Day at the races

For more information on harness racing at Cal Expo, visit

Having recently left my full-time job as SN&R’s arts editor, I’m on summer vacation for the first time since college. With oodles of time on my hands and an opening for a new moneymaking venture, it was only a matter of time before I found myself at the Cal Expo racetrack.

Writing and playing the horses worked for Charles Bukowski, so why not? I should have taken a hint when I could barely follow the racetrack passages a friend marked for me in Post Office, but I felt optimistic about my prospects last Saturday. I immediately ran into Sacramento’s premier make-out poet, Gene Bloom, who’s rumored to have logged track time with Bukowski back in the day. That had to be a good sign. I asked for advice on any of the evening’s 14 live harness races, but Bloom just shrugged. “I don’t play the trotters,” he said. “It’s not my thing.”

Indeed, most of the regulars were gathered in the satellite wagering area, watching multiple televisions through tinted glasses and shouting ineffective threats at jockeys across the nation. The bar and bleachers, which offered the best view of the track, were largely occupied by families and party people knackered on cheap drinks.

I hugged Bloom for good luck and queued up at the snack bar for a $1 beer, the racetrack’s Saturday-night special. (Hint for thrifty fans of Italian cuisine: Wednesday is $2 lasagna night.) Then I settled in at the bar to plan my wagers. The evening’s program offered extensive and, to me, incomprehensible statistics on the horses. Discouraged by my inability to decipher the numbers, I peppered my companions with questions. “What does it mean to show? Where’s the starting line? How do odds work again?”

I was handed a helpful pamphlet titled “Newcomer’s Guide to Winning at the Races.” I was still studying it when the third race began and the seemingly mild-mannered people around me leapt up and started shouting. I craned my neck to see the horses and riders through the windows as they barreled down the homestretch. They flew by so quickly I couldn’t tell who won. It was over before I knew it, and spectators were grinning or groaning accordingly.

“You want to make a bet?” my friend asked. I looked at the program: “Cal Expo Fourth Race, Exacta, Trifecta, $2 pick 5. Purse $3,700. Claiming $6,000.” Perplexed, I resorted to every girl’s decision-making standby: cuteness. I chose my horse, Wicked Tony, because of his adorable name and picked a bet at random from the pamphlet’s glossary.

I marched up to the mutuel clerk and grinned sheepishly. “It’s my first time,” I told him, before carefully reciting the phrase I’d committed to memory: “Cal Expo, $2, across the board, number 2.” When he handed me a receipt, I tried not to jump with excitement. I did it. I was a gambler. Anything seemed possible—until Wicked Tony placed fourth.

Five minutes later, I was back at the window with what I hoped was a better pick. I’d enlarged my strategy to include the color of the horses’ number and determined the green Photo Delight was a winner.

When the horses lined up at the starting line, Photo Delight was almost a quarter track behind them, as if the rider had been in the bathroom when the trumpet sounded. The gap only widened during the mile-long race, along with my increasing certainty that gambling was not my new profession. “And waaay back there is Photo Delight,” the announcer kept saying, crushing my dreams of easy money with each reiteration.

Race long over, Photo Delight still trotted down the homestretch. Short of stopping to take a drink at the new Raging Waters theme park, the horse couldn’t have finished any slower.

Chagrined but determined, I placed bets and downed budget brews for the next three races. I picked the last horse almost every time. It’s a skill my mother’s boyfriend calls a “lastfecta,” and, unfortunately, it doesn’t pay. Clearly, playing the ponies is not for me. Does anyone know how to play craps?