"They" Never Sleep

The racetrack in spring is a place of optimism, of dreams of zooming stocks, flashy cars and clothes and women, but fall at the track is the season of “gel even” time, when the Irvings and the Arnolds of the betting world are especially wary of the mysterious powers that flex the fickle finger of fate. Sam Toperoff, a toft who writes poems yet, and author of ALL THE ADVANTAGES (Atlantic-Little, Brown) and of a forthcoming book on the lore, the sociology, and the delights of horse racing, takes you to the head of the stretch on a typical brisk autumn day at The Big A. Dress warmly and listen carefully to the conversation around you.

IN OCTOBER and November the wind is constant off Jamaica Bay. It blows chilling cold directly up the stretch at Aqueduct. Some handicappers believe it favors come-from-behind horses, but others argue that the same ill wind has already pushed the speed horses too far ahead down the backstretch. However you have it, in October and November the wind off Jamaica Bay blows chilling cold. Even ounce-conscious jockeys are swelled by every piece of warming equipment they can get their steely hands on.

At the very head of the stretch, 1155.6 feet from the finish, as the New York Racing Association measures the stretch, the management of Aqueduct, racetrack has placed gray benches on the “lawn.”The “lawn" is an asphalt composition similar to the parking lot. Although a metal and wire double fence separates the racetrack from the parking lot, a Pinkerton patrols it to keep information and money from passing through.

Further down the track, the huge concrete grandstand starts, It begins to block out the lowhanging sun about the fifth race. (If I’m not doing well, I usually leave before the sixth race in order to beat the traffic; if I’m doing all right, I generate my own heat and light.) The benches are movable and are rotated by the patrons to allow maximum effect by the tepid sun. Thesc variables are a horseplayer’s delight. So it is to this spot, 1155.6 feet up the stretch, I come on sunny Tuesdays and Thursdays in October and November with my Racing Form, my red ball-point pen, and my dread of winter.

A few others are regulars; they arc mostly retired men with Irish or German accents who also come with their winter fears. Often they have purple razor nicks on their chins and necks. They wear hats and coats and ties; someone’s hat will blow away in the course of a day’s racing, and a good deal of excitement will be generated. Generally, though, there is not the same bustle and display of emotion here as in the grandstand. When there is some discussion, it is usually about unknown or forgotten trainers and jockeys andhorses at the “Old Jamaica” track. The clock on the infield tote board silently clicks off inexorable minutes. The races aren’t discussed very heatedly afterward because this is probably the worst vantage point at the track for the matters of who won and by how much. Here is where the horses straighten out into that icy wind in the run for home. The horses run directly away from this point for more than a quarter of a mile. Perspective is impossible, even with field glasses — eight or nine horses fanning out across the track, showing more of their rumps with each jump. Glasses do enable the viewer to spot the jockey who first stands up on his mount when the horses have crossed the finish line, but this system is unreliable if the finish is at all close. There are one or two bigmouths around who try to “call" the winner before his number is put up, but they’re invariably wrong.

The sun is the reason I sit here in October and November. As I lie on a bench, field glasses propping my head to the warmest.angle of incidence, its rays strike my cheeks and forehead so directly that its warmth is something of a promise. I touch my forehead with the back of my hand to confirm it. Squint at it to break it into its components. Curse the cloud that covers if and threatens winter.

Although you can’t see the finish of a race or reasonably guess at it from this spot, it is at the very head of the stretch that many races are decided. Watching the action at this point is a remarkable experience; so much is happening at once. The speed horses are beginning to shorten stride; the late runners are opening up under urging. Saliva sweeps back from the horses’ mouths onto their necks — a whisp or two hangs in the air. Some jockeys are still trying to save ground along the rail. Horses are coming off the rail behind the horses that are “stopping.” More experienced jockeys are looking for “holes” rather than being forced to circle the field; young ones are worried about getting “locked.” The horses’ flanks, perspiring, flash in the sun; steam and hot breath veil horses and riders. Garish silks whirl by. Whips sting the flanks with crisp cracks. Some boys whistle shrill chirps. The thunderous roll of the horses’ strides slowly builds and then slowly fades. The race is now back in the hands of the people in the grandstand.

