Sunday, April 3, 2016

My first time ever at the racetrack

My first time ever at the racetrack was a very, very reluctant one. It was August 1983.
Now, I will backtrack a sec. I grew up in Montreal until I was 13. I also lived on one side of town, Laval, while my Grandmother lived on the other side of town, which was close to downtown, but a neighborhood within that. In between, you had to take the Jacques Cartier bridge to get there.
Jacques Cartier bridge at sundown.

I spent much of my youth at my grandmothers house. At least the days, and even slept there many nights. So, it was a trip I made thousands of times.
 I remember that bridge because I passed over it so many times. Once past that part, you went through various parts. I don't remember anything else on that trip other than one thing. No, two things. 
The big Orange dome from the Orange Julep stand.
First, there was a big Orange Julep. You had to see it to understand how significant it was. If I was with the right relative on those drives, we always got to stop at the Orange Julep and get a big Julep and very greasy, great fries. Both freshly made on the premises. With lots of ketchup I might add. (I love ketchup and always have).
The big Blue Bonnets sign I passed on the corner. When the races were on, there was a light on the arrow part that guided you into the track.

The other thing I remember was passing Blue Bonnets Raceway. They had a big neon sign out near the street and what looked like a long driveway into the racetrack. There was a very long stoplight at that intersection, and you could see the sign with the arrow on it very clearly. At night, it glowed.
However, I never went in. I was way too young and my parents were not in any way racing fans. Nor were my grandparents in Montreal, who were strictly religious and gambling was never allowed. So, it always had that allure that I wondered what went on in there. I saw the race replay once a night on the local news sports report when they showed the stretch drive, which they seemed to do every night. It was at least partly in french, because that was the way the race track announcer called the races there. He would call it bilingually. (The famous call at the end was "And voici, here dey are.") The local Trois Rivieres race caller still does that sometimes. Its a unique feature of those calls. It had some fascination for me, but I never went as I said, and when I moved to Toronto I never went on my own either, even though my grandmother and great grandfather on the other side that lived in Toronto always went to the track.
When I was in Grade 10 (about 15 years old), my great grandfather died. He was well into his 90s by then, and pretty much senile. But, he could slip away from the care he was getting, hop on the streetcar and go to the races. When he died, my mother said they checked his suits (which he always wore to the races) and there were current losing tickets in all the pockets.
Still, while I would watch the Kentucky Derby and the odd horse race on TV, I'd never gone or had the desire to do so. Some of my other friends had gone, and I think they had asked me a few times but I wasn't interested. At that stage, I was completely into baseball, hockey and golf. Those were my passions and vices. 

I used to watch Citypulse News religiously, and one of the Sports reporters and anchors, Peter Gross,  would show a stretch call from the nights races. I was much more interested in the baseball or hockey scores, but I did find it somewhat interesting. If you know anything about Peter Gross, he was a racetrack regular and probably bet too much for his own good. But, he did have character and made it sound somehow romantic. That still wasn't enough to get me to go, but it was in the back of my mind. 

But on that day in August of 1983, my best friend, also named Mark, turned 18 and we went out to a local restaurant called the Golden Star (which anyone from Toronto would know of reading this) and had dinner. We had no plans after that. When I say "we" I meant me. He had plans. He wanted to go to the horse races. I said "No". I just didn't want to . He wouldn't let it go and kept trying to convince me. If you know me at all, you know how stubborn I am and how hard a task it is to get me to do anything I don't want to do. But, he kept at it, and ground me down. It was his birthday, and since it was, I relented after about 20 minutes of badgering. And off we went.
The Golden Star. It was only 5 minutes from school, and a lot of us skipped school and hung out there for lunch many a day.
The racetrack was off the lake, downtown, and we lived north in the suburbs. So, he drove his newly bought Black Camaro down the Don Valley Parkway and we arrived at the track.

Back then, if you could, you parked on the street, on Eastern Avenue. We found a spot and that is what we did. It was a hot, sunny and clear night. I remember that very clearly. And a short walk to the track. Back then, you had to pay for everything. The program, admission and any tip sheets if you wanted them. And food. But we didn't need food, as we had just had dinner, nor did we need tip sheets, as I had no clue even what a trotter or pacer was. As well, we shared one program. Not like I could even read it anyway. I bet names mostly, or what Mark told me mattered about their form.
As anybody who has been going and playing the horses for as long as I have now (34 years) will tell you, the thing that hooks you most is winning within your first time or two. And of course, that is what happened with me. Our first race was Race 3.
The very first race I ever witnessed and bet on. Mark of Smog, he 7 horse.

I did something that night that I learned not to do later, but of course, that night it worked.  In many ways, like most horse players, I have learned to become too smart for my own good. Anyway, if you look at the program, Race 3, you will see the 7 horse was called Mark Of Smog, and he had not won much or had good form. Betting the 7 horse at Greenwood would usually result in a losing ticket, and horses with his kind of form didn't win much either. And yet, he won that race. I won my first bet ever. A poor performer from the 7 hole at Greenwood. That night, I believe I won 3 of 6 win bets and came home with a small profit. Not knowing anything. It was a fun experience and of course I wanted to do it again. As well, we were both Mark's and as my grandmother told me, bet names. You will win doing that. She tried that a few times when we went together in the years that followed.
The next day, I was at school and another friend, who had gone many times and was well versed in the harness horses happened to find out. He asked me if I wanted to go with him the next week. And, I did. So, I did. 

That night, it happened to be the night Cam Fella won the Canadian Pacing Derby and won his 20 something race in a row. That night I also happened to pick 6 of 10 winners, hit 2 exactors cold, and the last race triactor cold for $200 dollars. That was a lot of money to a kid working for $2.50 an hour at the A&P. What do you think I was thinking at that stage?
Yup. I thought this is pretty easy and I should do way more of that. And I spent the entire coming winter when they came back from Mohawk at Greenwood every Friday or Saturday night losing it all back and then some. But I was convinced I would master this and have spent the entire rest of my life trying to do that. The longer I go these days, the more I realize how little I knew then that I thought I knew for sure and how lucky I was the first two times I went.
And, the tie in on all this: My first time at Barrie Raceway, maybe 9 or 10 years later, I happened upon a 14yo Mark of Smog, who hadn't won a race in years, and was racing in 2 claimers or whatever the bottom was then, I bet him and he won that night. The only race he won for the rest of his life.
Anybody who ever was at Greenwood Raceway in the heat of the summer will tell you what that meant in terms of the experience. If it had been any other track, I might not have gone back. It was special. I still remember all the nights I spent there under that atmosphere. I hardly remember many of the winners I picked, or the countless losers I lost on. But I remember I was glad I was a little less stubborn on that night and my friend Mark was as persistent about making me do something I would not have otherwise ever done.

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