Lucky beasts

Should’ve put down $500.

Should’ve put down $500.

photo courtesy of istockphoto/

In my family, luck is believed to be something that travels down the genetic ladder—much like relentless stubbornness or thick hair. So far, a quarter-century in, I've learned that my genetic code dictates the following: Winning an argument is indeed an act of sheer determination, and my hair won't ever be Connie Britton-like, much to my despair.

As far as luck goes, it's hard to say. I did not write this from a yacht off the coast of Monaco, for instance, which means I'm not that lucky. But I also didn't write it under the duress of needing to pay off a gambling loan before someone comes for my kneecaps, which means I'm probably faring better than some patrons of the Cal Expo horse races that go on during the California State Fair every year.

My career in gambling has been unspectacular overall; the mathematics involved with blackjack exhaust me, and my dreams are still periodically haunted by spinning numbers and symbols after an unheroic slot-machine bender in Vegas a few years back. But when you've got a card shark for a grandmother and your mom is known around Red Hawk Casino as “The Slot Machine Whisperer,” it's hard on both your pride and your bank account to accept that you don't have the gift. So last year, when I went up $300 over the course of two $20 bets on the horses I picked based on their names, I could only assume that this is where my family legacy was going to finally present itself to me—a beast of magnificent speed, of unrivaled handsomeness and awe-inspiring hindquarters.

It just so happened that opening weekend of this year's races came right after payday (fate, you might say). As I made my way through the kiddie zone of the fair, trekking across the asphalt as if through a shallow river of hot air, the cries of game operators and clanking of rides swelling in a cacophony, I arrived at the Miller Lite Grandstand to join the cross section of Californians milling about, shouting numbers at the TV screens broadcasting races from all over the country, waiting for our fortunes to be born on the backs of fleet-hooved purebreds.

I wish I could tell you that in a daring show of good faith in my lineage, I put down $500 on a superfecta bet and hit it and bought two fingers of the track bar's finest bourbon for all the bet collectors. I wish I could tell you that I had $500 in my bank account to begin with, and that like a real player, I brushed away my fears of losing like so many crumbs of a deep-fried Oreo. What I can tell you is that I bet $20 on a horse named Cava Kavia, who paid $9 for every $1 you bet if she won, and she did.

My mother, when I texted her with the news, sent back a smiley face that looked just like this: :), only patronizing.

Is there anything more dangerous than a burgeoning gambling addict winning easily on her first bet? I returned to the track as soon as I could a few days later, and as I slid my wager across the counter, my favorite bet collector nodded gravely and wished me luck.

And here's what happened, by the time the horses crossed the finish line in the last race of the day on Friday: I bet big. I didn't win big, but I didn't lose. Which, any child of a gambler will tell you, is certainly something.