Playing the ponies

A subculture of characters gather to spend an afternoon playing the ponies

A day at the racetrack

On a Sunday  afternoon I went to the Hastings Racecourse to bet on the horses, and I discovered a subculture of colourful characters that had gathered to spend an afternoon playing the ponies.

A few lads were dressed like dandies, outfitted in button-down shirts, hats and vests, laughing and cajoling, while women bedecked in suitable attire of full skirts and crinolines accessorized with wide-brimmed hats looked on coyly.

The pomp didn’t quite match the ceremony of standing on the asphalt or perching on a wooden bench trackside sipping ale from a plastic cup and chowing down on beef ‘n a bun, but this was all just window-dressing, anyway. In minutes all eyes would be trained on the horses sprinting along the dirt racetrack backdropped by the heaving shoulders of the North Shore mountains.

Crusty codgers gripped dog-eared programs, their practiced eyes trained on the numbers flashing on the leader board, the odds tumbling and climbing as bets were placed. Long shots of 50 to 1 transcended into respectable 9 to 5 odds, and 2 to 1 odds plunged to 7 to 1 as money changed hands at the counters behind us. Pens scratched names and numbers onto paper, cigarettes were inhaled absently and stamped out in similar manner, the aroma of charring smokies scorched the air, but there wasn’t a hint of mint from any traditional juleps that are to the Kentucky Derby what strawberries and cream are to Wimbledon.

In the stands, quartets held court in the box seats, eyes glued to TV monitors to view the thoroughbreds racing round the dusty oval, jockeying across the finish line, goaded by their impish pilots who reportedly tip the scales at a max of 115 lbs and average just five feet in height.

These diminutive riders wear unis called “silks” (which, by the way, are usually made from polyester or Lycra), a name that’s just as emasculating as the loud colour combos and patterns (case in point: pink and white harlequins) that make each outfit original. And while I digress, it’s important to note that these uniforms-as-assaults-to-the-eyes serve a long-standing purpose: to help the race commentators and spectators keep track of their steed.

Today, the dirt track was fast (dry) under gunmetal skies, and we arrived in time to place our bets on the second race, a maiden claiming race, which I later learn translates to something like this:

a) The horses have never won a race before, hence the moniker “maiden”

b) All horse running are eligible to be “claimed” or purchased after the race

c) This is the lowest class of horse racing

Following that, it’s probably also one of the most difficult races to handicap, and therefore, to wager on, since the horse are lacking a track record (though there seems to be a semblance of one in my program). But as the saying goes, we ignorantly and blissfully tried to decipher the statistics, jargon and inexplicable acronyms on the program, threw in a bit of horse-y superstition gleaned from greyhound racing (e.g. the dog that takes a shit just before the race is a shoo-in to win).

The horses saunter past the spectators, presumably so we can detect a limp, foaming at the mouth or some other sign that might indicate our favourites aren’t up to speed. The lithe jockeys perch atop, shepherding their steeds along the oval, accompanied by another horse and rider that seem to serve to keep them in line (N.B. These other riders, strangely are as muscular and masculine as the jockeys are slight and effeminate, making for an odd role reversal, where you’d expect women to excel in the so-called jockeying position). Most of the steeds look strong and stolid, muscles ripped under the sheen of their coats. A couple have a fancy dance to their step, and one is looking askance, tongue protruding and an—imagined?—crazed look in its eyes.

No tails are lifted. No shit is shat. No dead ringers.

But the bell did ring to signaling that there are just 10 more minutes to place the bets, and we sidled to the betting counter and let the foreign words trip off our tongues in broken horse-speak:

“Hastings, second race, $10 to win on number 2.”

Coincidentally or not, everyone in our initial quartet placed a bet on the same pony: Fancy Catz. Fancy Catz is a three-year-old dark brown filly from Kelowna, B.C., ridden by jockey Mario Gutierrez, who’s wearing a green jersey with white sleeves, emblazoned with a flying horse on the back. The odds are 7 to 2 (which, as far as we figured, translates to about 3.5 to 1), slightly shy of number one, Nevanova, who’s handicapped at 5 to 2 odds, and edged out by Gutsy, number five in the roster with 2 to 1 odds.

Number three, Snowbird Pass (in horse jargon: a 3 y.0. Gr/ro. f BC Lit de Justice – Dancing Writer (Staff Writer)) is a scratch today, which means only five horses will partake in the second race, instantly increasing our odds of choosing the fastest filly. Number four, She’s So True, has 4 to 1 odds; and number six, Itsugartime, with odds of 10 to 1, rounds out the racers.

But these numbers come from the printed program; the stakes are ever-evolving as the digital numbers scroll before our glazed eyes before finally holding steady. And it’s not the odds we initially bet on that count: it’s these frozen digits that will determine our exact windfalls, should our prognostications pay off.

It’s race time. And they’re off. Φ

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