Cold-weather bettors certainly have some strange handicapping theories. Hardly any of them can tell you that the normal body temperature of a horse ranges between 99 and 100.5 degrees or that horses prefer to race in crisp weather. A friend of mine, a theorist, had an interesting hypothesis: “In the fall,” he used to say, “bet only Canadian horses, horses that are bred or have raced in Canada.” Toward this end he collected Canadian breeding guides and racing charts. But it wasn’t often that one of these horses ran at Aqueduct, so he carried his icy logic over to the jockeys, betting only jockeys who had been bred or had ridden in Canada. Once in late November he found a Canadian horse that was being ridden by a Canadian jock — the horse won and paid $28.20, What further proof! But sometimes the whole fall meeting slipped by without a Canadian horse or rider in a race. Was he shut out? Of course not! With seasonable logic, he bet on those horses that had “Canada” or “Canadian” in their names, or merely “North” or “Northern.” I saw him last going to place a bet across the board on a Kentucky bred called Maple Leaf Rag.

The racing in the fall, especially in the late fall, almost warrants this sort of betting approach. Except for Allowance and Stakes races, the fields are poor: too many races for the year’s non winners and horses that trainers are hoping to unload on foolishly optimistic buyers; horses that are being badly trained and mishandled in races, and horses that have been unsound through spring and summer. Fall is a time of disillusionment for many small owners and trainers. The hopes of spring have become the excuses of summer and, finally, the cold, ledger logic of fall. Winter will be a time of realistic consolidation. A few will not be around when the cycle comes again to measured optimism with next spring’s crop of two-year-olds.

Most bettors never get uncycled, and they meet each spring with wilder optimism. A typical spring bettor’s montage: a two-dollar daily double parlays into zooming stocks, into a booming racing stable, into flashy cars and clothes and women, into a gaudy duplex on Upper Easy Street. The fall, though, is “get even” time, the belief that, you can still “bail out” with the same two-dollar bet — the optimism of desperation.

I HADN’ I really planned to go out to the track that Thursday. It was the day of the seventh and final game of the 1965 World Series, the Dodgers against the Twins, and dramatically interesting because Walter Alston, the Dodger manager, had to decide whether to start Don Drysdale with three days rest or arthritic Sandy Koufax with only two. I planned to spend the afternoon in front of the television set, but when I went out to pick up the morning paper, the sun had already begun tempering the chill. When I bought a Racing Form in addition to the Times, I had already opted for my spot at the head of the stretch. Of course I discovered some interesting possibilities in the first race, and interest soon grew into excitement. I hustled to the track, bet my “doubles,” and prepared to take my place in the sun. Two strangers had my bench.

Their names, I discovered by tapping the air, were Irving and Arnold. Irving was about fortyfive, and Arnold was perhaps ten years younger. Both were balding, but each had his way of forestalling the inevitable: Irving combed the long, thin hair on the left side of his head all the way over to the other side, so that his hair seemed a net; Arnold combed his darker hair straight forward over his receding brow, where it was formed into spare ringlets. Each had the same greasy film on hair and scalp.

As improbable as it sounds, they referred to each other by name almost constantly: “Irving,” the younger would say, “this here horse hasn’t been out since March.” “Those are just the ones they might let win today, Arnold.” They were a pair of “sharpies,” probably salesmen who worked on commission. Each wore a pair of checkered pants and a one-day stubble of thin beard. Their summer shoes were identical and had probably been torn off the same Everglade alligator and been bought at a shoe store near Hialeah. They shared a single Racing Form.

Irving had on a fine camel’s hair coat which had seen a few better days. Arnold wore a green and blue and yellow sport jacket; its thin collar offered brave protection against the chill. Irving looked up from their paper: “McGrain is training the five horse, Arnold. I wouldn’t touch him with a fork.”

“He’s a crooked bastard, Irving. That’s all there is to it,” mumbled Arnold without looking up.

“Arnold, remember when he was riding and we bet him at Belmont? Ten-length lead at the head of the stretch. No way he could lose.”

