horse in the seventh race. New York. I got it in the triple, every which way, 7-6-3, 7-3-6. Just as long as that 7 wins. He’s just gotta stay ahead of the rest.”
As soon as Pincushion wanders off, I make a quick move to a betting window and throw down $3 across the board—win, place, show: a $9 bet—on the 7 horse. I then head back to Longshots and take a seat in front of a TV showing the races at Aqueduct. The horses have reached the gate. The jockeys are settling into their saddles. The chatter in Longshots slows and slows and…stops. Now the waiting. Wait. Wait. Any second now. (Nothing in your life—death, taxes, love, job—can touch you in this glorious what-if limbo. If you win, life will be absolutely perfect. If you lose…fer crissakes, don’t think like that!) Wait. Wait. And there’s that sound—that low, thunder rumble—of the starting gates being thrown wide. Cue the announcer: “And they’re off!”
Well, almost all of the horses are off. The 7 horse—that would be the Conqueror—stumbles out of the gate and comes in second-to-last.
And that would be the second lesson learned: Don’t believe a goddamn thing guys like Pincushion have to say.
Stunned and pissed and wearing my very own what-in-the-hell-just-happened look, I stumble outside into the rain and bump
“Hope you’re doing better than me,” I say.
He grins and keeps moving: “Oh, comme ci, comme ca.”
Still never said anything about living in France.
On the platform, in the rain, the evil blond wig is having a bad-hair day.
Stan is a no-show, but soon enough, Finn shows up, with Yoshi and the Ancient Gambler right…right….behind him.
I try to ask the Ancient Gambler the standard query—”So, how did you do today? Win big?”—but he just smiles shyly and turns away.
“Why are you so early today?” Finn asks Yoshi.
“No, it’s not. The ninth race hasn’t gone off yet.”
“Yes, it has. I won. Got the 7-5. Can you believe that shit?” Thwock!
Victory has not curbed Yoshi’s spitting problem.
“How could you have won?” Finn asks. “The horses are still on the track.”
“I won. The race is over.”
“At Laurel you won?”
“No. I don’t play Laurel. Laurel’s no good. Laurel’s shit. I play Aqueduct.”
“Oh, OK,” Finn says. “Then you’re smart. I play Laurel.”
On the weekends, the MARC train to Odenton—and the connector bus to Laurel Park—doesn’t run. This keeps guys like Finn and McBane, who depend on public transportation, stuck at home. (“I just hang around and watch golf,” Finn says.) A familiar face (Green Jacket? Red Jacket?) will occasionally stroll pass Longshots or the Wilwyn Theater, but the familiar face is always walking alone.
In fact, Laurel Park is filled with a different crowd: a better-dressed crowd, a younger crowd. There’s more yelling (“The jockey’s afraid! He’s afraid to take the rail!”), more anger (“You suck!”). And, with the larger number of women, a lot more hair (very BIG hair). When women show up at the track—they’re always largely outnumbered, but much more so during the week—they prove that there’s still one thing that can separate a man from his racing program with two minutes to post time. Flirting is big here. But not in a crass, construction-worker sort of way. More like a princess-and-the-jester sort of way.
(But for all Laurel Park’s exotic charms on Saturday and Sunday, the place is just not the same. Especially when you win a $33 exacta and have no one to share it with out on the platform.)
There’s also a lot more talk about Laurel’s myriad operating struggles, including the racetrack’s growing difficulty fielding enough horses for smaller-purse races. An increasing number of race-day scratches (when a horse is withdrawn from competition) has forced the track to run contests with sometimes as few as five or six entries—an embarrassment that should not happen in a state with one of the strongest horse-breeding industries in the nation. When numerous scratches plague a racetrack, the lack of betting options hurts both profits for the track and profits for the gamblers. (The smaller the betting pool, the smaller the payout.) This gets more and more gamblers switching to simulcast action at bigger tracks such as Aqueduct and Gulfstream, where the numbers of horses and the payouts are more consistent. Laurel also has problems competing with relatively nearby racetracks that feature slot machines, such as Delaware Park and West Virginia’s Charles Town. But Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening is adamant in his unflagging opposition to casino-style gambling, and one-armed bandits flanking the bar in the Clubhouse aren’t expected anytime soon.
