I remember playing the horses, the two of us, heading for the track in my used Mercury Sable on one of those dusty Autumn days. The parking lot crammed with cars, blue and white and silver and green and black and faded gold. We walked for miles, it seemed, to the ticket booth, and pushed through the stiles after paying our seven bucks. That left us with thirteen each, because we didn’t bring more temptation than a twenty spot.
A twenty spot could pay for a lot of laughs. A lot of high jumping and air punching and long jaws and hollering up there in the stands. The two of us, a girl and her guy, perched on high, gazing down on the track. Nearby, a thin fellow hunched over his racing form. And the Mexicans, looking to add to their immigrant income, sweating those day jobs nobody wanted but sure as shootin’ didn’t want stolen out from under them.
And the horses, paraded on a tether by their hot-walkers, young kids who ran from home, kids who dreamt about horses before running and this was the only way to get close. Maybe one or two of those kids dreamt about being a jockey but it was a no go, what with those long bones that sprouted when their voices plummeted.
I remember that day, alright, the smell of manure and hay and dust and cigarettes. Drinking lemonade and bottled water, some sneaking gin in a silver flask, the kind miners drank from. And there we were, mining for gold of a different hue.
We placed our two dollar bets, to the irritation of the long-eared geezer behind the window. He slid our tickets across without batting an eye, without adding a wrinkle to the many that crisscrossed his face. We weren’t in it for the money. We were in it for the time of our lives.
And we sure had a time of it, a whole afternoon at the track, pooling our last dollar bills to bet two on a long-shot to win. That was the highlight, seeing that little mare charge from the back of the pack on the clubhouse turn, shooting us to our feet, go, go, go! Those hooves tucked under her belly and then gouging the track, dust flying, the jockey working her tender flank, her sides heaving around barrel ribs, the announcer’s voice rising, rising, us boxing the air with our fists and that little mare clipping past the lead horse, stretching long in both directions, one hoof landing over the finish line, winning by a nose.
Our eyes bugged out, our lungs laughed air, we high-fived and danced a jig and pounded down the steps and pushed our way through the crowd and panted up to the barred window and forfeited our winning ticket, pushing it back to the man who slapped the cash on the counter and slid it over, not even lifting a corner of his mouth, his eyes as dull as old cigarette smoke.
A twenty. A whole twenty in winnings. And it was worth it. A whole twenty to spend another day at the track. We pocketed the cash and slung our arms around each other and hooted our way back through the parking lot, richer than any millionaire.