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RACETRACKER

Life's a Gamble

By Len ShermanPublished 2 years ago 8 min read
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It’s a vulnerable age in my life. Not that different ages can’t be equally vulnerable but in my early 20’s, as a young adult, not as clever as I would like to believe, I’m wandering down a road with no responsibilities; I do pretty much as I please and the world is my oyster so to speak. But not every oyster contains a pearl.

My main residence is the size of a horse’s stall and why shouldn’t it be? I live in a tack room at a racetrack. The floor consists of dirt and although the walls have saddles, reins and other racing paraphernalia hanging on them, I can still see and hear horses through the cracks between the boards. I sleep on a single bed, the mattress stained by earlier grooms and although the sheets are clean, a horse blanket is the main cover, its aroma is consistent with my four-legged neighbors. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the horses walking around in their stalls, munching their hay, and nickering during the night. Also, it’s not unusual to feel a fat little mouse run across my chest.

My friends, some my age and others much older, are mostly societies dropouts. We all have a few things in common such as we love horses and we love to gamble, not just on horses but start shuffling a deck of cards or pop the lid off a bottle of beer or uncork a bottle of cheap red wine (did I mention we also like to drink a lot?) and like the bugs in the ceiling, my friends are soon dropping in. Most of us will wager our last dollar on the turn of a card or a flip of a coin and I’m one of them. Life for the most part is quite exciting. Lots of parties, loose women and I drive a motorcycle not in a shy way.

I work for one of the leading trainers on the track. He is a very handsome Irishman with a roguish glint in his eye and a lilt in his voice I’m sure has charmed the nickers off many a fair lassie. He has a stable of approximately 30 horses, four of which I tend to. I make sure that they are fed on time, their stalls are always clean, and they shine like a gold coin after I’ve laid a brush across their hides, combed their manes and tails and oiled their hooves. They see me first thing in the early morning when I feed them some oats and when I shut their stall doors at night.

Perhaps I should mention that I am of slight stature during those early years. I’d considered being a jockey but thankfully I grew—being astride a powerful thoroughbred thundering along the rail with a mind of its own can be rather daunting—at times terrifying. So, I remained a groom even if the paycheck was meagre in comparison to a jockey. However, being a groom had its advantages because I was often touted which horse had a good chance of winning a race by my fellow grooms. Also, since I knew many of the trainers, I’d often stand nonchalantly checking out the racing form near the $50.00 betting wicket to see which trainer was making a hefty wager and then I would place a bet on their horse.

Many people believe the races are fixed and that the horses are abused. I can’t vouch that none of the races were never fixed but I do know that the majority of horses were well looked after—it wouldn’t be in the owners and trainers’ best interests to not have them looked after properly—it is after all the sport of kings and the horses were pampered in every way. However, that’s not to say that a shady aspect of the sport didn’t exist. I for one had become more than just a groom. Thinking a bookie might be more lucrative, I begin taking bets. Also, befriended by an older man, he is training me to palm cards and deal from the bottom of the deck so I’ll become a shill and steer cardplayers into a game they will lose.

Most of the people I rub shoulders with are decent, but some are dubious, even dangerous. Across the street from the racetrack is a bootlegger’s place known as the “sink” because there is no toilet in the basement—its patrons use a sink to piss into. And not far from there is a house of ill repute—a whorehouse—both places making a killing, especially on Sundays. One afternoon, I find myself in the whorehouse kitchen being introduced to a pimp. He is surprisingly congenial, and also has a string of girls working the streets downtown. He tells me the money is huge but life expectancy, longevity, isn’t great. His words sink in as I think about my new business being a bookie—I’m not a violent person and not into breaking arms and legs for overdue debts. At a party, I meet a friend of mine when, as boys, we were next-door neighbors—he has recently shot and killed a man. Another friend is doing 20 years for armed robbery.

Alcohol and gambling go hand in hand, and I am sometimes drunk twice a day. I’ve had a knife pulled on me and knocked cold during a street fight, plus three front teeth were busted off by a supposedly good friend when he punched me in the mouth for no good reason. One wet and slippery night, my best friend has been drinking and has an automobile accident on the freeway. I am usually with him but this time he has picked up a 16-year-old girl working at A&W—he is decapitated, and she is in a vegetable state for the rest of her life. Five more friends die while under the influence, when the driver loses control of the car and crashes head on into an oncoming vehicle. Another friend trips out on LSD—he is taken away in an ambulance and is never seen again. I’m not even an overpaid pimp and my life expectancy is not looking very good. But life is exciting and I’m too stupid or maybe my mind is soaked with too much alcohol to get a clear observation of my situation. One summer afternoon, while walking by a tack room, I see a much older man—he is sitting on a cot with his head slumped on his chest—between his legs is an opened bottle of cheap wine in a brown paper bag. It’s then that I realize, if I don’t die young, his existence is my fate. Besides earning money as a groom and bookie, I occasionally pick up a few bucks as an artist. An artist appears to be a safer and perhaps even a more lucrative way to earn a living, so I enroll in art school.

Having reached an important turning point in my life, I give up being a bookie but still work as a groom to pay for art school. After four years, I graduate from art school and am hired as an animator—can’t believe I turned down a job offered in Hollywood by Bill Hannah when the Flintstones first came into existence. I become an art director for a small TV station in another city and from there, I move to another city, freelance for three major ad agencies and start my own commercial art business. It’s a big success, but my earlier wildness at the racetrack remains a part of me—I still gamble and drink too much too often—it eventually costs me the business and a marriage. I buy a sailboat, a 42’ ferro cement ketch and then, just let my life float—I drift along with the tide so to speak. Life is still a series of mistakes but although I lost big time, I didn’t loose my talent.

I just turned 80 about two weeks ago and I must have done something right. I have six kids, seven grandkids and a wife that loves and dotes on me, especially after I came down with cancer. I guess because I was such a pain in the ass during my earlier years, that’s where it struck—rectum cancer.

Those racetrack days are a little blurry now and some may even consider that they were a waste of time. But I can’t help wondering what became of my friends back then, especially when I told them I was leaving and they said, “You’ll be back. Once a racetracker, always a racetracker.” When I went out the gate for the last time, I knew I would never return, and I never did. That’s not to say, I never bet on the bangtails again or my fondness for those magnificent steeds ever faded. There’s just something about a horse when I see one in an open field, and it trots up to me and nuzzles its velvety muzzle in the palm of my hand for a sugar cube or a carrot. Hmm…perhaps my friends were right after all, I’m still and will always be a racetracker at heart.

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About the Creator

Len Sherman

I'm a published author/artist but tend to think of myself as a doodler\dabbler. I've sailed the NW Passage & wrote & illustrated a book, ARCTIC ODYSSEY. Currently, I live on 50 semi wilderness acres & see lots of wild critters in the yard.

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