“No way, Irving. Crooked bastard.”

“They must have really gotten to him that day, Arnold. He tried pulling the horse up and couldn’t. Finally had to fall off the goddamned thing to lose. Remember? Fell off clean as a whistle and rolled under the rail. No reason. And not even an injury.”

“They must have gotten to everybody that day, Irving.” Arnold looked up; he and Irving made eye contact, and their two heads made a synchronized affirmation.

“Irving,” Arnold asked, “who do you think they’ve got this one set up for?”

“I only wish I knew,” was Irving’s honest reply, and both returned to their research. The sun went behind a long cloud; suddenly it became very cold. Arnold, clutching the thin lapels of his jacket to his throat, whined, “And they predicted sunny with milder today.”

“They knew better, Arnold,” said Irving without looking up. The synchronized nods again, this time without eye contact. We all studied the past performances in silence. I postponed my trip for coffee, hoping that one of the boys would explain how the “weather fix” worked. Arnold, some of the disciple still showing, told Irving, “The businessmen pay them off. Right, Irving?” The long cloud couldn’t have shut out the sun longer if it were guided by a thermal underwear manufacturer.

Irving, traces of the master still evident, said, “Especially this time of year, Arnold.” And he nodded approvingly over his Racing Form.

“Are we going to bet any doubles, Irving? We only got a few minutes, you know.”

“Why should we? It’s bad enough trying to pick one boat race; what chance do we have of picking two?”

“Who do you think this one’s set up for, Irving?”

“The four horse maybe, Arnold. He hasn’t done much all year, but they’ve made him four-toon e off his last workout.”

“They’re taking the blinkers off him today, Irving,” Arnold said, proud of his observation. They seemed to know something about handicapping horse races.

“Arnold, there’s no reason for that horse to be only four-to-one.” As Irving spoke, the odds on number four, Blind Alley, changed to 7-to-2. Irving caught the shift with a cocked eye-slit. “See that, Arnold, seven-to-two, and the horse doesn’t really figure. Somebody must know something.”

“Who does figure?” I blurted, thrusting myself into their anti-world. Irving and Arnold swiveled their heads in my direction and back again to their Racing Form in perfect unison. The trumpeter blew the “call to the post”; the nasal track announcer reported, “The horses are on the track,” overemphasizing the tiny word “on”; and the sun emerged from the tail of the cloud.

Irving spoke with his head down for a moment or so before I realized that he had been addressing himself to my question: “... and he’s had two races since he’s been back in training; the first wasn’t a bad tightener, and in the last he closed six lengths in the stretch to finish fourth in pretty good time. He’s coming right back — that last race was over this track less than a week ago. He takes five pounds off that race, too.” Irving was,

I realized, describing number seven, Goya Print, the horse I’d backed fairly well, and for all the same reasons. “He’s a good closer,” Irving continued, “and there’s plenty of early speed in the race. The wind’ll stop them when they straighten for home. There’s a jockey change to O’Brian that’ll help if he’s trying with the horse. And his sire, Spaniard, loved the fall racing.” All this without ever looking up. I felt like going back to bet the horse a few more times.

A tough-looking man in a checkered fedora and a faded brown overcoat came by thumbing a pile of pari-mutuel tickets; he took the bench directly in front of Irving and Arnold. He took off his hat and pinned it to the bench with his field glasses. Then he smoothed some sun into his bald scalp with a hairy hand.

I put my glasses on each horse — the seven horse had a good coat and seemed very frisky. At 5-to-l he seemed like a hell of a bet. (I hadn’t known that his sire “loved the fall racing.”) It was a good idea to back him up — bet him for place and show — in case he didn’t get rolling soon enough to take it all; he certainly figured to finish in the money. The four horse was now 5-to-2. “ho are you betting?” I asked Irving and Arnold. Arnold was annoyed with me; I had crashed his world, and now I refused to leave.

“The four,” Irving said. “Four,” Arnold repeated a microsecond later.

“But you said the seven figures,” I argued.

“That’s exactly why they won’t let him win,” Irving and Arnold said in harmonic unison.

