THE SURE THING, CAN DO, CAN'T MISS SYSTEM
The fifteen-cent-a-minute long distance phone call from my wife to my sister-in-law was an hour and a half long. I peered over my newspaper to the clock over Mabel's shoulder. The phone receiver blocked my view. I craned my neck.
I stopped my eavesdropping, put down my paper and took out a calculator from the drawer. Mabel looked up at me and squinted.
"You're talking us into the poorhouse." I lectured.
Mabel mouthed two unflattering words at me. I'm not good at reading lips but I narrowed it down to drop dead, shut up or even worse. I was pretty sure it wasn't even worse - that command was accompanied by a one-finger salute.
I persisted. "One of those abandoned wooden crates on Lyell Avenue will make a homey retirement nest."
Mabel mouthed and gestured the even worse. I returned to my paper and my eavesdropping, as is my habit. I didn't care about the money—I just love to needle my wife.
Mabel's phone diatribe consisted of seven complete sentences and a mundane trail of yeahs, nos and oh reallys. The phone call concerned Bret, my brother-in-law. A new job promotion made him richer but left him with stress. Beth, his fifth wife, was worried and called my spouse to see if they could visit and unpack their emotional baggage on us over the weekend.
I suspected an ulterior motive. I mean, how many people do you know travel from Fairfield, Connecticut to Rochester, New York, just to relieve stress when Cape Cod beaches are so much closer? Besides every time a New England relative comes for a visit, I get roped into ferrying them to Niagara Falls.
Bret is a workaholic, a part-time alcoholic, and as Mabel once put it, "Sometimes my brother can be all ick."
Bret measures his time on this planet with a series of competitions. He always jokes about his several marriages and swears that in each and every match he traded up. I suppose Bret is a good sort, but he is too competitive. I could live with this flaw—if he weren't so proficient at winning all the time.
Knowing Bret's compulsive competitiveness and the absence of any sport in Niagara Falls, I set out to find another diversion that was thrifty, competitive and within a ten-minute drive of our Rochester home.
Finger Lakes track had reopened, signaling the start of horse racing season. I never bet on a horse race and decided that it was high time to misspend some of my middle age—while I still had some left. Bret and Beth liked my diversion, although now that I think of it; Bret agreed instantly and goaded Beth into coming.
The racetrack was not as I imagined it. For three weeks it had rained and mud was everywhere covering the racing oval. I kept looking at my program to make sure that I hadn't accidentally stumbled onto some New Age open-air inter-species mud-wrestling arena.
Bret surveyed the oval. He moistened his index finger and—stuck it in the air. "Looks like the wind will be in the horse's face when they come down the back stretch." I smelled a hustle.
Bret was anxious to put down his first wager. He'd decided on a betting system, but did not bet the first race. He wouldn't bet until he found what he called "the Finger Lakes Sphinx." Bret claimed that he would recognize him by his uniform; an old tweed coat, a matching tweed Tam O' Shanter and he would be smoking a tiparillo.
Mabel, Beth and I thought stress had taken poor Bret. We ignored him and watched our $2 investments perform, while Bret canvassed the grandstand. Before the first race ended, he brought back the track Sphinx dressed in a tweed coat with matching tweed Tam O' Shanter. He smoked a tiparillo.
His name was Mike, a former jockey at the track until a love of ripe wine overcame his interest in his racing career. Mike's local knowledge of good running mudders was Bret's betting system.
Whenever Bret asked about a particular horse, the Sphinx quickly gave a one-line analysis that was sure to be crude but always rhymed.
"Hey Miguelito, in the second race, how do you feel about Snowmass Past?" Bret wondered aloud.
"He'll finish dead last."
"How come?" Bret would badger.
"Because he is meaty, seedy and he pisses Reunite."
I stopped myself from betting on Snowmass Past. If there was one excellent judge of seedy, it had to be Mike. Mike placed a burn mark next to the winner in Bret's program. Bret made his bet discreetly and paid Mike a beer to keep the advice confidential.
Unlike the others at the track, my system was rooted in science. I bet the number two horse—in the second race and the number three horse in the third race and so on. Hey, numerology is gaining universal acceptance every day.
Mabel played all the long shots, a system I scorned, but might have to employ in the eighth race that had a seven-horse field.
Beth bet with her heart. She picked the name of the horse with the cutest alliteration, as long as the horse was not in the sixth post position. Six was Beth's unlucky number. She bet on Cream Colored Karen, Peeper Pond Polly, and a 38-1 sway-backed mongrel called Booboo's Buddy. If a race had no entries with alliterative names, Beth strolled to the paddock and picked a horse who was what she called, "furry cute."
Sometimes Beth can be too cute. At least that's how Mabel sees her. I thought of Beth differently. She is a genuinely sweet soul who never quite grew out of puberty. How many thirty-eight-year-old women do you know who tote around a mallard handled umbrella and refer to it as "Mr. Duck"? Beth has to have some special quality to agree to be Bret's fifth.
By the sixth race, all of us except Bret, of course, bet on losers. He was betting with the track's money, taking great pleasure in calling us mere plebeians as he fanned a surplus wad of bills in our faces. Bret bear hugged Mike, who proved to be the Sphinx of the track—and economical at a beer a race.
