Six days a week, with the exception of Tuesdays, the admissions gate is lifted after the 7th race at the Del Mar track, and the crowd that has gathered to play the last two races surges in, free of charge. These are the gypsies of the racing crowd — students in sandals and cut-off jeans, housewives in polyester pantsuits counting their pennies, teen-agers who can’t afford the gate price, fanatics who have turned the last races into a mystical system, hangers-on who will chance a few bucks in the twilight of the day but who fear the temptation of all nine races, and those who follow the circuit in California, from Del Mar to Oak Tree Park, Hollywood, Santa Anita, Golden Gate, all of them desire a winner that will allow them to believe that the universe is less capricious than they will admit.
But for those who work at Del Mar track, presumably one of the most beautiful in the world, the day draws to a close after the 9th race and the season after 43 racing days.
For the betting aficionados of the track, the last hoarse cries of the winners and the last angry or pitiful ones of the losers herald a new beginning. On their way out, with disappointment showing in every movement of their bodies, and “I should have” perpetually on their lips, they queue up for the next day’s program and the next day’s hopes. For the employees, it means .20 hours to post-time, 18 until the park opens for business.
In 1974, the daily average attendance was 14,522, but at least 1500 employees and nine unions are involved in keeping the track going. The Teamsters Union has two branches, the Building Service Employees International has several, the laborers, carpenters, painters, each has a local, not to mention the para-mutual people, affiliated with the Building Services, with a distinct union of its own. Office help has not been unionized, nor the most colorful employees, the “backside people,” stable hands, grooms, exercise boys, “hot walkers.” These are hired by individual horse owners, and their salaries and the terms of employment are as guarded as any arcane ritual.
Interviewing employees at the track proved a mixed blessing. The most suspicious proved to be the attendant at the turf club who kept repeating, “Outside, stay outside,” and used an automatic motion with his hand and foot, as if to trip anyone who dared to invade his domain. In general everyone held to a paradoxical stance: friendly on the one hand, but wary on the other, as if reluctant to let anyone know how terrific the job could be.
The overwhelming impression given by the employees — whether valet parkers, ticket takers, sellers of programs, handlers of the paddocks, — was that they had got lucky and stayed lucky by working at the track. Unionized help makes about $42 a day, 6 days a week. This is not a terrific sum, but far from complaining, everyone reported this salary with pride. Tips are officially forbidden, yet at some time or another everyone save the office people are rewarded by easy money. It is not so much a matter of tradition as the mood which infects the place. Superstition, ritual, magic are part of the total mystique. Since everyone wants luck and everyone searches for signs of luck, a valet parker with mismatched eyes or even a maintenance man collecting paper trash may have some attribute that the bettor deems as an auspicious omen, willingly paid for. Not only do people hope to bribe the gods of fortune at the track, but they like to distribute money to ward off misfortune for the next occasion. Again, while tipping remains officially forbidden, the young men who park cars may pick up $2 to $10 a day from patrons. Therefore, their jobs are held in high esteem and are not easily come by.
Of the half dozen valet parkers (young men who' park your car before the race and retrieve it for you afterwards) two were university students, one a disc jockey, one a gym teacher in high school, one remained unemployed between summers. They ranged in ages from 21-30 and answered to “boy” with shining equanimity. Hell, they were out in the air, rarely found their jobs boring, and didn’t mind the hassle at open and close. The parking captain, a short, weathered man in his 50’s with the air of a pro, followed the circuit.
How does one get a job at the track? Union, said some. Nepotism, said the students. Pull, said the outspoken. Prized for the shortness of the season, the choice hours — II a.m. to 7 p.m. — the good pay, the absence of monotony, the turnover is small and the workforce stable.
The handstamper at the private turf club, for example, an attractive, intelligent woman with a crisp no nonsense blonde coiffure, has worked at her job for 25 years. The stamp for the club of 1200 members and their guests is changed daily and applied with invisible ink which responds to an ultra-violet light. But crashers have used every possible means to duplicate the stamp, of which the most common consists of transferring from one hand to another. Admissions for the club range from $3 for the general club and $8 for the turf club, and there are never less than 2 dozen people a day who will risk the humiliation of discovery to try to gain free entrance. For 25 summers, these would-be crashers have been thwarted by this same woman.
