Something To Chew On
January 15-21, 2018
By Becca Bona
A Day at the Races
Leaning over the green railings as the majestic animals trotted in one by one, I was hit with a sharp scent – grass, hay, and a musty mixture of sweat and Earth.
“Beautiful creatures, aren’t they,” my Grandfather noted.
I just nodded, aware that the nine fillies entering the paddock looked around fiercely as if prepared to head to battle. Truth be told, on a typical day at Hot Spring’s Oaklawn Racing & Gaming, they usually are.
I was fifteen at the time, doing my best to take everything in on my first day at the races. At that point in my life, I’d heard my Grandfather talk about horses more than once. A sturdy man with life’s laugh lines along his eyes, he had always had a thing for horses.
By the time his fourth and last child was in high school, he moved his family from the growing bustle of Little Rock toward greener pastures. Nearby Oaklawn became a favorite pastime of his – if nothing else, he found the animals fascinatingly beautiful and the people-watching entertaining and vibrant.
“You never trust a horse that has all four socks on his feet,” he told me that day, looking down at his program and back up at a grey 3-year-old male named Pants.
“You’ll want to pay attention to how long a horse has been with a particular trainer,” he continued, “But you can’t always rely on that. Sometimes the new kid on the block can really upset those odds.”
Odds were a bit like calculus to me, the large green board flashing various numbers that sometimes changed right up to the beginning of a race.
Granddad patiently explained the betting process to my cousin and I, going over the difference between betting to win, place, or show. He outlined exactas and trifectas as well as the daily double.
“I usually bet your Grandma’s age for that one,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
Understanding the whimsical ways of fifteen-year-old girls, he let us pick the horses with the names we liked best, and then he would make a $2 bet for us, handing us each a slip of crisp white paper. Needless to say, we were particularly taken with a black male horse without a tail named, “Idontneedone.”
We watched as the jockeys paraded the horses to the post at the start of each race. And, each time they stormed past us for their allotted distance, the announcer boomed out the action over a loud speaker. No matter how excited my cousin and I got at the end of each race, Granddad would either nod in approval or shake his head with a slight frown. Nothing more.
After we chowed down on Oaklawn’s famous corned-beef sandwiches, he told us we were only staying for one more race and went to place his bet.
The same dirt-flying, fierce-frenzied competition took place yet again, only this time, as the announcer called out the winner, Granddad didn’t nod or smile, but put his right hand over his heart, standing very still.
“Girls, I’ll be right back,” he said gravely.
After he returned, he told us we’d done good for the day, and it was time to go home.
“First, I’ll give you your winnings,” he said, a wry smile on his face.
He opened a wad of bills and flicked crisp Benjamins across his palm, choosing three for each of us. My eyes widened and began to catch up with my brain, which was forming a multitude of questions.
He shook his head and held up a single finger before saying, “Just don’t tell your Grandmother.”