Around two o’clock the pattern of the day had begun to take shape. Roach had won early and lost it back early. He was back to even and thinking about raising his bets to make up for lost time. This was the next worst thing to being behind. Lentz was cashing tickets, but they were mostly cheap Exactas and small one-dollar Triple Boxes. He was in good shape, though, being patient. He knew he had the cash to score big when The Sheetsgave him that long-shot of the day.
Jack was quiet, trying to ignore the steady, back and forth track-talk rhythm between his buddies. It was still raining hard in Baltimore and in New York. His mud strategy was backfiring and he was losing. His loses were small but steady. He still had two thirds of the day’s allotted stake, but unless something changed, that would be gone in another hour. He began to think about a radical change of method.
“That three horse don’t know he’s a piece of shit. He don’t even care.”
This observation floated over the short separator of the booth to Jack’s right. Sitting there, talking to himself was a very old, very black man. He had the look of a dried apple. Creases ran inwardly from around his eyes and ears, meeting somewhere near his mouth. His face seemed to be caving in on itself. He was chewing slowly, thoughtfully. His hands were the thick, gnarled tools of a life-long bricklayer. They held a once-bitten peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white that Jack thought looked delicious.
“You looking at the three in the fifth at Belmont?” Jack asked his neighbor. “I couldn’t pick that horse in a one horse race.”
Without looking away from the monitor, the old man put the sandwich down on top of his Program. He moved it to his right, away from Jack.
“Sometimes, the animals don’t know they can’t win. That’s when you wanna bet ‘em.”
“You have a way of telling that?” Jack asked. But, apparently, the exchange was at an end. The old man closed his program on top of the pee bee and jay, slowly rose and disappeared somewhere out the back door toward the Track Kitchen.
On wet days, because of scratches or because of problems in loading horses into the gate, gaps of as much as fifteen minutes arise before the multi-track bettors have a race to bet. This is when they grab a drink, make a call or go to the Men’s. Jack and Lentz walked together to answer Nature’s call. Roach had gone in that same direction at a sprint a few minutes earlier.
“How are you doing?” Lentz asked Jack. “Need any money?”
“Not yet. You look like you’re doing OK.”
They had become friends forty years earlier, having met on the number forty four bus on the way to the first day of high school. Small, short-term loans ebbed and flowed between them over the years, each confident that they would see a loan returned.
Jack shoved on the door marked “Gentlemen,” and walked to one of the rust- stained sinks to wash The Racing Form’sink off his hands. Lentz found a likely stall and pushed the door open with a short kick.
“Hey, goddammit, I’m in here!” It was Roach, not looking good. He sat, head in one hand, Programin the other, pen in mouth.
“It’s aliiive!” parodied Lentz, doing the old Frankensteinmovie. He loved flicks. But, he loved telling his friends about them even more, providing them with details of movies they had seen themselves. Out of earshot, they would call his reviews “Cecil B. DeMildews.”
“Hey, I watched the Young Frankensteinon cable last night.” Jack was into late night TV.
“That’s a funny-ass movie. Igor is great!”
Referring to Marty Feldman’s classic hunchback, Lentz pronounced the name correctly as: “Eye-gor.”
“How about when Gene Wilder says to him: ‘I can fix that hump.’ And, Igor says: ‘What hump?’”
“Five minutes to Churchill.”
This bulletin came from Roach bolting from his stall, like Secretariat on a buzzer. His fly was down and he trailed a long line of toilet paper, stuck to the heel of his shoe.
“Don’t tell him.” Lentz hadn’t yet forgotten the undiscussed $21.80 win in Pimlico’s first.
Jack wasn’t paying attention. Something was coming together for him. Something was synthesizing in the right side of his brain. It was something that had to do with what the old man had said and the recounting of the Igor scene. If people or horses didn’t recognize or acknowledge their problems, for all intents and purposes, did the problems exist? Or, maybe it wasn’t a matter of recognition. Maybe it is more of a taking control of how they make their way in the world, regardless of their problems. But, horses are just dumb beasts. How the hell could he tell whether some nag had high self-esteem? His head hurt. He reached into his pocket for the aspirin that wasn’t there.