Her husband, a drama coach in a San Diego high school during-the teaching year, works the arcus machine that prints and punches the passes purchased by special groups. Would they give up their jobs during the “season”? Never! Despite the wrangle with crashers (All children under 12 walk under the bar, free. One of these so-called 12 year olds proved to be a student at Los Angeles City College!), the work seemed an excellent change from teaching.
Del Mar prides itself on the number of teachers, as well as university students it employs. I met a security guard with a double major at San Diego State University, a valet parker from the Lit department at UCSD, several teachers from this area, as well as other parts of California. The young woman who sells programs in a straw hat, perched on a stool outside the gate is a student from Pasadena City College who got the job through her boyfriend, the printer of the programs. She also works the season at Santa Anita. When I asked her whether she liked her work, she shivered appreciatively, “I LOVE it!” In other words, the aura of the track, the sense of possibility in each fresh crowd prevents her job from being as dull as it might be were she doing exactly the same type of work outside a supermarket.
Do the employees bet on the ponies? Depends on their jobs. Office people never do. “How would I come out ahead?” they ask. Security guards and car attendants answered, “Once in a while,” or “Rarely.” But one gate man, who had made the track his life since the age of 13, starting as a stable boy and working variously as jockey in the half-milers, trainer, jockey’s agent, said he didn’t bet much anymore, that is “once or twice a day!” He estimated that one-third of his salary went to betting, some weeks much more. Of course, he follows the circuit, living in rented apartments from track to track.
Circuit followers do not regard either their calling or their lifestyle precarious. Some live in rooms in Exhibition Hall at the Del Mar track; others find apartments for the season. Many have homes outside of Los Angeles, where they can handily commute to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Almost all of the old timers have had families and raised children. Husband-and-wife teams are not uncommon, nor are entire families, some of whom may work as food handlers or as bar-men. Five women are now employed in the Mutuals division — 5 out of 365 — and they contend with the nervous, irate, over-stimulated bettors as well as the most seasoned.
The occupational hazard of those who work behind the para-mutual windows centers on hot tempers. People who have asked for the wrong number at the wrong window, people who fail to check their tickets at the window and discover, a moment later, that they didn’t obtain what they asked for, and people who general frustration needs a direct object, focus on the seller at the para-mutual window. Two dollar windows are crowded, and some mistakes are inevitable. But both the dispensers of tickets and the pay-off attendants have had their share of curses and other verses, as well as threats of bodily violence and attempt at assault -— one otherwise philosophical philosophy teacher poked a clerk in the nose because the post-time bell prevented him from buying a ticket.
The security guards share a common sentiment: “We don’t want trouble.” If your wrist watch is ripped off as mine was two seasons back, when a man lovingly patted my wrist and asked “How you doing today, honey?”, your chances of recovery are nil unless you catch the thief red-handed. Security guards recognize pick pockets and petty thieves, but can’t make arrests unless they are discovered in the act, which few are careless enough to do. The guards have to break-up fights, especially between living companions who have had differences of opinions, and apprehend loners who attempt to assault the jockeys, the handlers, the officials. An occasional crap game or card game in the parking lot also has to be terminated but gently, gently. No bad publicity wanted.
Without doubt, the most obsessional characters are the “backside" employees, the men who deal directly with the horses before and after the races. Exercise “boys” still abound, but “hot walkers,” men who cool off the horses after they’ve been exercised, have become victims of automation. An electric machine which is harnessed to the animal now serves this function, and there is a lot of gloomy prediction about automated exercise boys and grooms. The attitude “backside” is tense, competitive, pessimistic. These men, again, referred to as boys even when they are grandfathers, have no unions, no part-time jobs, no other work save the horses. And they are at the mercy of individual owners. Most of them hope to rise in the hierarchy, learn the business, stick with the game. Others have made the route to the top and failed, unlike Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby to seize “the opportunity.”
On September 10th, when the para-mutual board goes dead in the muted Del Mar twilight, and the dead tickets have been scooped up. and the horses and their retinues have departed, most of the employees will fan out across San Diego and Los Angeles for home. But for others, it’s just a few weeks between stints, before they’re off and running again, living in their rented rooms, preparing for post-time.
“Would you change your employment if you could?”
– E.J. Rackow
It wasn’t a particularly auspicious Opening Day at the races in Del Mar — and for me, it was downright dismal.
