Racetrack Diary: On Luck

August 27, 2013 | 5 9 min read

570_racetrack diary

The fire (cause: unknown) began late Saturday night, spreading across a row of Victorian brownstones a few blocks from my house. One resident, just back from a night on the town, discovered the fire and alerted her neighbors; everyone got out safely, the papers reported, but the homes were decimated, the first few in the line reduced to blackened shells, the last few still standing but totally uninhabitable. The police block off a huge radius as Sunday breaks, and it is a grim morning, grey and drizzly. An acrid smell hangs heavily over the street: wood smoke, burning plastic, the charred remains of this set of shabbily beautiful houses and the temporary lives that had been contained within — we learn that the residents were a mix of college students and my coworkers, full-time track employees up in Saratoga for the summer racing season.

In the bay a few hours later, someone comes around with a collection envelope and the news that more than a dozen of our coworkers had been renting rooms in those buildings, and I think about how paltry the offering will be, a handful of fives and tens, maybe a few twenties, to a group of displaced people already so far from home. The fire is the talk of the racetrack, and as I count my initial draw, thumbing bills into rubber-banded batches, I listen to a pair of coworkers discuss disasters, touching on fatalism. “Everything happens for a reason,” one of them says, almost airily, and I halt in my counting and wonder if I heard her correctly.

This is the racetrack. We deal in combination wagering and dollar amounts, in thoroughbreds boiled down to hard numbers on the page, but mostly, we deal in chance: for all of the statistics, lovingly detailed by trainers and handicappers alike, so much of what I see every day rests on luck. It is easy, after the fact, to draw neat lines between events, to look for cause and effect in random acts of chance — “I should’ve put that horse on top, I would’ve hit the trifecta” — and it is easy to look for design in it all. But then you spend a while sitting behind the betting windows, watching assholes blithely cashing huge tickets, or informing sweet old ladies that they’ve lost a week’s savings. I draw those same neat, fatalistic lines, and then I have to shake myself to erase them: this must all be chance, because it’s impossible to see much reason in any of it.

The burned-out houses sit dormant for a week, then two, and the streetlight goes out in front, and the destruction is a dark cloak draped over the block. The smell remains, and catches in the wind as the temperature begins to drop. I pass them every evening, on my way to drink late-night coffee and type away, and there is something so unnatural about them, hulking in the darkness. They sit there stubbornly, like some kind of specter, a quiet reminder of the twists of fortune.

It’s late in the day, fifteen minutes to the eighth race, and a clap of thunder echoes across the park, accompanied by the collected hoots of the crowd. The heavens open up, and the horses run through a downpour, kicking up an avalanche of mud as they round the turns. But the rain tapers off quickly enough, and halfway between the eighth and the ninth, a little old man comes up to my window and bets a combination of three numbers eight times in a row, four identical exacta boxes, four identical trifecta boxes. I shake my head as I punch the tickets — bettors are guided by logic that I often imagine is only visible to them — and as he pays he mumbles, “I don’t think I have any singles…” He doesn’t owe any singles, though: he’s all paid up, and I tell him so, and wish him luck.

He shuffles off to the side for a moment, and I see him out of the corner of my eye, rifling through his wallet and then his pockets. Then he pops back over to my window and says, “I’m sorry: I haven’t got any singles to give you.” The occasional guy offers a dollar upon betting — “For luck,” many of them say, or just as a courtesy, as one might leave a dollar per drink at a bar — but it’s far more likely to see tips after a ticket is cashed. But then this man pulls out an enormous coin — an Eisenhower dollar — and hands it to me. “A tip, for you,” he says, and he smiles brightly. I can barely contain myself as I thank him; there are moments of grace here, and kindness, but unbridled sweetness like this is extremely rare.

He wins it all. He hits the exacta, then the trifecta, four times over each. This story could have turned out differently — his horses could have come in dead last, and I would have had a giant useless coin on my hands. But he wins, and he comes back beaming, and I hand him more than a thousand dollars, beaming right back. I turn the coin over in my fingertips, and realize that he has probably done me a slight disservice, because I am deeply superstitious, and I am now saddled with an incredibly lucky silver dollar that I will never, ever be able to part with.

