Aqueduct Racetrack isn’t a place for the faint-hearted in the dead of winter.
It’s cold, it’s dank, it’s gray and it’s rundown (even after recent cash infusions from the neighboring casino). Carved out of a working-class neighborhood in South Ozone Park, Queens, and nestled against JFK International Airport, it’s the ugly duckling of the New York Racing Association’s trio of tracks.
Possessing none of Saratoga Race Course’s bucolic beauty nor Belmont Park’s Triple Crown history, Aqueduct, a drab, concrete-dominated affair rebuilt in the 1950s, is assigned to NYRA’s most-dreaded racing dates -- November through April.
By December, most of New York’s top trainers have fled to Florida with their Kentucky Derby hopefuls and million-dollar fillies. Left behind to race on the inner track, a dirt surface loaded with limestone to withstand winter freezes, are the dregs of New York racing: the old, the infirm, the cheap and the elite trainers’ B team of horses deemed unworthy of making the trek south.
On Jan. 11, for instance, more than 30 horses raced at Aqueduct for “tags” below $20,000, meaning they were up for the taking at those prices as they ran.
For all its ugliness, the “Big A” has had an allure for me since I first began going there with my father as a college student in the early 1990s. There’s a hardscrabble grit to the place and the horsemen and working-class immigrants who dominate the betting lines.
And as luck would have it, I’ve scored some of my best gambling coups there, days when my friends and I walked out with hundred-dollar bills lining our pockets.
It’s also home to what is one of my all-time favorite racing outings, a story that revolves around a $6 bet, a homeless woman and a steel gray horse.
It started on a lark. Stuck waiting in Queens for my wife and kids one frigid January afternoon in 2011, I figured I’d kill time by catching the last few races of the day.
I walked in the door with $12 in my wallet. Not much, you’re thinking, for a guy looking to bet. But I’m not a believer in carrying cash, and besides I’m a modern gambler used to doing most of my betting over an on-line platform.
Now when you walk in the joint with a total of $12, priority No. 1 is picking up a racing form at no cost. The $5 price tag would eat up almost 50 percent of my capital. So I resort to a skill I honed during my college days and start rummaging through garbage cans for forms discarded by disgruntled bettors.
Thirty seconds into the exercise, I’m getting nowhere and having second thoughts. It’s one thing to pick through other people’s trash at age 19. It’s another at 39.
I rush to the program vendors’ counter and plunk down $5.
My bankroll is down to $7.
Leafing through the form as I walk away, my wife texts me: “We’re ready to go.”
What? No way. Not now. I just anted up 42 percent of my cash holdings. The seventh race is in 20 minutes; the eighth in 50 minutes.
“I need at least an hour,” I message back. “Hang out for a bit.”
The seventh is too weak a race to earn my attention. I focus on the eighth. A quick study makes it clear the race is a two-horse contest: No. 1, a speedball named Understatement, versus No. 6, a come-from-behind horse with a slick steel gray coat named Marilyn’s Guy. The rest are overmatched.
As I’m weighing the pros and cons of the two, an elderly woman dressed in layer upon layer of tattered shirts and jackets idles up next to me and grabs a hold of my racing form.
Now even at Aqueduct Racetrack, where there is no shortage of bizarre characters, this is unusual behavior. But heck, she appears to be homeless, and she seems friendly and harmless enough. So I cede the paper.
A full minute of gesturing and pointing at horse names and numbers, intertwined with staccato bursts of half-words, appears to roughly translate into something like this: “I’m pretending to give you some tips here, but regardless of who you bet on, throw me a few bucks if you win.”
Right. That’s helpful.
I thank her and take my form back.
I settle on Marilyn’s Guy as the horses are being led past snow-covered dirt and concrete and onto the inner track. While he’s the favorite and will pay little ($1 of profit for each $1 wagered), the race should set up perfectly for him. I pull $6 out of my wallet. It’s my first wager of the year. My bankroll is down to $1.
The race indeed sets up perfectly for Marilyn’s Guy.
Understatement gets caught up in an early speed duel with two other horses while Eddie Castro, the jockey on Marilyn’s Guy, patiently waits several lengths behind for the frontrunners to tire out. Yet when Castro calls on Marilyn’s Guy to run down Understatement around the turn, the leader doesn’t cave in.
It’s going to be a horse race.
Standing out on the apron that overlooks the track, I start moving closer to the rail as the two enter the stretch. My heart rate quickens.
“Come on with him, Eddie,” I shout. “Come on with him.”
Marilyn’s Guy is gaining slowly, inch by inch, under vigorous urging from Castro. He whips him left-handed, shakes the reins at him, switches the stick to his other hand and cracks him on the right flank. Time is running out. The finish line is just yards away.
As the shrieks and hollers from my fellow railbirds build to a crescendo, I find myself at full throat, pleading with Castro to find more. You’d think I had $600, not $6, riding on the race.
“Get him up, Eddie. Get him up. Get him up.”
Finally, mercifully, in the shadow of the wire, Marilyn’s Guy puts his head in front. I wheel around in jubilation as they cross the finish line.
My friend, the homeless woman, is waiting for me.
“You got it, you got it,” she shouts as I rush through the crowd to cash my winning ticket.
The teller hands me $12 (my $6 investment plus a $6 profit). My bankroll swells to $13. I’m up $1 for the day.
The homeless woman emerges from the crowd again.
“You got it, you got it.”
I can’t help but feel that she brought me luck on my tiny, yet symbolically crucial, first wager of the year. I give her the $2 tip intended for the teller.
My bankroll drops back to $11. I’m down again, by $1, and I’m smiling uncontrollably as I walk out the door.
(David Papadopoulos, the team leader for Latin America markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)
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