‘Leaving the best for last in a story’ is very important to me in the Diaries, but in this case, ‘Leaving the best for last in a story’ is simple and only a way to tell those who weren’t in attendance how they had missed one of the most beautiful and inspiring bit of importance in this great country called America I have ever witnessed.
You’ll just have to wait for the end of this ‘WiseGuy at the Track’, because as I said, I’m ‘Leaving the Best for Last’ in this story.
From all directions, which would only be east in this case, the 365 Club members swarmed like bees into the Burbank, the media filled township on the outskirts of Los Angeles, late on Thursday and checked in without an issue.
First stop, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. By the time Lady Tater and I arrived, the BJ Lighthouse lagers, a low calorie brew targeting Bud Light drinkers and those with the inflammatory disease of gout, as I am afflicted with unfortunately, had been served twice.
Great appetizers and loud track conversation was already in a full gallop. Tomorrow’s plan was the front line of discussion and all of us going to Clocker’s Corner for breakfast was struck down unwontedly only because of the 20 mile drive plus taking into consideration the volume of the perfect pints we were intending to consume this night.
The 365 Club, horse racing’s prestigious organization, was in full attendance. The WiseGuy was scattered among the attendees and I was holding the stack of golden tickets that seated us side-by-side with some of the most respected constituents of this exclusive membership.
The members of this covert club who only go by nickname find the false identity gratifying and understand it must be done to protect their celebrity status. The paparazzi were on the prowl in every shadow and stairwell. More often than not, at a big event as this the normal moniker will be changed to add another level of security.
‘Big Red’ became ‘Red Burro’ and back to ‘Big Red’ in one night. ‘Sex’, our youngest, became ‘The Juicy’ and loved it enough to keep it. ‘Serpico’ became ‘El Loner’ all by himself on the last day just before The Mayor christened, the new ‘NoShow’. How sad it was to see an icon toppled so easily. ‘Lady Tator’ and the tall ‘Tator Tot’ were inducted on the last day.
Mr. Prez Dick Tater could not be changed as his worldwide status prevented him from not being known and he turned down the advice from the memberships attorney to wear a blonde wig and take off the glasses.
As traditional rules fell in place and strict club policies were being enforced, the membership arrived at the Great Race Place in separate vehicles and at different times only as a precaution of accidentally blowing their cover knowing the extreme value in the tickets they adorned would catch more than a few camera’s menacing glances.
Okay, let’s get serious.
By the fifth pint, all of the 365 had arrived and had formed one expansive organism. Plans for getting to the track were laid out and solidified. Free breakfasts at the hotel at 8 o’clock and all of us at the same time were to proceed out the door to the awaiting cars. The crowd moved quickly as the giddiness of the upcoming event still remained thickened in everyone’s blood even though you would think the beer would have thinned it.
The procession of black sedans moved like panthers through the underground facility, their tires screeching loudly at every turn of the garage then blasting out of the exit and onto the street without hesitation. I looked as we entered the sunlight to see the motorcade’s officer stopping traffic. He nodded with assurance as our eyes met each other’s.
Twenty-two minutes and fifteen seconds later we were entering The Great Race Place.
When Lady Tator and I found our seats, the Rican was already there with Big Red and the pencils were striking off horses on the form with intent. Slash, slash, slash, you could hear the graphite scratch. I had spoken to Sir Pinkalot earlier and he stated that there was a huge I-beam in front of our seats and he was going down to the main office to see if there was an acetylene torch he could borrow and remove it.
Culvert Gary and Serpico were on a walkabout. TT Tot and The Juicy sat in back of us and since it was Juicy’s first time at the Cup, TT Tot was offering advice. The call to stand came over the loud speaker and we stood. “Testing, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten”, came over the speakers and the flag on the tall post uncommonly waved to the crowd. “Testing one, two, three, four, and five”, the male voice bellowed and then there was silence. Everyone sat back down and acted as if nothing was awry and was unaware the audio in the stretch part of the track was not working at all.
One of the most heart-capturing times on any race day is the singing of the national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. At the Breeders’ Cup day, the singing of our nation’s song is often done in glamour and precision. This year, the our nation’s colors were shown in a very large flag held across the track at the wire, as a voice, I think it was a guy, sang his heart out doing the national anthem proud. But that wasn’t what was so important for me.
The audio difficulties prevented the crowd from hearing the singer. I turned and sang loudly the song where I thought the singer was and I found no commitment. Then suddenly the fans behind us launched into a full karaoke and came in at just the right time and sang the Star Spangled Banner together. The goose bumps didn’t go down for five minutes after that moment.
