For 33 years I had no interest in horse racing, but that was soon to change.
My parents live right next to a race track in the Finger Lakes region of New York. One day they asked me if I’d like to go and see the horse races. I scoffed. Why would I want to go watch a bunch of dumb beasts circumambulate a lawn with comically clad midgets clung to their backs?
It seemed like a stupid way to spend a day and an overtly medieval thing to bet on.
But then I thought about it: I could go and sit out in the sun, drink beer with my dad, and just hang out. The track was around a mile from my family’s home, so it wouldn’t require a trip to get there.
“Ok, let’s go.”
My father printed out a set of betting instructions and we went. When we got there I bought the day’s racing program and then went up to sit in the bleachers. We walked through a room of grumpy looking geezers sitting side by side but not speaking a word to each other. Instead, they were staring obsessively at a wall of teleprompters. “Fun looking bunch,” I jested.
Up in the grandstand I looked over the program and worked my way through it using the instructions. If I was going to sit around at this race track anyway I was going to figure out how it all worked. It became clear from the start that betting on these horses is a complicated endeavor, but it also became clear that there was a lot of information provide to assist you in making wagers. Besides the odds, the track’s program had all the races listed with the stats for each horse, jockey, and trainer. So you could see their performance trends when pitted up against each other and plot out a strategy. The output of that strategy is an entire array of betting options that you can cue up to appropriately match the particular race. You don’t bet blind and hope for luck when gambling on horses: there is a system, and it seemed to be a system that could be learned.
Someone could get good at this, I thought.
I then went down to get a beer and place a bet. Droughts were being sold at $2 a piece. Not bad.
I went over to the booking counter and put two dollars down on a horse to win, and then returned to join my family in the bleachers. I looked out at the track. It was a rather beautiful thing to look at, the tightly mowed lawn in the middle, the wide open spaces, a few patches of trees seemingly placed at random, the nicely raked brown dirt track ringing it in, the big blue sky overhead. It all seemed so still, peaceful. It was perhaps the American take on a Japanese dry garden.
Then the race began, the 100 or so person crowd tensed up, the bell, the announcer, the cheers, and hooves hitting dirt broke the calm. I found myself getting more excited than I thought I would. By the time the horses crossed the finish line I was into it. Though I lost.
I went down and got my father and I another beer and returned to the bleachers to look over the next race. My gusto level was elevated. I found two horses I liked and bet a $2 exacta box, which means that if either horse came in first or second in any order I would win.
After around twenty minutes of drinking beer in the sun, joking with my dad, the horses were ready to start. They took off. One of my horses were well in the lead, the other was in the pack. Around the last bend my lagging steed began speeding up. A dozen people in the crowd jumped up, some ran to the front waving their hands and screaming. The horse ran faster. It overtook all but the leader. I won. $36.
I took my winnings and tried not to act surprised, as though I’d never did this before. I’d just earned $36 on a $4 bet. Not bad.
“Someone could really make money at this,” I thought. Many people do make money betting on horses here: upwards of 83% of the pool of wagers are returned to betters.
If this game wasn’t profitable then people probably wouldn’t have been doing it for so long. The Ancient Greeks, Babylons, Syrians, and Egyptians all raced horses. Horse racing began in the USA in the mid-17th century, long before the country was even independent of England, and has continued on through today.
In 33 years I had absolutely no interest in horse racing, but after 33 minutes at that track I was an all out proponent. I bet $5 on a horse to win the next race, and I won. The next race I went for a trifecta box and lost. The following race I placed another exacta box and won $28. My bets were low — I wasn’t ready to risk much on this yet — but I made money. In all, I was able to pay for our beers and a snack for my kid, and I left with more cash in my pocket than I arrived with.
Horse racing is probably the only way that I know of to make a little money just sitting around in the sun drinking beer.