Racetrack Diary: Down the Home Stretch

September 9, 2013 | 3 8 min read


Two weeks before the end of the meet, I go on a tour of the backstretch. They run trolleys out from the side gate every morning, chugging around the first turn and depositing tourists in the center of the backstretch, on an expanse of dirt, gravel, and hay. We stand between endless rows of stables and the Clare Court jogging track, where horses pass by in steady succession, a bluster of hooves and loose dirt in the early-morning haze. I’d been out to the backstretch just once before, many years ago, assigned to the tiny row of pari-mutuel windows there. Every day at a regular window, I take bets from people who view horses as an abstraction — playing lucky numbers, or betting on odds alone, or covering their racing forms with complicated arithmetic. At a window on the backstretch, bettors include owners, trainers, grooms, exercise riders, hot walkers, starters, and stable hands: the bets may still be abstractions, but these are the people who touch the horses, every race, every day — that alone was a novelty. I don’t remember much about that afternoon, beyond wishing I had more than Sesame Street-level Spanish. Wherever your window is located, the monotony of a long day of taking bets is just like any other.

On the tour, we are shuttled through the backstretch, and I learn more about the horse side of racing in an hour than I probably have in a decade as a mutuel clerk. I have certainly never seen this many horses at once — on the track itself, it’s like Grand Central for a while, dozens of thoroughbreds galloping past in both directions, maybe practicing, warming up for future races, and we all stand there gawking while the professionals cluster a ways down the rail, assessing their charges. Back on the trolley, back around the first turn, and as we walk down the broad sidewalk on East Avenue, my friend remarks that it’s odd how ubiquitous the horse once was. There are places, in this country and around the world, where horses remain a part of every day life. But here, they are an attraction, a rare and welcome sight, animals prized for simply existing, for the way they run, for the way they stand, the delicate interplay of musculature resting on the most fragile-looking sets of legs. But then, even when horses were bought and sold for work and for everyday transport, people still flocked to watch thoroughbreds race.

I am a generation or two removed from having living relatives who grew up in a horse-bound era, but, by some odd coincidence, both of my grandfathers dealt with horses, if only briefly. My father’s father, who was a doctor, worked one night a month at a harness track in Buffalo. And my mother’s father, who died just before I was born, enlisted in the army early in 1941, joining the cavalry, the family story goes, because he wanted to ride a horse. A few months later, the army was mechanized, and he had to learn to drive a jeep — but he still got his horse: her name was Jackie. Back home in Queens, he’d walk to Aqueduct from time to time, to watch the races. Sometimes I think that I’ve spent so long taking bets because it is a convenient summer job, because the racing seasons rise and fall like clockwork, because I will always know how to punch out a ticket. But sometimes I think that this was all meant to be. The racetrack brings out my fatalism, after all.

There is a reliable shape to the final two weeks of the Saratoga meet, and it starts with an exponential rise, a palpable excitement in the days leading up to the Travers Stakes, the million-dollar race always run the second-to-last Saturday. I spend the lead-up sharpening my patience and teaching novices how to bet. One large group proves to be one of the densest I’ve ever encountered — a woman asks me if Orb, the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, is running in the first race that day; another seems convinced, despite my explanations, that the same horses are running in every race. They are uniformly confused, and they bet that way, handing over cash and then taking it back, laying one jumbled bet on top of another, and at the end of the day, I count my money and find that I’ve gone short. I’m quietly furious as I open my wallet to make up the difference — it’s only $20, but it adds insult to injury. You hear a lot of horror stories, of tellers getting scammed by customers out of thousands, having to work for months to pay back the money. My first year on the job, I counted my box one day and found exactly $200 missing. They took it out of my paycheck — I was essentially working for free that week — and the head of the department took one look at me, sobbing uncontrollably in his office, and sent me home.

My patience is rewarded, though, because on Travers Day, I am blessed with a wonderful crowd: a group of real gamblers, people who clearly love the racetrack, and the whole affair is joyously bombastic. There are fourteen races, a tremendous slog of a day, but they go off at a surprisingly fast clip. The good cheer is infectious. All of my customers are loose-limbed and generous, throwing down huge bets with a smile and a wink.

(This year I sometimes feel as though I am wearing a sign that says, ‘Please wink at me,’ because I am a recipient of an unseasonably high number of them, even for the racetrack: some from saucy elderly men, who are permitted, and some from guys my age, who honestly should not be winking at anyone under any circumstance. And then there’s my new, company-issued nametag, inexplicably introduced halfway through the meet: I am startled every time someone calls me by name, because I have long-since stopped wearing my ID. “Do people call you Betty?” a man asks. I shake my head. “Well thanks, Betty!” he calls out, and then every customer after him follows suit, a chorus of “Thank you, Betty!” as I punch out tickets with a frown. One man, hilariously drunk, leans against my machine as he tries to remember the horses he planned to bet on. “Give me the three with…give me the…what’s your name again? Beth? Macbeth?”)

The last tickets are cashed and we count up, turn in our money, and wander out into a sea of destruction: mountains of discarded betting tickets and crumpled plastic cups, and it smells just like an outdoor concert festival, or maybe, like the end of a long Saturday in August at the racetrack, smoke and spilled beer on muddy grass. The town is packed — I can hear it from my bedroom, live bands and djs blasting from rival bar patios, and groups of partiers, probably drunk since the sixth race, hollering outside our windows. I fall asleep by ten o’clock.

