Honor thy Mother and Father… at the racetrack?

With a thirteen and fifteen-year-old at home, finding a family activity that everyone is willing and interested in has become increasingly difficult.  Now if I imagine some Norman Rockwell sort of Sunday in the Park with George, some sort of “jolly holiday with Mary,” the last thing that would come to my mind is the racetrack.  Yet, that is precisely where our family managed to have a great time last Sunday.

The track is actually a place we go in honor of my now-dead in-laws, particularly my father-in-law who was a bit misguided as a parent—as his big, in fact only, bonding experience (save movie screenings) with his young daughter was the racetrack.  Although we rarely go to the track, we always remember the exit, Baldwin, because my father-in-law was bald… and he never won.

Going to Santa Anita when the winter light casts the mountains in crisp relief and the timeless building invites you into a scene that could be the 1920’s, 40’s or some tough-edged movie about grifters and glitterati is to enter a mysterious and bittersweet world.  Characters abound:  high rollers, cowboy hats, all sorts of hats, sleek shimmering horses rippling with muscle and skittish in their blinders, silken jockeys on scales, chefs running back and forth from the restaurant to scope the ponies, place a bet and dash back to cook for the leather and cigar crowd in the Turf Club, stragglers, ruined gamblers, hustlers on the make and rich guys in plaid jackets and blue-haired women in fur coats…

When I was a teen I went to the track with my friends one time, in Chicago where the “trotters” pulled little Ben Hur buggies and I got nabbed at the betting windows by an enormous cop (I was fifteen, but I looked twelve).  I tried to buy the cop off with my ticket ($10 bucks to win on a horse named “Egyptian Bondy”), this was Chicago and anything was possible.  The cop contemplated the ticket as we rode the escalator into the bowels of the building and he shook his head, almost imperceptibly, as he handed me back my ticket.

I was sitting at a classic interrogation table as track security tried to intimidate me, asking if my parents knew I was there.  The cop then went in a smaller office and closed the door.  I could hear his end of the conversation, “Are you aware that your son is here at the racetrack?  …no, everything’s okay.  … are you aware that gambling for minors is illegal? …uh, huh.  …uh, huh.  uh, huh… Okay, well I’m going to let it go this time but…”

He came out of the little office and said, unconvincingly, “You’re parents are pissed.”  I looked at him, knowing that my parents were so not pissed.  I was starting to like this cop.  He warned me not to let him catch me there again and let me go.  It seemed like an hour down there, but it couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes because as I raced back to my friends the horses were rounding the bend… and Egyptian Bondy pulled into the lead.  I was jumping up and down and shouting as Egyptian Bondy won.

I dared to approach the windows one last time to collect something north of forty dollars—a king’s ransom for a fifteen-year-old in my Chicago of 1975 when I had absolutely no business betting $10 on a horse (but I had a feeling about old Egyptian Bondy—and I still love that sprightly trotter, even if he’s up in glue heaven now).

As a dad who would rather have a root canal than go to Disneyland, I found myself last Sunday having eggs and ice tea with my wife and kids and trying to guess which horse was going to win the first race.  I jokingly asked our waitress, a seasoned and lovely spirit, if she knew who was going to win and she seriously told us that she never gambled—she’d seen too many people gamble all their wages, the many who came and went when she’d been there for years.  She was nice.

And so we talked about math—3:5, 7:2, 28 to 1… talking about risk, about odds, about favorites and long-shots.  My wife had said the kids had to bring their own money (initiating them into risk and reward), but my kids are thankfully conservative and were careful to allocate their two or three dollars to a given horse, one kid always playing favorites to show, another trying to win on the extreme long-shot and then going for the trifecta (a tough bet by any standard where you need to get the top three in the exact order).

The spirit of my father-in-law hovered and shone on my wife—who picked the first two race’s winners, the fourth and the sixth and an exacta along the way—her best day at the track ever.  We never once bet as much as I did when I was fifteen, and yet on two-dollar bets she paid for gas, parking and lunch with money to take home.

Don’t get me wrong, as a psychologist I have seen the Shadow side of compulsive gambling and it can be a terrible illness, yet we can’t all be Mr. Rogers and somehow it seemed comforting to look at the horses and try to guess who felt like winning, who looked at us, who pooped at the last minute—ready to run like the wind; it was oddly archetypal to walk up to the windows with my boys and risk a little something, have a little skin in the game as the gate lifted… as “and away they go” rang out over the crowd, the grass, the smoke, the dirt and the soft afternoon.

One kid lost his allowance, the other won less than five dollars and my wife and I walked away with enough to cover the Chinese take-out that night.  As we walked to the car both my kids said that this was fun, and that they wanted to do it again one time this year.  Can I say that this was “good parenting?”  I don’t know… to me it underscores how we each must decide for ourselves what is right, what is safe fun and what is dangerous, wrong or bad.  At one point I joked to my older son, as we approached the betting windows, “So son, if you’re ever short the rent, you take whatever you can scrounge up and come out to the track and make the rent.”  He busted up laughing.  It was nice that he was old enough wheresarcasm (an early developmental no-no) could be understood; it helped me feel strangely connected with my grandfather I never knew, but who supposedly trained horses for the Cossacks before fleeing from them in the pogroms, and close still with my father-in-law who may not have generally won, but who seemed to show up and help us win—“parenting” across the veils of time and tangible being.

So, let’s dedicate today to wishing luck to all those we love—rooting like mad for all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “Honor thy Mother and Father… at the racetrack?”

  1. Khim Says:

    I love this!!

  2. krk Says:

    Your father and father-in-law were appreciating all of you. No wonder you had
    a fun day. What is right or wrong? Nothing when it comes to real enjoyment
    with the ones you love. My philosophy.

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