Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved"

"Fancy Fillies" by art deco artist Jeff Williams.  
Hunter S. Thompson nailed it. Despite all the fancy hats and chilled Mint Juleps, horse races are decadent and depraved.

On Kentucky Derby day, the crowd I see picnicking in Georgetown, Washington's rich, historic neighborhood, with their elaborate hats and seersucker, covers the decadent part. Now for depraved.

In my favorite pizza joint where I get a slice and a pint for $5, I wouldn't exactly call the young woman wearing a millinery mess two feet in diameter, depraved. More like obnoxious as it clogs up the aisle. However, another Derby Girl, overly dressed and stumbling drunk at 4 in the afternoon, bangs up against the wall on the way back to her barstool. That's more like it.

I wonder if the woman who chose to swathe her head in yards of turquoise netting has a bet in the Derby. Does she know what OTB stands for? Has she ever been to a horse race? Or does she just like hats. Hard to tell. Now I'm being judgmental. I feel I have the right. A strange, inappropriate thing to feel. But when I hear "They're at post!" I'm a little girl again, back at the races, where instead of chiffon dresses and sprigs of herbs, there's old man wool and flat beer. Can't a girl wax nostalgic? Without all the young posers?

Even before my time, my maternal grandfather was the constable at Waterford Park, the local racetrack in West Virginia. My mother and her brothers would hang out just as I would with my brothers. 
My Grandma Katie, Grandpa Steve and Uncle Caiden at The Track. 
In the 1970s when it became our weekend family outing, Waterford was packed with career gamblers, people cashing in their pay checks, illegal doping. Cigar smoke. Character. In those days, if a horse was unlucky enough to break a leg during a race, they shot it in the head on the track. A white doctor's screen shielded spectators but didn't stifle the gun shot. "Mommy, why is that big, white sheet on the track?" BAM!

I loved the race track. I'd spend all day kicking asides cigarette butts to collect the worthless losing tickets that carpeted the floor. Everyone held them with such white-knuckled grips, whapping them against their thighs yelling for that "Goddamned horse to get the fucking lead out!" that they just had to be special.

And sometimes they were.

I was about three years old, when I handed my father a treasured scavenged ticket telling him it was special. The ticket showed a losing 3, 4 perfecta. Gamblers are a superstitious lot. So, of course he bet it. And hit for $500. The 3, 4 perfecta remained his bet, boxed usually, for decades to come. Not the luckiest of gamblers, he studied old racing forms as if trying to crack code. He knew things like which horses to bet on if the track was muddy. And to bet more if your horse just peed because it'd be lighter. Stuff you just can't learn from the horse betting books that lined his shelves.
My mother yelling for he horse coming down the stretch.
My mother's favorite bet was 1, 3, 7 after winning $10,000 on a long shot trifecta. We were escorted, as a family, to the parking lot by security guards that night. Where my father took a mathematical approach to betting, she relied on her Hungarian Gypsy heritage. I would wish and wish for his horse to win. But she was the lucky one. Other gamblers knew it too. Old men and women, gamblers she knew well, asked her as she stood in line at the betting window, "Hey, Kathy. Whodya' like in the 5th?" Word got around quickly when she was hot.

Dougie after winning some money for my mom.
She also bet the birthdays of her children. But with seven kids, the math could get a little dizzying. It became condensed into a system where she only bet the next upcoming birthday. Unless Dougie was riding. Doug Williams was her favorite jockey. Kelly, a pretty blond, was a close second. I grew up thinking all mothers had favorite jockeys. And a bookie named Jimmy the Greek. Of course.

Visiting my parents as an adult, we would still go. But it wasn't the same. Over time, even my parents stopped going. It's now called Mountaineer Park. Gambling machines draw the crowds, not the horses. Sad.

Hunter S. Thompson
I realize things clean up with age. Pole Dancing classes at the gym. Office types using "pimp" as a verb. Even Las Vegas, Sin City, is filled with family fun. Maybe that's why Mr. Thompson shot himself. Instead of Fear and Loathing he'd have to write about Cher and The Lion King.

Before you suck your teeth at that one, do know that in addition to the horse track, another common family outing was the shooting range at the Paris Sportsman Club. That's Paris, Pennsylvania. Not France. So, I'm betting that Gun Enthusiast Hunter wouldn't mind the suicide crack.

I understand why some may want to pretend that horse racing is gentile and highbrow. But I prefer Mr. Thompson's lurid version. It's closer to home.