For one thing, I wasn’t sure I was going until Tuesday evening, and then I rushed around madly trying to find a racing form. By dint of diligent liquor store hopping, I finally found a form, and took it home only to discover that I’d forgotten how to translate all that information into a winning ticket.
To complicate matters further, they’ve added a new fractional times indicator since last December, so entries from last year are printed in a different style from entries of this year, and a horse’s record may show both styles. The new style shows the fractional times of the leading horse at different points of call in the race. Comparing these with the fractional positions given for the entry, you can (conceivably) get a fairly accurate idea of how fast your horse was going at any particular point. Basically, this makes it possible to compare distance runners with sprinters with some semblance of accuracy.
But then anybody will tell you that distance runners pace themselves, so I just ignored the whole mess.
Finding that my eyes refused to focus and my mind resolved to wander, I decided that what .1 really needed before Opening Day was a good night’s rest. If I was secretly hoping to dream up some winners, I was sadly disappointed.
I was up bright and early Wednesday morning — not to go check out the early works (workouts are held very early every morning in a special pavilion at the Fairgrounds) — but to await the phone man, who was scheduled to come that morning. Naturally, he didn’t arrive until noon, which wasn’t his fault, but it did make me late and ruined my plans for lunch.
I'd been prepared to look gorgeous in a light summery dress, but, glancing at the horizon, I quickly changed into jeans and t-shirt, grabbed a sweater, just in case, and dashed off to pick up my friend Charly and head for the track.
Poor Charly was hungry and cross at my lateness, not being overly enthusiastic at the prospect of lunch at the track. He hadn’t had a chance to look at the form, either, but I confidently assured him that we had the sixth race wired, as I’d gotten a tip from a man at one of the liquor stores that didn’t carry forms. Charly just shook his head and said, “And it takes me four hours of poring over the form...’’
Although post time isn't until 2 p.m.. it’s a good idea to get to the track by 1 p.m.. if not a little earlier. The parking lot fills up early, and you may get more exercise than the horses do, just walking to and from your car. There is a little tram system set up for those who park in the nether reaches of the SI lot, or you can cough up an extra dollar for “Preferred Parking” in the fairgrounds proper. Then there are those who park right in front of the gates, their chauffeurs lounging against long sleek hoods, waiting for the master’s return.
Charly and I walked, and I soon regretted the stacked shoes I’d worn as a last vain sop to fashion.
We noted that entrance prices had risen again this year — to $2 for Grandstand and S3 for Clubhouse tickets. We didn’t dare look to see the prices for Turf Club or reserved seating. After observing the posted dress codes, we had no trouble deciding that such rarefied atmosphere wasn't for us.
Once in, our immediate concern was to “form” the Daily Double and get into the long, long lines to place our bets, so it wasn’t until after the first race that we finally got something to eat.
The Daily Double is a special bet on the first two races of the day — you bet $2 on two horses, and if they both win you can make a small bundle. However, if only one — or neither — comes in, you've only lost S2, so it’s a cheap risk and a popular bet. The hard part is when the first half of your double is a winner, and you have to wait through the second race to see if you made it — a nerve-racking experience, I can tell you.
“It’s a good thing we lost the first half of the Double — I'd be so tense and jazzed I couldn't eat if we had a shot at it.”
“Yeah, it’s a good thing...-” Concessions at the track include corned beef or roast beef sandwiches for S1.75, hot dogs for 65c, beer for 70c (per small cup) or soft drinks for 40c. There are also mixed drinks for those who want to forget — or don't need to remember — and ice cream, peanuts and such for those who get the nervous munchies. I wasn’t surprised at the wholesale price increases this year — I was only grateful that the programs are still a quarter, the forms a stable $1.
I must admit that our hot dogs and cokes didn’t do much to assuage either our hunger or our sorrows. Only semi-daunted, however, we returned to the form and started to work out our betting strategy for the day.
“I’m going to stick to place and show bets this time, I really am. After all, I have an unerring sense for the third-rate horse, and I ought to capitalize on it.”
“If they had turkey races, now, like dog races. I’d be a millionaire by now.”
“Or if they ran the races backward — we’d both have a shot at it then!”
“I just don’t remember how to form anymore. I’m reduced to betting pretty names or good jockeys or maybe I should try the old stick-a-pin-in-the-program gambit...”
From a betting standpoint, the day went from lousy to regrettable. I finally got a payoff in the fifth race — I bet on Refusal to place.
“You bet on Refusal- to place? How could you bet on a horse with a name like that?”
