»  Taki's Magazine

June 16th, 2011

  Wishing I'd Played the Ponies


I was tempted to have a flutter on the Belmont Stakes last weekend. Not that I'm much of a horse racing fan. It's only that I've been feeling exceptionally idle lately.

When in this frame of mind, my instinctive response to the prospect of starting a day's work at my desk is to put off the evil hour for as long as possible. The desk, the computer, the study repel me with a force wellnigh physical. Driven at last by the prospect of hunger, and by pride, and by vanity, I'll get there at some point in the morning, leaning into the repulsive force and pulling myself along by grabbing at pieces of furniture, but meanwhile there is breakfast and the newspaper to be dawdled over.

Newspapers are the procrastinator's greatest friend. My own breakfast read is the New York Post. At normal times, when I am responsible and industrious — a model citizen, one of the sober busy professionals in a James Gould Cozzens novel — I read only the political news and op-eds, glance through the celebrity and business stuff, then head for the study to start my day's work.

When, however, I am in my present mood of obstreperous bohemian lethargy — Huck Finn's Pap — I read the whole thing. Well, perhaps not every single word. I skip the foreclosure notices and Sheriff's sales, the ads for cars and sex aids, the horoscopes, anything with "Kardashian" in the title …

I do read the obituaries, though. Post obituaries are very touching. They rarely concern anyone rich or famous, for which relief much thanks. These are real people: Agnes 'Pat' Casey, "Waitress in New York City for many years"; George William 'Buddy' Brown, "WWII Navy veteran, sheet metal worker"; Eugene B. Kirk, "School crossing guard in Dumont, NJ"; Dr. David H. Katz, "Retired dentist" …

In the great scales of life, does not each and every one of these honest folk outweigh by a factor of hundreds any Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, or Anthony Weiner? Who would you rather have at your family dinner table: Donald Trump or Gus De Vito, "Husband, father, grandfather." (Whatever Gus did for a living was of so little lasting import his obituarist did not bother to mention it. Of how many of us could anything different be said? Ninety percent of paid work is time-wasting crap. The world gets by on the other ten.)

And then come the sports pages. Sports-wise, I'll admit to being something of a black hole. I know the rules of American football from working chain crew at my son's games, but can't work up any interest in the professional game. I keep up with the New York Yankees when they're doing well, which they are recently not, and always watch the World Series from immigrant patriotism. Golf is for rich old guys, whose activities don't interest me; and basketball is for Negroes, ditto. Lacrosse is for girls and homosexuals. NASCAR? Been there, done it.

That pretty much leaves horse racing. My mentor and guide here is Ray Kerrison, longest-serving of the Post's turf correspondents. Ray was a general op-ed columnist when I started reading the Post a quarter-century ago. He turned out good curmudgeonly stuff with a reactionary Catholic twist I found appealing. He seems now to have been put out to grass (as it were) in the back pages there, writing stuff like:

Pedigree? There isn't a horse in creation bred better for the Belmont than Brilliant Speed. Steve Haskin, the Blood-Horse correspondent, delved into the horse's bloodlines and came up with an astounding discovery. Brilliant Speed hails from a bloodline that has produced 15 Belmont winners. Here's the incredible list …

Ray was talking up the Belmont all last week, so when race day came on Saturday, I was of a mind to put $100 on his pick. Ray's trifecta was Santiva, Brilliant Speed, and Master of Hounds. I would have just bet a hundred on Santiva to win. Trifectas are way out of my league, and look to me like a pretty sure way to lose money.

In the event something came up and I never made it to the bookie. Just as well: Santiva placed 8th in a field of twelve. Master of Hounds did even worse at 10th, though Brilliant Speed managed third place. The winners were long shots; the actual trifecta payout on a one dollar bet was $8,268.

It's been like this all year. "Where have all the favorites gone? Lost to longshots every one," keened Ray's colleague Ed Fountaine. Ray himself was scathing. "What's the story? The simple answer may be that this year's crop of 3-year-olds is a bunch of mediocre horses."

So much for those fabulous bloodlines. Don't feel bad, Ray. It's often the same with humans, as H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Second — a world-class authority on horse breeding, as it happens — could tell you.

I'd like to feel more of the pain Ed and Ray are feeling, but don't really care much about horse racing. In a general sort of way, as a conservative, I approve of it. It's been around for ever and is knitted into Anglosphere culture, with novelists, artists, and movies to its credit. In the England of my youth it was considered unpatriotic not to have a bet on the Grand National. My grandfather supplemented his coal miner's wages — or more often, I am told, lost them — by following the horses. His betting books survive in my virtual attic; and among my earliest, remotest memories there is Grandad bent over his staticky old radio to catch the racing results. Part of my life, part of our world.

A fading part, some say. "The thoroughbred racing industry is in a downward spiral," rumbles the New York Times. (If so, someone forgot to tell the Belmont punters: This year's gate was up 23 percent on last year, according to Ray — and that, in bad weather.) Like boxing, goes the line, horse racing has an aging fan base and has drifted out of line with common feelings about how we ought to treat animals — or in boxing's case, each other.

Phooey. Riding horses to exhaustion and punching each other in the face under agreed rules are worthwhile and manly pastimes, far better pedigreed and infinitely more exciting than hitting balls with sticks, tossing leather bags across a field, or chasing a puck around on ice. Now I'm really wishing I'd placed a bet — just to help keep the owners, trainers, jockeys and bookmakers in business.