On March 25, live racing will stop at Laurel, and the horses will be moved straight up I-95 to Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, which, in the third weekend of May, will host the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown. During the year, Laurel and Pimlico alternate live racing. At some as-yet-to-be-determined time in late summer, the horses will return to Laurel.
Finn says he will keep coming here during the interim. And why not? There’s still simulcasting. There are still his friends. And, let’s be honest, when you’ve been coming to the racetrack, the same racetrack, for 65 years (and your wife has been dead for 23 years), where else are you gonna get your kicks?
The snow has just started to fall, but Finn, sitting on the 11:20 Thursday train idling at Union Station and chomping on a chocolate-chip cookie, isn’t too worried.
“They’ll run the horses in the snow. Just not the wind. A strong wind and they won’t run.” He looks out at the fat flakes floating past his window. “Oh, it’s starting to come down pretty good now, isn’t it?”
Although Green Jacket is nowhere to be seen, the air in the train seems heavy with the leaden odor of Vienna sausages, a stink that has—in a strange way—become somewhat comforting.
“Hey, how have you been? Haven’t seen you in a while,” Finn says to a man taking a seat behind him. Finn doesn’t remember his name, but he can’t forget that face.
“Been trying to stay away,” says Ted McBane. He pulls a McDonald’s hamburger out of his coat pocket and rests a lidless, filled-to-the-brim paper cup of orange soda on the seat next to him. When a conductor walks by and says, “Better watch that drink,” McBane doesn’t even flinch.
In front of Finn is Yoshi, his white ballcap pulled low, his nose buried in various racing propaganda. Shades pats Yoshi on the shoulder, plops down next to Finn, and engages his friend in an intense conversation.
“Did you hear about this new restaurant?” Shades asks. “This Subway sandwich shop?”
“No. Is it any good?”
“Oh, I’m telling you. You can get these rolls, all sorts of rolls. They come in 12-inch and 6-inch. But that 12-inch. Geez. I can’t do that.”
“Good, though? Good sandwiches?”
“Oh yeah. They’re great. And big. I eat a bit there at the restaurant and then take the rest of the sub home with me. Eat it while I watch the hockey game. They got all sorts of stuff there.”
“Different meats, you mean?”
“Oh sure. Turkey, roast beef, pepperoni. All that stuff. It’s something.”
The dialogue about the revolutionary dining experience that is Subway trails off only as the train slows into Odenton, and Shades lifts his head and peers around the car: “Stan didn’t make it, looks like. He called me yesterday. Said he was coming. But, you know. Snow.”
“Maybe they’ll have free coffee today,” Finn suggests.
“Yeah,” Shades agrees. “Let’s push that free-coffee rule.”
On the bus to Laurel, Finn, with Shades right next to him, hangs over the seat in front of me like a kid and says, “Did you hear? They canceled racing at Laurel. I don’t know why. There’s nothing on the ground.”
Outside, there’s already an inch on the ground. The bus is struggling up a small hill.
“Yeah, I’ve been down in Charles Town in a blizzard before,” Shades says, none too concerned about the hazardous conditions. “It was snowing so hard, you couldn’t see the horses in the backstretch. Announcer comes on and says, ‘It’s rumored that so-and-so is ahead in the backstretch.’ Pretty funny.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen racing canceled on account of snow,” Finn says.
“Yeah, well, we can watch Gulfstream and wish we were there.” Shades points out the window at two cars still kissing from a fender-bender: “Look at that guy. He’s pointed the wrong way. How’d he get way over there? Jeez, look at all these cars. There’s a lot of traffic out here today. Don’t they know enough to stay home?”