“No, Dummy, I bet him to place, and the dratted beast went and won!”
To add the proverbial insult, when I went to collect my $10 winnings, the man ahead of me took his sweet time counting the S300 or so the cashier handed him. He'd made a multiple bet on Refusal to win.
There are several ways to bet on a horse race — the ordinary $2, $10, or $100 bet to win. place or show being the most common. These can be bet in multiples, so you can actually wager any amount you want to. The returns on a win ticket are naturally greater than on a place or show bet, but the risk is greater. You can cover all bases with a $6 combination, where you collect if the horse comes in 1st, 2nd or 3rd. Or there are the special bets, the Daily Double and the Exacta. There are now three Exacta races a day, specified in the program, and the object of the Exacta bet is to pick the first and second place horse in the correct order of finish. It costs S5 a try, and the odds are against you. but the Exacta pots are often staggeringly large.
I'm not really much of a gambler, but I like the S2 bet on a race — it gives added excitement to the proceedings. Unfortunately, the one race where my horse actually got home on all four legs,
I was resting my poor tired feet on the grass outside. I didn’t even get to cheer him in. The rest of the time we watched from a spot near the finish line or got a better view from the many closed-circuit televisions scattered throughout the buildings.
“The trouble with watching the race on TV is that they focus on the lead horses, so I never get to see the one I bet on,” was Charly’s plaintive remark.
The day wore slowly on, gradually wearing my wallet down. Even the weather was uncooperative — mostly overcast, and alternating between chilly and muggy. The best part was watching the horses in the
paddock, where you get a close view of them as the jockeys mount and ride them out to the track. Still, the one time I went to the paddock just to decide between two long-shots, they looked exactly alike. They could have been twins — except that one came in first and the other came in last. I’d bet on the favorite instead, being unable to choose between them.
The only thing that distinguished Opening Day from any other day at the races was the crowd, which was unusually large for a Wednesday. There was no fanfare, nothing special, except that it was Opening Day, the beginning of the Del Mar season, which in itself, for all us race fans (even the embittered ones) is cause for celebration.
The Del Mar Racetrack is located at the fairgrounds in Del Mar, open six days a week. Closed Tuesdays. Post time 2:00 p.m.
— Beth Lyons
For the stars
There are forty-two different ways to bet a horserace. Forty-one of these involve money; the forty -second, Cary Grant’s teeth.
In the seventeenth century Samuel Pepys won a papal dispensation, a pre-posthumous pardon of all his sins, betting a match race between barren mares with his parish priest. (July 31, 1638, Addendum XVIII to the diary.)
Celebrities have always been big winners. Tanforan once held the Zazu Pitts Stakes for handicapped two year old fillies. At Bay Meadows three old-time movie moguls sat five hours inside the air-conditioned clubhouse staring at the toteboard, awaiting the second feature. Hollywood Park finds Tom Ewell answering the question, “Who do you like in the seventh?” with “Nobody likes Billy Wilder.” But summertime means Del Mar, Saratoga of the West. (The East represents dollars and breeding; the West, turf, surf, and Jimmy Durante.)
Martin Ritt, the director of No Down Payment, Hud, and The Brotherhood, among others, owned a horse entered in the twenty-ninth running of the Oceanside Handicap, $20,000 added, a race worth $15,000 to the winner. Ritt sits in a box above the finish line. He dresses in pin-stripe jump suits, full of pockets, tapered above the knees. Between races he stands, hand in one pocket jingling dimes, binoculars around his neck, fidgeting with his mustache, glasses, weekday whiskers, calling to hulking, well-tanned, male friends, trying to get up a game of tennis. Ritt’s horse, Buck Price, was bet down from nine-to-two to five-to-two (Hollywood money). With ten lengths left to run, the leader. New Stamp, took a drunken dive, bumped second-running Buck Price into the rail, and Willmar, on the outside, picked up the purse. After a steward’s inquiry ruled Willmar the winner, with Buck Price second, and the TV replay showed Buck Price about to win before being laid out by New Stamp, Martin Ritt simply stated, “My horse got bumped twice.” He took it extremely well.
Horseracing entrepreneurs Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson can often be glimpsed, fondled, what have you, in the crowded paddock area. Burt wears dapper blazers and is always sending his top trainer, bald-headed Charlie Whittingham, to Chile in search of stakes horses. Angie says that Sam Fuller should have stuck to writing, not directing, that Howard Hawks was the greatest, that Don Siegel was just as good in his own way, but that Roger Vadim was the best.
