Horse racing is a sport that exists on the periphery, below the fold, on the back pages. Sure, the Kentucky Derby is glamorous, a national event. The Breeders’ Cup is due the primetime slot it’s received since its inaugural running thirty years ago. Still, packed clubhouses at most tracks are a memory. Tuning in to major TV networks happens only a handful of times per year. Racing was alive Saturday at Golden Gate Fields, and I was there to see it.
In the backyard, past the parking lots, were the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean. From the seventy-year old grandstand, you can trace the geography of the East Bay from the ports of Oakland, past Sather Tower at UC-Berkeley all the way to the shipyards of Richmond.
Altogether, probably no more than 3,000 people were in attendance. A fair majority are middle-aged men, dressed in tennis shoes, jeans and any combination of pro-sports teams’ jackets and sweatshirts. They studied their programs and racing forms, yelled for their horses on TV monitors showing races from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Many smoked, most kept to themselves. A few noble parents brought their children along.
The track bugler calls the horses to post prior to each race, but before the official tune, he throws in a few bars of Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, or The Champs.
My first wagering event is the third race, a mile on the turf. I go with an exacta of two fillies who run third, and off the board. Russell Baze, a Racing Hall of Fame jockey who has won more than 9,000 races at Golden Gate Fields, went to the lead and faded.
Seeing familiar names in the program makes for good memories, if not necessarily shrewd betting strategy. I make a win bet on a colt in the fourth race because my dad and I saw his grandfather sell for $4 million as a baby, and then two years later, as a mischievous, underachieving college freshman, I saw that baby grow up and win the Kentucky Derby from the Churchill Downs infield. There may have been local bourbon involved that May Saturday. Unfortunately, my colt didn’t live up to family expectations on this Saturday.
It’s now the fifth race, another mile on the turf. With twelve runners in the race, I try to get some value with an exacta box, wheeling Russell Baze’s favored mount with several interesting long shots. It’s only 2:45 in the afternoon, and the shadows are settling in, making it suddenly quite chilly.
The on-track experience reminds me of those small, often-forgotten moments like the cracks of the jockey’s whip against the horses’ flanks and the yells for random numbers from three feet away. Watching at home on TV or the Internet, you don’t see a groom heading straight for the betting windows after leading his horse to the track, or a jockey handing his used goggles to a six year-old fan.
The mile grass race is over in less than a hundred seconds. Another beaten favorite. Another losing ticket to put in my pocket. Now, I’m cold, and several bucks down.
Just like at another San Francisco park, seagulls descend around this time to scavenge. I listen for my name to see if I’ve won the $50 wagering voucher. No luck, but congrats to the lady from Oakland who won it. I try a daily double with four horses in the sixth and single an 8-1 runner in the feature stakes race. My first sign of hope all day. I get home the first half of my daily double, after a close photo finish.
Anticipation is so much of life, horse racing especially. The races themselves are rarely more than two minutes in length. You normally have about a half hour in between, to imbibe, handicap, pray. Many tracks have installed slot machines to help pass the time. At Golden Gate, we’re left to our racing forms and our own devices. In the minutes before a race, we’re all winners, knowledgeable handicappers. Before the seventh race, I look down on the ground at some of the losing tickets that litter the track apron. They were once hopeful investments, now worthless remnants. Someone had $5 to win on “Life Is A Stone.” Showing why he’s the tracks all-time leading jockey, Russell Baze boots home a promising, even-money two-year old to win the feature race. My daily double is a loser.
Is the thrill, the high, of winning what keeps horseplayers coming back? When one stops to think of their personal Return on Investment, most get depressed. But that’s the thing. Where else would you rather be? You’re left alone to study the form, you’ve got a bar nearby, and the concession stand serves food that’s hot and tastes good. And good or bad, there’s another race coming soon. I decide to go to my old stand-by, the exacta box, in the eighth race. And just like that, the day turns around. I finally cash a ticket. After losing all day, I go home up five dollars.
As I leave, the sun is setting on a choppy San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge and Pacific Ocean shining in the distance. I thought about how racing lives on in the personalities and moments that make up a day at the races. It lives in racing fans, it lives in the horses. Hard to ask for more from my Saturday at Golden Gate Fields, just next time I’ll wear another layer.