The snow continues to fall all afternoon, and by 4 o’clock, a half-hour until the MARC train, there’s already 3 inches on the ground. McBane is cutting it close, trying to squeeze in one more race at Gulfstream—and squeeze a few more dollars back into that active wallet—before heading home to Silver Spring and getting started on those sit-ups. Aqueduct has just completed its racing day, and Yoshi, not looking too happy, throws his program in the trash.
Just inside the entrance, two Laurel Park security guards, their walkie-talkies squawking, stand sentry over the Ancient Gambler, who, unlike Stan, did not let the snow stop him. The guards don’t want to lead him out into this mess and up onto the platform until the last possible moment. They obviously aren’t aware of the Ancient Gambler’s top speed.
Finn has opted against his natty golf jacket—not exactly appropriate covering for this day—and is wearing a brown, wool-lined corduroy coat. He heads out to the train just as the security guards are leading the Ancient Gambler to the foot of the steep steps, each one covered in a thick layer of snow. The guards slip a ripped bright-yellow slicker around the Ancient Gambler’s shoulders and spend the next few minutes trying to get his stubborn arms through the sleeves. The Ancient Gambler doesn’t say a word.
Shades arrives and casually pushes the two guards out of the way: “Thanks, guys. We can take him from here. Thanks for helping.”
Shades on one side and Finn on the other try to help the Ancient Gambler up the steps. But after lifting a sneaker a meager inch off the ground—and leaving it levitating there, not moving for a few seconds—the Ancient Gambler, now cloaked like a Druid in his oversized yellow jacket, splashes his foot down in a puddle and backs away from the steps.
“You can make this,” Shades says. “You have to make this. The train’s coming. You’re gonna miss your train.”
Finally, with no help from the Ancient Gambler, the two men—two men with a combined age of, well, really, really old—half-lift, half-push their silent friend up the stairs. At the top, they lean him against the fence. After Finn and Shades, huffing hard, have walked well enough away, the Ancient Gambler, not wearing any gloves, pulls his train ticket out from inside his coat. He holds it straight out in his shaky hand, as if a conductor were already waiting there to punch it.
In a matter of seconds, the ticket collects a soft pile of snow.
McBane silently watches the Ancient
“How is he gonna get on that train in all this snow?” Finn whispers.
“Get on the train? How is he going to get off?” Shades whispers back. “I don’t even know where he gets off.”
“New Carrollton, I think,” Yoshi says. “Maybe Greenbelt.”
A Bing Crosby look-alike who shows up at Laurel every now and then walks over to the Ancient Gambler and tucks a fiver in his bare, shaking hand. “In case he needs a cab,” Bing says to a confused Shades.
The MARC, appearing through the swirling wall of precipitation like a ghost train, manages to arrive only a few minutes late. Shades and Finn direct the other guys out of the way and walk the Ancient Gambler to the front of the line.
(Sometimes, stuffing a cold, tired friend onto a train is hard.)
The conductor looks on at this admirable, yet feeble, show of support and shakes his head: “Why don’t you guys get out of the way so I can help him on? Jeez, it’s like the blind leading the blind.”
Once everyone’s on, Finn and Shades rest the Ancient Gambler down in a seat just inside the door. He raises a hand a few inches off his lap in a tiny wave, and in the smallest, softest of voices—and with the biggest, warmest of smiles—says, “Thank you.”
And how about that? The Ancient Gambler speaks.
If Finn’s eyesight weren’t so bad, he’d be able to see—just outside of his window and straight down on the other set of tracks—a strange pile of snow with light, brittle hairs poking out of it. The evil blond wig is frozen.
Yoshi has won.
“Fucking Laurel! Heeeyyy!”
Last week’s snow has melted, and the sun has returned. In celebration, Yoshi is trying to pass a just-tapped bottle of Old Grand-Dad to everyone on the platform. When Yoshi, setting a new personal record for snorting, spitting, and blowing snot rockets out of his nose, offers up his bottle of hooch to a 20-something—a new guy—sitting on the back fence, the kid takes the bottle and says, “He’s better than half my friends!”
Seeing as how I just dropped $60 on a string of lousy horses, I take a pull off the bottle, too.
“How about you, buddy? Wanna drink?” Yoshi asks the Ancient Gambler.