The sixth was a claiming race for mares who were six years or older bred in the Empire State, winless, placeless, and showless in all previous races—or, as Sphinx put it, "One can do, the rest are glue."
Although all of the horse racing times in the Sixth Maiden Mares race could be measured by a calendar, my pick, Still Life with a Rutabaga, the sixth horse was more of a Renascence equine, she had practice times that could be measured by a sextant. I followed Beth to the paddock to see if I could pick a winner from the twenty-eight-leg parade.
Beth watched the first two horses with disinterest. The third horse walked out of the line and put its head over the rail where Beth was standing. The jockey tried to pull the mare back to the line but she wouldn't budge. Her big brown eyes stared into Beth's big brown eyes. Beth rubbed the mare's snout. After Beth's soft touch, the jockey was able to steer the old mare back into line.
"I found the horse I'm betting on," Beth said. "You can bet on her too! What a pretty horse! Did you ever see such a nice horse? Did you see her come to me? Do you know her name? Have you got a program?"
She grabbed my program and looked for the third entry. Friendly Wendy was the mare's name. Quickly, Beth scrapped alliteration for assonance and put $20 on the mare's nose. I put $2 on Wendy and another $2 on Still Life with a Rutabaga. I would never forgive myself if six bolts of lightning lit on the track and the number-six horse trotted over the remains of the field to victory.
The gates opened. A wild herd of matronly mares kicked through the mud in what seemed like one giant bowl of Black Bean soup without the egg garnish. You couldn't tell who was in the lead. The black bean soup splashed everywhere covering the numbers on the saddles.
One horse stood out from the crowd: Friendly Wendy was losing the race despite the emphatic lashes of her jockey's whip. She flew like a gimp Moose—eight lengths behind the pack at the half-mile pole.
I watched Beth to gage her disappointment. She kept smiling and wrapped her soon-to-be losing ticket in tissue, tucking it in her purse. Even if the horse finished dead last, Friendly Wendy would still be her favorite.
The race ended as the number six-horse faded to Bret's pick at the wire. Bret bear hugged the Sphinx and laughed at our misfortune. Friendly Wendy took her time limping around the oval. The crowd gave her a mock standing ovation when she crossed the finish line.
Beth poked me in the ribs with Mr. Duck. "At least my Wendy is a crowd-pleaser."
Five yards past the wire, Wendy bucked three times and shook her head like a cold turkey junkie. The rider leaped off his mount just in time. She collapsed on her right side and was breathing heavily. Beth was shocked out of her whimsy. "What's happening to her?"
The track veterinarians came and assembled a partition so the racing patrons could not see her treatment. An open bed truck parked behind the wall. It would cart Wendy away as soon as the poison took effect.
Beth pressed me. "What is going to happen to her?"
"Well, you see the truck." I pointed to it and she nodded. I took my time. I needed a lie that would stand up to a child's scrutiny. "That truck is a sort of horsey ambulance. Wendy is fine, just a little overcome. She'll be up and running tomorrow. I'm sure of it."
Beth formed tears but slowly her eyes absorbed them. "Can I visit Wendy?" her childlike demeanor continued.
Mike overheard her question and danced a slow twist, "You can see her tonight, Betheroo—hanging from a hook on Lux Avenue. When they strip all her meat she gets dumped in the bay—something’s gotta feed that galloping gourmet."
Bret and Mike headed to the betting parlor, laughing together—while Beth cried on my shoulder. The Sphinx swore he had a sure thing in the seventh.
Beth and I didn't bet on the seventh race. Bret's horse lost the seventh race after he parlayed all his winnings on it. I told Mabel why Beth was crying. She suggested we all go home to plan a quiet evening.
Bret had other ideas. He poured Vodka into his open beer. "Go home, why? I'm just getting warmed up. Are you worried about what Sphinxy said? If you are, don't be. Beth's always pulling that crap."
Bret kept objecting to our departure until I told him that I had the only keys to the car and suggested that he find one of his winners to get a ride home. Bret lost this competition.
Mabel escorted Bret out of the parlor. He tried to stop at the $30 window to place one last bet, but my wife jerked at his arm and guided him through the turnstile. Bret's skid on his sneakers—leaving black tread marks on the white linoleum floor.
Once he was past the gate, Bret turned and demanded that I place a comeback bet. The Sphinx's had one last sure thing in the tenth race. Bret stiff-armed thirty dollars over the turnstile with his untethered hand.
I walked to the thirty-dollar window and asked a large turf teller if there were any cute sounding nags in the tenth. After two queer looks, a thorough head scratch, a double take and several hard chomps on his unlit cigar, he consulted with his terminal. "How does Merry Molly Magnolia sound to you, Bub?"
"Fine, thirty on her nose to win."
“She might be powdering her nose as we speak,” shot back the turf teller as he handed the betting slip through the cage.
I took on Bret's action. He would be gone the following day. Even if Bret's horse won, I would have to cash in his winning ticket at the track and send the proceeds to him in a check.
We did not stay to watch the last three races. I checked the results in the local rag the next day. Merry Molly, at 26-1, was the long shot winner of the day. I wanted to split my winnings with Beth, but whenever any of us mentioned horses, she turned away.
Bret's horse, a gelding named “Conquer Conquer Conquer” had all the alliteration but none of the heart. Bret finished out of the running. It's good to win one—even if it is done so silently.