I got up and walked down the stairway and turned around, snapping a picture of the crowd. How I wish I had recorded the moment as they and the 365 Club honored our country as we stood overlooking the Great Race Place. The out of tunes and cadence soft became better than perfection and gave to me a touching moment I will never ever forget. Together the horsemen, the handicappers, the fans and the first-timers performed united in the most outstanding rendition of the national ever heard.
Sometimes the feeling of proud sneaks up on you when you least expect it. How great is that and I can’t wait for the next dose of the goose bumps.
Denman announces the horses are nearing the post; he was unaware of our audio debacle. Apparently the clubhouse side had sound and it was then knew we were on the island in the Sea of Silence. Juicy called out his numbers he’d selected. “Four horse, it looked at me”, he announced as he scooted sideways out to the aisle.
I looked at Lady Tater with wonderment. “Oh he’s about to lose his ass today,” I said with wisdom.
“And they’re off,” the track announcer Denman’s voice said as the gate burst open. In less than two minutes the number four flashed by the lead horse with respect and crossed the wire first. My bet, a twenty-dollar, ten with one exact box ticket hit the concrete floor like a drunken sophomore. Juicy was still jumping up and down. Envy was in the house. He, without my knowledge had place a two dollar, four with ten straight exacta and was awarded $72.90 for his handicapping ignorance.
“Good for him,” I thought to myself. A first timer and his luck strikes again carrying with it an addiction to gambling that equal mindless methadones overdose that he will never be able to shed.
Next race, I popped the exacta completely out of the money and boomeranged the losing ticket to the floor along with the one on the third. Juicy announces another number for the fourth race, “Number One,” he blurted. “He looked right here,” he said pointing to his eyes with indication that the horse looked at him again. I laughed under my breath trying not to show any disrespect to the newbie.
All I heard was, “And Hightail by a neck!” as Denman finished the race call. I looked down at the WiseGuy sheet. A low internal moan involuntarily expelled my barrel chest as the name Hightail matched the number one on the program. This time I tore the exacta ticket, 3 over 7, into shreds and launched the confetti into the gloomy sky.
The six race runs and Lady Tator is all over Flotilla at 12 to 1 and plows a nice bankroll in her pocket. Now I’m happy again because I think she might share.
A couple of races later I struck up a foolish conversation with the new Prince of the oval. “What are you playing in the next race?” I asked Juicy, swaying my head in a condescending way.
He immediately looks up at me with a confused seven-flat tire beer look and says, “Huh.”
“Which horse looked at you?”
“The one horse for sure?” He nods. I launched out of my seat with the new intel written in my brain. “One across the board on the one horse,” I told the white-haired teller with a huge hair extension coming out from the center of the mole on her neck.
“They don’t have one dollar across the board,” she answered. Her corneas of her eyes began to turn sunset red.
“No I’m sorry, I meant ten across on the number one.”
“Please Sir, next time you need to have your bet ready when you stand in this line.”
The ticket hung up for a second in the machine like it didn’t want me to win, then popped out like a stuck slice of burned toast.
“And away they go,” crackled out of the huge speakers above us. I had the winner in hand. Prince Juicy had told me so.
Photo for third flashed on the board. “Who was third?” I asked. “Who was third?” I persisted to the man across the aisle I didn’t ever speak to before.
“One,” he answered causing me to exhale a relieved breath. I’d make my money back at least
The crowd roared as the tote flashed the results in top to bottom order. The light bulbs were as clear and bright as the sun. Six, Two, Seven, One.
“What! You gotta to be kidding me? Juicy, what did you play?”
“I didn’t. It was a choice between the teller window and the beer line. The beer line was shorter.
I wrinkled up the ticket and put it in my mouth and chewed on it until it was pulp then in one gulp I swallowed the mush. I knew that in only a day later the ticket would become exactly what it was when I bought it.
Seven, eight, and nine. The races were flying by and every time after each race I’d hear the adolescent annoying scream of our newest member, “Looked right at me?” I was trying to pull off my armrest of my chair to hit him but I couldn’t so I just sneered.
International Paper texted me before the tenth and was wondering if they could pick up my losing tickets for free to recycle into new reams. Culvert Gary told us last call had been announced by the girl at the Coors booth so I leapt from my chair and headed to the rail. Get one more beer to smother my distain and maybe, just maybe hit the big one on the finale.