“No,” he says, turning away.
“How about you? You? How about you? Come on, who fucking cares! Heeeyyy!”
Yoshi holds out the bottle to Finn.
“Oh, no. No no. I haven’t had a drop of that stuff since 1980.”
“How about you? Do you want a drink?” Yoshi extends the Old Grand-Dad to Shades.
“No, thanks,” Shades says. “I don’t drink that stuff anymore. I told my doctor I was drinking that stuff, and he asks me, ‘Is that stuff 100-proof?’ So I tell him yeah, and he says, ‘Well you gotta stop drinking that.’ So I can’t drink that stuff anymore. I stopped drinking that when they took half my lung out. Besides, I always liked Canadian Club.”
On the train, Finn gives Yoshi a worried look when the teetering gambler sits down across the aisle from him. Yoshi, mere seconds from passing out, has managed to wallpaper the seat in front of him with a thick coating of running, dripping phlegm. Thwock! Just before he eventually nods off, he starts humming something that just might be a show tune.
“I don’t think that’s singing,” Finn says.
In a sudden spasm, a semiconscious Yoshi knocks the bottle of Old Grand-Dad off his seat. The booze starts running down the aisle in an ever-widening stream. Finn grabs the bottle—the cap has broken off—and carries it to what he thinks is a trash bin built into the wall. Unfortunately, Finn dumps the Old Grand-Dad into what used to be an ashtray, and the brown liquor sprays everywhere.
When the train finally gets into Union Station—a little after 5 p.m.—Finn gives Yoshi a shake.
“Come on,” he says. “It’s time to get off. You don’t want the conductor to have to take care of you. He’ll get you off this train for sure.”
“Where are we?” Yoshi groans, throwing his head back and knocking his white baseball hat off in the process. “Are we in Ballston?”
Finn gently takes Yoshi’s arm, lifts him to his feet, and helps him off the train.
On my last trip to Laurel Park, I’m greeted with chummy exclamations by Finn, Shades, and Yoshi (who has gotten himself a fine haircut—plus a few cups of coffee, no doubt—since the last time I saw him). Although the sun is out and the temps are lounging in the high 50s, Stan didn’t make it. McBane isn’t here, either.
But I’m most surprised by the absence of the Ancient Gambler. In the long string of days I’ve been coming to the racetrack, I’ve always seen him here. The Ancient Gambler just doesn’t miss a day.
“I hope he’s all right,” I say to the photographer accompanying me today. And then, at the track, in the rush of too many beers, too many half-smokes, and far, far too many unwise bets—oh, and work—I forget about the Ancient Gambler.
Until I board the train home.
Sitting in front of me is G.—G. is “between jobs” and doesn’t want his name in the paper—who’s been betting at Laurel Park, “off and on,” for more than 30 years.
G.—an older, taller, heavier Lee Majors—really wants to give me a good story about the racetrack. He claims J. Edgar Hoover once came here; he says Leo Tolstoy’s grandson still shows up. But besides those tidbits, G. is drawing a blank: “I’ll think of something.”
With the train pulling into D.C. and everyone exchanging “See you next time”s (and the more popular “Better luck next time”s), G. taps me on the shoulder and says, “I guess the best thing about Laurel is that it’s a nice place for the retired folks to hang out. The older guys. And a lot of these guys are pretty old.”
As I follow him down the train’s steps, G. says something else, but most of his sentence gets lost in the rattle and hum of the train.
Of course, I do hear the words “pulled an Asian fella off” clearly.
When we’re down on the concrete platform of Union Station, I ask G., “What did you just say?”
“I had to help an old Asian man off the train yesterday. Had to pull him off, actually.”
“Hat? Cane? All hunched over?”
“Yeah, that’s him,” G. says. “He was looking very sick. They think he might have had a stroke….He missed his stop. Wound up riding all the way here to Washington. They had to put him on another train home. Who knows? Maybe he just needs rest. Maybe he’ll be OK after all.”
(Sometimes, life is hard.) CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.