I went to the place and show windows and bet number seven. I saw Arnold on the five-dallar-win line.

THE race went exactly as Irving had figured it. O’Brian broke Goya Print nicely, took back on him, and kept clear of horses down the backstretch. On the turn he began to let him out a little, and the horse was fourth and pressing tired horses when the field came by us. O’Brian gave the horse a good crack when he got his horse straightened away. The “hot horse,” Blind Alley, had gone off at 9-to-5 and had a two-length lead on the seven at this point. As they ran away from us, I was certain that the seven would be prominent. It was over in a matter of seconds. Then the number seven flashed on the placing board; he must have won easily, there wasn’t even a photo. The four horse finished second.

“Did you see our jockey, Irving,” Arnold said, “how he stood up way before the wire?”

“Didn’t even ride him out, Arnold.” The finish was 1155.6 feet away. My winner paid $3.60 — $5.80 — $3.20.

“They pulled a switch on us, Irving. They let the horse that figured win.” Irving called up his well-used exasperation but managed only a “they’ve-done-it-to-us-again-Arnold” sigh.

The “they,” I realized then, were not figurative, but real conspirators who manipulated every race and weather report. What else!

Arnold produced a small transistor radio from under his jacket, and the two listened to the final game of the series. Koufax was warming up to pitch the big game with insufficient rest. “Drysdale would make more sense, with Koufax in relief,” Arnold volunteered.

“Unless they got to Koufax,” Irving said, his eye-slits searching around and forcing my startled gaze back to my Racing Form.

“And they use the arthritis story as a built-in excuse, eh Irving?” Arnold added hopefully. (Even you, Sandy!)

I just missed in the second race, and my daily doubles went out the window. Irving and Arnold bet a speed horse who stopped badly on the turn. “The wind really came up suddenly” was Arnold’s understanding of the matter. (Were “they” pumping giant bellows on the other side of the fence?) I won the third race with a horse that went off as second choice but had beaten the favorite at the distance four weeks earlier. The boy on Irving and Arnold’s horse “just wasn’t trying,” Irving told me,

In the fourth race, a jumping race, Irving touted me on a converted distance horse who had never before raced over the hurdles. “He’s got the top trainer and top jockey, and he’s fifteen-to-one. Definitely worth a stab.” I liked the horse a bit anyway, and I was way ahead, so I took the stab. The horse won by himself and paid almost forty dollars. I stood on my bench, glasses trained on his lovely rump crossing the finish, and let loose a short, crisp victory yelp. “How much did you have on him?” I asked them, without realizing that Irving and Arnold had already begun handicapping the next race.

“We bet the one horse,” said Arnold glumly.

“He fell on the first jump,” said Irving glumly.

“They don’t always cut the hedges even on the inside,” I thought l heard Arnold add.

The sun went behind the grandstand, and it became very chilly indeed. “Can I buy you fellows a drink? After all, you did tout me on the horse” — it was hard to offer Irving and Arnold anything without making it sound like part of a vicious scheme. Irving was skeptical: Arnold was freezing, so he smiled a probing “just-this-once” to Irving.

“OK,” Irving said, and as he said it, a gust came up that blew the checkered fedora off the bench in front — the tough-looking, bald-headed man had left the hat to mark his place. It circled in the swirling air and swooped low between Irving and Arnold. Arnold instinctively reached out for it as it swept by: Irving arrested Arnold’s arm and allowed the hat to fly by, down toward the track. “What the hell are you doing, Arnold?” Irving whispered irritably; “If he comes back and catches you holding his hat, he’ll think you stole it! Do you want to make trouble for me?” The hat soon became a dot over the infield lake.

Meanwhile Koufax was pitching one of his more courageous games: he didn’t have his good stuff and had to labor, but he won 2 to 0. I wondered

if “they” would have him rubbed out.

When I went to sleep that night, lights shone in the courtyard from the windows of the other apartments. I clicked off my light. At 3 A.M. I got up to get a glass of water and noticed a single window still lit in the top-floor apartment across the courtyard. “They” never sleep.