I say “good luck” to nearly everyone. Some regular gamblers ask not to hear it — one of the idiosyncratic superstitions that pops up across the track, like their similarly superstitious fear of $50 bills — and there are at least a couple total pricks every day that don’t deserve to hear it. But it ends nearly all of my regular transactions: I say it so automatically and so often that by the final weeks of each meet, I am wishing everyone luck on autopilot, like after I’ve been given change at the grocery store, or when I want to thank someone who’s helped me over the phone. It’s always deeply embarrassing — out of context, “good luck” should not be interchangeable with “thank you,” and the recipients of my well-wishes, uniformly baffled cashiers and customer-service representatives, sort of stutter out their own thank yous as I shuffle away.

Much of my luck-wishing is answered with the same response: “Ha! I need it.” It’s usually delivered as though it’s an incredibly original statement, which is strange considering how many people say it on a daily basis. It’s the laugh that gets me every time — kind of rueful, often sort of a scoffing bark, as though there is nothing more ironic than the idea of this particular customer being at all lucky. I suppose that’s probably true: the numbers don’t lie, and most of the tickets I sell are losers. Many people accuse me of saying “good luck” to everyone. “But I mean it,” I say, rote but cheerful. I do mean it. I’d be happy to sell a rash of winners every race, but it is gambling, after all. That’s not how the game works.

A man in a black baseball cap comes to my window again and again, betting simulcast races at other tracks, complicated combination and multi-race bets, typical stuff for regular gamblers, many of whom act like betting is a chore, the daily grind, work instead of pleasure. He’s not winning much, and he doesn’t seem to be having much fun, but he’s polite enough. He’s got a heavy Southern accent — Kentucky, maybe — and after selling him a dozen losing tickets, I wish him luck again. “Well I need luck,” he tells me. “I don’t have any skill.”

The stars of a popular reality television show bet at my window. There is a flurry of preparation beforehand — production people, all about my age, moving purposefully and murmuring into headsets, setting up lights behind us, a bright glare that begins to feel natural as the day wears on. There is no need to announce the arrival of the on-screen talent: they seem to almost glide in, camera people shuffling backwards in front of them, and the startled bettors turn and gape. “Who are those horrible skinny women?” an older woman in a floppy hat hisses at me as she places her bets. We both turn and eye them as they count cash in an exaggerated fashion out on the terrace. “I hate reality TV,” she spits out. “There’s nothing good on television anymore. Except for channels 13 and 21!” I’m about to tell her that most of PBS’s quality programming is imported, actually, and that I feel that television has diverged into two extreme channels, as it were, and that the high road is populated by some of the finest writing in any genre out there today, but she has already taken her tickets and stormed away. The finer points are lost at the racetrack.

When they come up to bet, it’s with the sort of fluttery confusion that makes a mutuel clerk deeply nervous: they’re laying down hundreds and then picking them up again, asking for one sort of bet, then asking for a revision, and I am grateful that my neighboring teller is taking the brunt of it, as I punch out the side bets of the member of the group who’s chosen to go it alone. They’re friendly enough, whether or not it’s for show. They are very skinny, but up close they are also surprisingly solid looking (it’s as though I was expecting them to be made of cardboard or something). I marvel at how they interact with us, the subtle ways they angle their bodies towards the camera, raising their chins to speak while managing to maintain eye contact the entire time. One of them raises her hand for a good-luck high-five and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I manage to slap it correctly the first time.

And then, they win. They win a lot — several thousand dollars — and they shriek and take the requisite picture of the winner holding up a fanned array of hundred-dollar bills. It all feels alarmingly serendipitous, and we murmur that it’s a fix, but of course it isn’t — the number of factors involved in securing the winning trifecta of a single horse race are mind-boggling, and certainly worth more than any television network would be willing to pay to produce a segment of good entertainment. So that leaves sheer dumb luck, and in a way, it adds insult to injury, because across the track people are struggling to turn a dollar or two into ten or twenty, and a group of woman who are paid to be beautiful have magicked thousands without even trying.