We are like bartenders, or maybe we are like bank tellers, or maybe there’s no analogous job for the strange rhythm of taking bets, for working to unravel the person standing on the other side of the window, if only for a second or two. I spend time thinking about the remarkable variety of human faces, studying the odd and the interesting, perfectly circular heads and perfectly rectangular ones, the way a single feature can dominate, a nose that never healed correctly after a break, a lazy eye, a comb-over gone wrong. Some guys park themselves at my window, and I stare at them while they stare at their programs, cataloguing details, the message on a pro-Tea Party hat, the make of a watch or the number of rings, a Star of David pendant peeking out beneath the lapels of a Hawaiian shirt. I look for cues in how they bet, for the gaps between confidence levels and correct terminology, in whether how much they’ve lost over the course of a day will affect how polite they’ll be, or if they’re so drunk that a joke will be wasted on them, or taken the wrong way. It’s all a subtle interchange, and sometimes, it feels effortless, as if we are reading from a script — “C’mon babe, let’s make some money today” — and sometimes I try to imagine these lines being delivered anywhere else, here in this day and age.

A man makes small talk with me as we wait for the last race to be finalized one evening. I ask if he’s had a good day, and he kind of shrugs and says that it was up and down. But that’s what gambling is all about, he tells me. “You have to take the losses with the wins.” That’s a healthy attitude, I say, and he shrugs again. “It’s like with relationships,” he goes on. “It can start out great, but then it can go really bad.” I nod slowly, because I believe that this is actually not a fantastic analogy for taking a gambling loss with grace. He says, “You know, you see those shows on TV — ” And then he is talking about shows on which women go crazy and kill their boyfriends and are handed life sentences for somewhat psychotic crimes of passion. “It’s official!” I cut in, because they have finally calculated the prices, and I can cash his ticket. As I hand him his money, he leans in and says, “You have a beautiful smile, you know.”

If we can count on that exponential rise, we can also count on the sudden drop the day after the Travers. A hangover blankets the track on Sunday, and the week that follows is a slow, sad coda, to the racing season and to summer itself. It’s always like this, bittersweet and sleepy, and every day the sunlight slants a little lower as we leave the racetrack. In years past, we’ve all had to bundle up in sweaters for the final days of the meet, but this year, the humidity hangs on, and we begin much as we started, sweating through the card, machines jamming up with the heat, torrential downpours sweeping through without warning, leaving the track a sloppy mess for the last of the stakes races. I am thoroughly sick of taking bets, and I wonder if it shows on my face, because multiple customers say something along the lines of, “Don’t worry — it’s almost over.” On Labor Day, my first customer looks as weary as I feel, and I ask him how he’s doing. “Oh, you know, just another day in paradise,” he says with a sigh. “It’s the last day in paradise,” I remind him, and he nods with grim satisfaction.

People talk about where they’re headed next, and I can feel everyone collectively shucking off their summer personas and reassembling their real lives. The full-time tellers in the union return to their families in Queens; Belmont’s fall season begins just three days later. Many co-workers talk about setting up classrooms, conference days, a return to their students, half reluctant, half hopeful. But more people than I ever realized don’t have another step — the six-week season was a temporary relief from unemployment, and I eavesdrop on conversations about job prospects and troubles (“Before that, I’d never been fired in my life!”) and I am left awkwardly telling people that I am moving to England, apparently the strangest answer anyone could possibly hand out. “Good luck,” I’m told, by co-workers and customers alike. It is a reversal of fortunes, and I am grateful for the well wishes, because, to echo my customers’ mantra, “I need it.” My final tip of the season comes from a quiet woman I’ve seen throughout the meet, who asks me what my plans are as I cash her ticket. She hands me $5, and says, “Go and buy yourself a pint.”

The chill finally settles in the next day, and I walk into town after dark to find it utterly deserted, save a couple or two at each of the outdoor seating areas, and some kids practicing skateboarding tricks on Caroline Street, which had been teeming with people just a few days prior, shouting and lighting cigars and toasting the end of summer. It is like any seasonal resort town, just as the season ends, but then, there’s something slightly special about the idea of the Saratoga racing season, something so removed from time. I am too tired to be wistful, but I will be, unapologetically; I always come around to it eventually. I will miss counting out stacks of hundreds and handing them over disbelieving and lucky bettors. I will miss the long, uncomplicated afternoons, the cadence of transactions and the banter, the sense of feeling slightly out-of-synch with the rest of the world. It is a finite season, but in the middle of it all, it feels unending, a single moment in time, stretching out across the call to the post, the starting bell, over ten races a day, six days a week, six weeks a year, for a century and a half.

Previously: On Luck

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 real joy reading Ms. Minkel’s dispatches from Saratoga but accolades don’t mean much when they’re all you’re allowed to post. The Millions consistently removes critical (and intelligently articulated) pieces. I’ve tried to post a couple of comments pointing out the weaknesses or writing-level flaws of certain pieces and despite being non-vindictive, non-trolling and eloquent I’m consistently censored. But I still wanted to congratulate Ms. Minkel on her decorum and for not succumbing to the worst instincts of the memoirist. She chronicles and does not judge. She paints a picture. She does a far better job than most documentarians. Her work is tactile but not over-described, contemporary but not snarky or dismissive or folks who are older or more traditional. She does not dismiss or mischaracterize. More young journalists, bloggers and writers need to exhibit her level of restraint and nuance.

  2. Sean, to quote from the ONE comment of yours that we removed (from an earlier essay, not this one):

    “Divorce/leave/cheat on your wife. Drink more. Fuck a few prostitutes after snorting cheap cocaine. Do anything but what you’re doing.” – this was directed non-rhetorically at the writer of the piece you were commenting on.

    I’m not sure in what universe you can call that “intelligently articulated”, “non-vindictive” or “non-trolling”. Pieces at The Millions receive plenty of critical comments, and we are happy to receive them, so long as they are at least a little bit civil.

    The other three comments that you’ve made on The Millions have not been touched by us.

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