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Racetrack Characters 

Eddie and me were at the rail waiting for the post parade, and this old-timer comes up. Hands so dark and dignified they looked like ebony art. He moved slowly and talked even slower.

The hustlers have lost most of their quickness of hand and tongue. But it didn't matter much, since there ain't many around to be hustled anymore.

He and Eddie talk of the old days when they would offer the marks a chance to bet on whoever they picked at the quarter-pole. Then they talk of another guy who waited on the finish line. He knew that if you saw a close finish from up the track, the inside horse would seem to have the edge; the opposite was true if you were looking down from the finish line. As soon as he determined the winner, the hustler would coolly drift up or down track and loudly offer to bet two bucks on the winner.

Hustlers were at the track to prove that the majority were usually wrong and shouldn't be trusted to run things. Valuable life lessons. Of course, there are not so many hustles anymore or hustlers either. They must have all gone into insurance.

Of course not all hustlers were at the track to gyp you out of your coin. Some were just there to pick up your money when you insisted on throwing it away. Stoopers were good at this sort of thing. They were the guys who strolled the grounds all day and kept their eyes on the prize. The prize was cashable tickets that hadn't been cashed but instead discarded, stomped on, torn up, spit on or simply tossed away.

Now you might think this is a rare happening, but actually not so much. At the end of every racing season, there are always more than $100,000 in unclaimed winning tickets, mistakenly shucked by various drunks and fools.

Stoopers tried to profit from the mistakes of others. The best I saw was a guy we called Super Stooper. Supe kept his eyes fixed on the ground like a puppy keeping track of a beetle. He bumped into a few people this way, though not as many as you might think.

Supe had a coupla tacks in the toe of each shoe and used the protruding part to spear or flip forlorn and forgotten tickets so he could 'read" them face-up. In those days, tickets were different colors depending on the type of bet, and this is where the skill part of stooping came in. At a glance, literally a glance, Supe could see '4th race $6 place on the 3 horse" and having memorized the results of all prior races, knew that they'd run 6-3-1 in the 4th. Bingo! Although stoopers always seemed like people who worked harder at their nonjobs than most did at their jobs, Blaise was a stooper who didn't think so. 'How long's this been going on?" he'd say.

There were always people like that around the racetrack, people who had slightly different powers of observation. Like the guys who would watch the replays of a race and cheer or curse the leader as if they could affect the outcome of a race long over. Or the guy I met in the men's room, listening to the call of the race over the intercom. (Plenty guys thought watching a horse slowed it down.) He listens, then snarls this about his unseen horse and rider: 'Lookit this crap! The jock's pulling this horse!"

After he had a heart attack, Bundle Boy would go to the men's room when one of his horses ran. Bundle Boy trained horses and had more color than a box of Crayolas, reportedly once kidnapping a track owner's pet dog. But I remember best his finale. He was standing across the street from the track, in front of the Fair Grounds Bar, when the Endymion parade " named for a race horse " rolled by. One float had a racing theme, and several riders were racetrackers. Bundle boy began to run after the float, yelling for beads. Until the second and last heart attack came calling.

The true racetrack character knew how to run all the way to the work.

There is often a world view among these characters that from moment to moment hopes for the undeserved best and expects the undeserved worst. Like Smoky, who always wore old baseball caps and looked to make low-interest loans.

A friend of mine loaned Smoky some money and got to hold his wristwatch as collateral. When Smoky left, my friend realized the watch didn't run. A week later, Smoky returned the loan and as he put the watch back on, mentioned it was still. My friend said it was like that when he got it.

'I know," Smoky admitted. 'I was hoping you'd get it fixed."

How many ways to lose at a racetrack? Take the total number of people there and use a multiplier of 100. But there are usually only two ways to win " in secret or in celebration. Here's the celebration way: Long ago, there was a peanut vendor at a track. Cheerful guy. Always a smile and a sales quip about Lucky Peanuts. But when he won " hit a parlay or a double " yea, a time to rejoice, my brothers and sisters! The vendor started dancing and singing while flinging bags of suddenly free peanuts to the crowd. I have momentarily solved the unsolvable mystery of handicapping and you, fellow-sufferer, should share my joy! Tomorrow, I'll be back to selling, but no more today.

In the matter of color, of seeing and hearing other human beings and how they dressed and talked and thought, the racetrack was an incubator. Names like Pickle-Nose Willie and Benny Without a Penny and Big-Time Charlie. Fashion like the guy who always wore red pants and shirt and a bebop cap which he always tipped to the fair ladies; he had done time for killing a couple of somebodies. Or like Rodney, who inherited a mil or so, but slept on a bale of hay and once didn't change his yellow pants for 29 days.

Guys like the ticket seller George, as wide as tall, who always carried around a stack of new Franklins in case a gin rummy game broke out. Or Dutch, the guy who made after-dark dives into the city's golf-course ponds and lagoons in search of golf balls he would pick up with his toes. Dutch brought the day's racing programs to all the track's offices. The extra dozen or so were sold to passersby at a Dutch discount.

And where are most of the characters now? Gone to casinos or Nextel Cup Series or 'burbs farther and farther from a racetrack, in body or in mind. Maybe they're all speaking Spanish or some other language I don't understand any more. I know I miss them and you should, too.

Maybe they did all go into insurance, but I doubt it.

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