My first year as a teller a decade ago, during my first few days on the job, a man in tatty clothes stumbled up to my window, his hands cupped in front of him. He held them out to show me a pile of nickels — a dollars’ worth, enough for a single bet, and I thought for a moment about refusing to take his money, or giving him a dollar bill and sending him on his way. I took his bet instead. I wish I’d checked afterwards, to see if he’d won. I’d be willing to bet that he didn’t.

I leave the racetrack for five days to fly to San Francisco for the wedding of two college friends. It’s the first time I’ve been back in the city since I lived there six years ago, and I feel as though I have flown to another planet, or perhaps I’m just returning to Earth, to a place where people spend a lot of time on the internet and aren’t preoccupied with the morning line or the pick 6-guaranteed payouts (though San Francisco is not quite Earth, either: I do not remember it being so glacial, nor do I remember waiting half an hour for a barista to literally grow the beans behind the counter before turning them into a cup of coffee, though I don’t think either of these things are new developments in town). It is my first Indian wedding, and we spend three days going to approximately five hundred events, and everything is a flurry of color and extraordinarily high spirits.

During the reception both families talk about how my friends’ marriage was meant-to-be, and this is the sort of thing I think people always say at weddings, but this time, I have to agree to some extent, because their parents knew each other in Bombay four decades ago, a fact that my friends didn’t learn until, by some twist of fate, they had each chosen to attend the same tiny liberal arts college, where they met. Every moment in life is the culmination of a million little moments before it, but this all feels slightly predestined: big, deliberate strokes of fate bringing them together. Or perhaps that’s just the romance of a wedding talking. I cannot bring myself to remove questions of fate and chance from the equation, even 3,000 miles away.

Back at the track people eye the stretch of henna on the back of my hand and ask if it hurt to get it done, and I laugh and explain that it’s only ink. It fades, and I fade a bit, too, back into the rhythm of the racing day. I wish people luck and try to harness some of it for myself: I want a good batch of customers, and a decent batch of tips, a busy day and a line full of little old men handing out silver dollars. But hardly anyone gets what they want at the racetrack. A man tells me to keep the change, but to hold onto it — “so I can buy you a ring.” He later finds me outside the main gates and grabs me from behind in a tight squeeze. A man throws a thick wad of $20s at me for a $500 bet, and when I ask him to stand at my window until I count it all, he shouts at me, saying I’m accusing him trying to cheat people. My luck fluctuates wildly: I am only sporadically blessed with those moments of grace. But then a man comes to my window and says quietly, “Are you lucky?” “Very,” I tell him, and he smiles shyly. He raises a fist, and I knock my own against it gently. He departs without saying another word.

Previously: Opening Day
Next: Down the Home Stretch

Image courtesy the author

is a staff writer for The Millions and writes a regular column about fan culture for the New Statesman. She recently completed an MA in the digital humanities at University College London. She's gotten much better at Twitter in the past year, but she still spends most of her time (/life) on Tumblr. She lives in Brooklyn.


  1. A refreshing article, another in a series. These are dispatches from a dying place, and a dying artform mingled with sport, the realm of Bukowski poems and early 20th Century highbrow sport at its most populist (see Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit for just how popular horse racing once was). But ours is a less patient era. MMA has replaced boxing. Auto racing draws much larger crowds than thoroughbred and harness racing combined. The racetrack is now people largely by people who can get into movies with the Senior Citizen discount. The young folks who attend are rarely students of the sport but wannabe degenerates and walking cliches. Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award winning novel was both a clarion call and a deathknell, a paean and a dirge, to a world that has fallen full-fold into a crevice, like a tangent universe, collapsing in upon itself. Saratoga is a slightly more insider’s version of the Kentucky Derby. It only operates during the summer and for that we are grateful. There is little popular sentiment for horse racing and what little there is is regional and age-specific, but at least it isn’t entirely carcassed just yet.

  2. Could you just stay at Saratoga? Well, move to Aqueduct and Belmont once the season ends but I have loved these two essays and hope for a gazillion more. Or maybe you could pick up some hours at Epsom Downs?

    Thanks for some great writing from the track. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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