My friend Lenny, belter known to his cronies al the wagering satellite in Del Mar as the Hammer, has had just about enough of the Del Mar Fair to last him a lifetime. Every racing day since the event opened on June 16. Lenny has been show ing up no later than 11:00 a m. so that he'll be able to get to the betting windows on time to play his selections at Holly wood Park. Even so, he has found himself forced to park in the outer reaches of the main lots and made to walk a considerable distance to the admission gates. The Hammer is in his mid-sixties. smokes two packs a day. drinks, and is overweight; walking, he maintains, is not conducive to health. “I get enough exercise going back and forth to the windows to make a bet." he told me. "I don't need this aggravation in the sun just to get a bet down on a horse, you know what I mean?” He thinks the fair ought to be providing at least golf carts for the horse players. “I run more money through the windows here in one afternoon than fifty of these hayseeds sucking on cotton candy while they glom onto the pie-baking contests." he said. “But it's typical. If you're a horse player, you get no consideration. Mostly you get dumped on."
The Hammer gets dumped on quite a lot. First of all. he apparently acquired his nickname because of his unfortunate habit of pounding on flat surfaces when his horses lose, which is much of the time. Or maybe it's because he can really hammer a window with piles of money whenever he thinks he's got a mortal lock. Nobody knows where all this money comes from, but, like most racetrackcers. the Hammer seems to have endless supplies of it. “There’s always fresh." he likes to say after a bad day. And it's true; however he gets it, Lenny the Hammer is always in action.
He lives in Chula Vista. Before the advent of satellite wagering at the Del Mar fairgrounds last fall, he used to go to Tijuana on the weekends to play the Foreign Book, starting at nine o'clock in the morning with the Eastern tracks and going through the afternoon action in California.
But like a lot of other gamblers, he gave up Caliente and the long waits to get back across the border, when all he had to do to make a bet and see a horse race was drive up the freeway to Del Mar. “I figure I lengthened my life by two years just by not having to sit in my car for an hour on Saturdays and Sundays." he told me. "Only this fair is a ballbreaker."
In addition to the long walk from the parking lots. Lenny the Hammer objects to having to pay five dollars a pop just to get into the grounds. Although he thinks nothing of risking hundreds of dollars on a single race, he has a deeply rooted aversion to pay ing an admission fee for the privilege of doing so. He believes that he and the other hard knockers at the track ought to be comped and fussed over, escorted onto the premises by miniskirted hostesses, plied with free drinks, maybe even given medals for indomitable valor in the face of continued adversity. He has all sorts of dubious credentials, such as a hotwalker’s license and borrowed passes, that can usually gain his admittance gratis, but during the fair, he has found himself relegated to the ranks of the rubes, and it galls him. To him. the fair is an aberration, an irrelevance that interferes with his action, and he’s looking forward to closing day with the relish of a convict about to be paroled. “Look at this." he said to me on opening day. as we threaded our way through the junk-food stands and displays toward the safe haven of the betting facilities. "A million people are going to pay money to come in here and never even make a bet. It’s incredible."
What's even more incredible to Lenny the Hammer is what the squares at the fair will actually spend their money on. Last Saturday he showed up at ten o’clock, because he knew the crowds would be terrific and the freeway would jam up. This left him with more than three hours to kill until post time for the first race, so he stuck his program and his rolled-up Racing Farm into his pocket and set out for the Midway, also known as the Fun Zone. The Hammer is not attuned to cultural, technological, or artistic exhibits, whether in a museum, an art gallery, or, God forbid, a church. Flower shows make his eyes glaze, and as for the animals brought onto the grounds by the 4-H Club kids to be shown and auctioned off, his only comment was, "I don’t need to see any goats, cows, or pigs. I bet on too many of them already.”
The Hammer figured that his natural milieu would be the Midway, with its rides and Ferris wheels and bumper cars and. best of all. the game booths. He spent fifty dollars on tickets for the various attractions, intending to treat himself to a few cheap thrills, but he quickly became disenchanted with everything except the carousel. “I love to see the little kids going around and around on them horses," he said. “Not one of them knew how to whip or to cut the corners to save ground on the turns, but I know jockeys that can’t do those things either, and they get paid. I'd have backed a couple of these kids against some of the monkeys who've ridden my horses lately." As for the other rides, they left him cold. “The haunted house, the roller coaster, the slide, that's nothing to bringing in a longshot out of the clouds to win by a nose. You’re talking thrills and chills, try betting Shoemaker on the rail in a meaningless sprint. It’ll get your blood pressure up real high."
The game booths fascinated him. “The first game I see. you throw the darts at a board full of stars," he said. "The stars are painted red. rimmed with black to make them look bigger, and to win. you got to get the dart inside the red part. It costs you a dollar a throw. Then they have this ‘Gun Ball.’ where, also for a buck a shot, you have to knock off three glasses stacked one on lop of the other two. I didn't see anybody do it. Across the way. they had these pool tables, where you pay a dollar to break three balls, after which you try to sink all three. If you miss one. you lose. For two bucks, you also get to put the eight ball in a side pocket. They got a game where you throw rings over Coke bottles. This one you get seven tries for a dollar. The rings are real light and the bottles are set close together. You can lean way over and still miss. If you win. you get a three-foot-high green stuffed Gumby doll with the features made of paper and pasted on. I asked some guy at one of these stands if anyone ever wins anything, and he tells me he gives away maybe 150 stuffed animals on a good day. But he's doing all right. He was carrying a roll of money on him that would choke a giraffe."
The Hammer tried to “shoot the stars" with a machine gun that fires tiny pellets, but somehow his gun always ran out of shot before all the red had been blown away. He tried throwing a basketball through a hoop, two shots for a dollar. He fired a crossbow, threw softballs at bottles, lobbed darts at balloons, rolled balls into slots and concentric rings, lobbed ping-pong balls into bowls of colored water. Hipped dimes into dishes, and even played a horse-racing game in which you advanced your animal by sinking rubber balls into various holes. “I would have won that one." the Hammer said, “only I broke slow out of the gate " He also flipped quarters at targets painted on a slick table top. tried to fish a Coke bottle upright using a rod and line with a hoop at the end. and sent rubber frogs catapulting off a spring toward a set of moving lily pads. “It took me less than an hour to blow the fifty, and I didn't win one prize," he said. "But then what do you win? A stuffed nothing your wife is going to throw out anyway. You're guaranteed a losing day."
I told Lenny the Hammer that he had missed the whole point of the fair, which is not to win prizes but simply to have a good time, some of it highly educational, in a family-oriented setting. Since 1985. the Del Mar Fair has been allotting its game booths and rides to individual operators, instead of hiring a carnival to do so. "We consider the whole appearance of the unit, the type of game it is. and the level of skill it requires." a spokesman for the administration informed me. "If it's a new applicant, we ask for references." Games of pure chance are out and cheating is supposedly not tolerated. "The most important person on these grounds is John Q. Public." I was informed by an affable old-timer named Red Woods, the chief safety inspector whose job it is to make sure all the rides are safe. “In the old days, when I was growing up, these amusement areas, with their sideshows and crooked games, all staffed by hard-core Carneys, were licensed thievery. Today, you have so many inspectors and so much security on the grounds that nobody can get away with anything."
It's hard, however, to keep horse players happy. I caught up to Lenny the Hammer again later in the day. and he told me he'd hit a big exacta for nearly a thousand dollars. He was still disgruntled, though, by the loss of his fifty bucks in the Fun Zone. "I didn't sec one proposition over there I could get down on." he said. "Even if you win. you lose."