Juicy is standing by the rail furthest from where I was standing amongst the 365 Club. I tried to fire eye lasers at his body to keep him from winning the last race. Without him knowing it, I had covertly listened to his conversation with Tator Tot and accidentally overheard his pick. After stealing his highly developed military insight, I had chose to go to a different teller to change my luck. Selected was a very sophisticated man with a slanted smile and a reddish hair Sean Connery style seated confidently behind the window.
I asked in the professional gambling tone I’ve acquired, “Hello, Santa Anita, tenth race. Twenty on the three across the board,” I instructed. No other small talk came about. The machine printed white yet golden ticket as the man motioned for the money. “I have another bet,” he paused from my declaration and retracted his hand back to the keyboard.
“Same track,” I advised. He nodded in anticipation. He must have heard Juicy’s advice too. “Ten dollar, exacta box, three with six. Also a five-dollar, three, six, five trifecta box.” The man pounded the keys as the ticket machine whirled. The tickets were flying out like oversize stickies at the Macy’s parade. “A hundred and ten,” he said as I peeled off the last few dollars I had left. I stuck the five bucks back in my pocket knowing I would borrow the four bucks for a beer if they were still open at the concession stand.
As I scurried to the breezeway where the club had gathered I stuck the lucky Juicy’s in my back pocket. “And away they go,” the distinctive voice of the South African announcer chimed over the loudspeakers.” I melted into the crowd at the rail, looking first left to see favorite constituents, Sir Pinkalot, Lady Tator, Serpico and Culvert Gary standing. Then right where Tator Tot, Red Burro, The Rican and the apprentice WiseGuy, Juicy.
I hear above the crowd, “C’mon four! C’mon, do it for me!” The voice sounded disturbing, almost mystical like a vampire yet with some elation. I felt the blood being sucked from my arteries. It’s much more filling to take it after it leaves the heart than when it’s going in. My neck snaps to the left.
Serpico is spanking Sir Pinkalot with the program and Lady Tater is acting like she’s with them as her hand grasped their sleeves of their shirts almost like she was begging for attention. The three were screaming, “Four!” together like a Peter, Paul and Mary impersonator act.
Rican fires out a subtle yell, “Come to me papa! Come to me!” as she shook the ticket in her hand. Big Burro is holding onto Tater Tot with what I would say, ‘near sexual emotion. I thought their loin cloths were coming off as they pawed at each other, “Four, four, four, four,” they chanted in a language closely resembling the Zulus when they so-called attacked the British dudes at the Battle of Isandlwana in the movie. Confusion was setting in as I lurched back left then right then back left.
I stilled my neck and focused on Juicy. There upon the youthful belligerent face of his was a smile. He stood still and nodded at the track as if he knew. I looked at the real-time scoreboard to see the four ahead by nearly five lengths at the turn. Then he said it. He said the worst four words I’ve heard during the whole trip. “It looked at me,” he said, not as a reality check tone but more like he was scarring me with campfire hot metal ranch brand formed as an upside-down ‘h’.
Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man flew by us like two tomahawk cruise missile blasted out of an Ohio class submarine on its side. I gazed up to where the South African was seated above. His voice never hesitated. No mention of a photo finish, not even a feedback squelch. “And Fort Larned by a neck! he screamed.”
“What?” I asked aloud. “Four?” But I didn’t dare look at Juicy as he was most assuredly awaiting for my surrender.
Serpico is excited as he flashed his ticket around in the air. “Four, eleven, two, tri in the house,” he exclaimed. The Rican is just smiling as she had something of a winner in her purse. Lady Tater is climbing over the shoulders of the tall and large Sir Pinkalot. She might have kissed them, I really couldn’t see through my milky white eyes. Juicy and Tator Tot were rubbing chests as they jumped at each other.
Some local guy dressed in a orange t-shirt with white stripes and a plaid pair of out-of-fashion shorts high-fived Juicy and said in a unsavory voice, “Thanks for the tip, man,” and walked up the ramp to the ticket windows.
I tugged at the tickets in my tight back pocket and looked at them in disgust. The celebration was still on an encore when I asked Tator Tot, “I thought he said the three looked at him? Juicy said, the three with the six with the five. I’m sure of it.”
Comfortingly Tater Tot leaned toward my ear and placed his hand on my shoulder as a tear trickled down my cheek, “No Dad, a guy asked him what the name of this club is and he said, “Three, six, five. Then he told the guy, hey just so you know, the four looked at me.”
“The best part of life starts at the head of the stretch.”