In the third race two horses broke down, and Mystery Story snuck through the ensuing commotion to pay $175 to win, $92 to place, and $8.60 to show. Between the fifth and sixth races. Rod Steiger, who played Napoleon with hemmoroids and flea bites, was being interviewed by a local reporter. “Was Julie Christie your favorite leading lady? Do you ever want to work with-Stanley Kubrick? Is Run of the Arrow your best film?” Steiger stood glassy-eyed, a bit of white foam splayed about the lips. “Are you going to play W. C. Fields as if he had rabies? Do you miss Claire Bloom?” Steiger wiped his mouth, pulled in his stomach, and wept. “I had Mystery Story to show.”
Once in a great while basketball great Elgin Baylor can be found at Del Mar. He is easily recognized. Six feet five inches tall, turtle-neck sweatered, Baylor spends most of his time roaming through the Turf Club asking, “Has anybody seen Doris Day around?”
The day after Buck Price’s bumping, Why More Worry, the Martin Ritt owned favorite in the mile and one-eighth turf course ninth race, was bet down from five-to-two to six-to-five (more Hollywood money). Why More Worry had won her last race easily wire to wire, and had been leading the one before by four lengths, when in the stretch she leaped off the course and was disqualified. In this ninth race jockey Darrel McHargue rode the filly beautifully, way in front of the pack until, with five lengths left to run and two lengths ahead, Willie Shoemaker’s Monarm took three giant steps and won in a photo finish. Martin Ritt did not take it extremely well.
Mary Bacon, first female jockey to ever ride at Del Mar, was asked what she does with her spare time,
“I don’t have time for anything but horses,” she responded. A check of the program revealed she was not riding any that day.
Vince Edwards, morning rerun television star, began his show parlay with a two dollar bet on E. Eddie Edwards. Eddie ran second, and Vince collected J3.80. Edwards bet four dollars on Currahoney in the second. Curra-honey ran second. Edwards collected ten dollars. Vince’s choice Olympia Miss ran third in the third. Edwards cashed fifteen dollars in tickets. He bought three five dollar show tickets on Maskyourmanners in the fourth and won $43.50. Bernwood Quest, Edwards’ eight-to-one shot in the fifth paid $3.40 to show. The boodle was up to $71.40. Fairly Certain won the sixth. That made it $111.80. Edwards bet it all on Dollar Discount. A deadheat for third brought the total to $120. The featured eighth race was seven and one half furlongs on the turf. Fleet Afoot took a second, and Edwards cashed $312 worth of tickets.'The ninth race contained co favorites. Tallyman and Perpetual. Edwards bet half his winnings on each. They finished one-two. Somebody called for a doctor.
Barry Berlin, up and coming manager of the Fashion Valley Four Theaters, tries to get to the track on Mondays and Thursdays, but always leaves after the fifth race in order to get to his theaters in time for the bargain hour lines.
Barry’s father used to sell egg creams on the comer of Eighteenth Street and Broadway in New York City.
Four days after Why Me Worry’s second place finish, in the feature race of the day, Martin Ritt’s Zanthe drew the second post position. Five-to-one in the morning line, Zanthe went off at five-to-one. (What happened to that Hollywood money?) Zanthe saved ground staying along the inside hedge, while favorites Rego Tello and Shoemaker’s El Seetu battled for the lead. In the stretch drive, Zanthe moved in front but was overtaken at the wire by the ten-to-one longshot El Rojo Diablo. Martin Ritt took it extremely well. He applauded wildly, then cashed four fifty dollar win tickets.
Desi Arnaz, flashing an incredibly toothy smile, welcomed a young woman friend to his little, square Turf Club table overflowing with cottage cheese salads. (The following is as translated from the Engleesh.) “On the last day of the season this year, July 21 at Hollywood Park, I bet Cary Grant’s teeth right on the nose of Patsy’s Pat, a seven-length winner. I won Dick Zanuck’s molars and a lifetime pass to the orthodontist of my choice!”
Jerry Lewis never turns up at the races. People wait for him to come and throw peanuts at the horses, do his imitation of an overweight jockey riding high in the saddle, or pass the hat for donations to the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation. But Jerry Lewis never shows.
– Alan Pesin