Call to Post November 28, 2011Posted by Mark Folse in lyric essay, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
Tags: horse racing, opening day, Thanksgiving, The Fairgrounds
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It cannot be the sound of school’s out or a playground, that excited babble in the distance, but this is your first thought. The high pitched voices, the pure joyful noise of it. It is the middle of the holiday weekend. There is no school. The quiet returns and as you contemplate what it might be you hear the bugler play First Call and realize it is the sound of the crowd cheering their horses that has carried just over a furlong and into your living room.
It is third day of the racing season at the Fairgrounds and looking out your window at the full parking lot you realize the crowd is no doubt large. Two days ago the season opened with its typical Thanksgiving fan fair: a festival of morning cocktails, women in elaborate hats, men handling their unfamiliar cigars as if rehearsing for their new riches. The crowd is divided into several sets: the horsey sort (who make the greatest effort at their hats and clothes) who are put off by the lottery now used to assign the clubhouse tables their family have occupied for decades; their less sporting associates, desirous as a climbing English solicitor to see and be seen in their finery on this canonical holiday; and finally the teeming masses of the grandstand.
Many of the large crowd of groundlings ape the clubhouse crowd. As I stood on my stoop across from the top of the stretch I watched a couple pass, complemented her hat and admired his jacket-less gray silk vest and walking stick. Last year a small parade passed, two dozen people well dressed for opening day, following a small brass band, a hired Mardi Gras Indian cavorting to the music. While the rest of America settles with its coffee in front of the television for the Macy’s parade or hurries home from church, New Orleans makes a Bloody Mary and goes off to the races.
I love the horses but have not been on Thanksgiving Day in decades, but I doubt the scene has changed much from my description from memory. I prefer the routine days of racing, and like the notorious player and poet Charles Bukowski tend toward the grand stand counter bar where the conversation over beer and coffee of the betting regulars is, if not entirely reliable, the most entertaining. I trained by reading Ainsley but my real education came from a co-worker on Capitol Hill who was a very serious player. A math graduate of Berkley who thoroughly digested Edward O. Thorps’ book on card counting Beat the Dealer and he financed his education in part be making himself persona non grata in every casino in Reno. A perfect racetrack character whose other favorite place was the strip club near his suburban apartment, he spent entirely too much of his taxpayer financed time entering the daily results of the Maryland races into a large statistical analysis spreadsheet he had made himself. From this he developed a very reliable system specific to that circuit and certain classes of horses by sex and age that I won’t divulge.
From Mark I learned not only how to apply the secrets of his system to the Daily Racing Form, but also the habits of watching past races on the handy television monitors that allowed you to call up past performances, looking for telltale clues. More important, I learned to make the circuit. This involved lifting ourselves up from our cigarette-butt littered spot in the bleaches and traveling down to the paddock to have a look at the horses conformation and temperament, then following the parade out to a spot on the rail to see them in motion, how they reacted to the condition of the track and the handling of their jockeys, how they loaded into the gate (although this last often came too late, after the money was down) Once the horses are passed, we would watch the convolutions of the horse board, the statistical presentation in lighted numbers of the complex sociological dynamics of a crowd which–nine or ten times a day–attempts to define and redefine a consensus. The late bets are the most important, the other self-appointed experts laying down large wagers in the last minute so as not to start the crowd stampeding toward their choice and lowering the spread. Then a sprint to the window, a quick bet and back to the bleachers. I don’t know at what point in our weekly jaunts to Laurel and sometimes Baltimore I realized how closely we modeled the horses themselves: the paddock, the parade, the anxious waiting in front of the tote board just as the horses waited at the gate, then our heated, last minute sprint to the cashiers and back.
Which brings me back to the sound that intruded into my reading on Saturday morning, the crescendo of the crowd that follows the crash of the gate and the announcer’s barked “they’re off”, the bettors urging their horse, hats waving, rolled-up Forms brandished like magic wands or threats of punishment, the tension released in the operatic cacophony of a thousand howling ticket holders intent on winning. If all this rings a bit nostalgic that because my track attendance has been near nil since returning to New Orleans. In between the Senate campaign of ’86 and my departure for Washington, D.C. I spent a fair amount of my idle time sitting in the grandstands, buying only a Form and a couple of cups of coffee, practicing my handicapping while staying away from the cashiers (who have sadly been largely replaced with machines), passing the afternoon pleasantly It always seems there are a million other things calling for attention.
I often start my days on a plastic resin chair next to my stoop, cradling my morning coffee and watching the horses’ morning exercise. For a while that seemed enough, just my proximity and the relaxation of watching them run in the distance, but I think its time I got back to the track with a brace of sharp pencils, if only to escape for a while into the arcana of the past performance and the moderate excitement of watching the horses run without the pressure of a win or a loss. The exercise of making the circuit while avoiding the blood pressure spike that goes with a ticket can be filed away under fresh air and exercise, stimulation of the middle aged mind by mathematics. All in all a doctor-approved activity, if I can stay away from the hotdogs.