“Show me a horseplayer,” Rangas would say, “and I’ll tell you a sad story.” He was a craggy-featured, hardship-ravaged gambler in his 70s I met in the shabby betting parlor where for three years in the greening of my youth I spent a good part of my days. I met Rangas the first time I entered the handbook and saw him for the last time when I finally stopped gambling.
Rangas would be in the handbook when I arrived and remain after I left. We shared Greek ancestry and came to be friends. He took me under his wing and in between races; he tutored me in colt and mare bloodlines. For all of his knowledge, both of us still lost most of the time.
I never heard Rangas speak of being married, or of having children. He had once owned a lunchroom, but that was in the distant past. As one of the announcers called the horses at the post at Aqueduct, Suffolk Downs or Arlington Park — which opened its 2015 season Friday — Rangas would slouch toward one of the windows and make his bet. He didn’t have the money to make big bets although he bet larger sums than I did. Most races he lost. He’d toss his tickets away and chew gloomily on his limp cigar.
We discovered a horse named Hurry Home Harry, a dismal performer except on a rainy day when the track turned sloppy. Then the poor nag became the steed of Apollo. His fondness for a muddy track was sometimes overlooked and we’d catch him at odds of four or five to one.
The most exciting part of my week was a rainy day when I heard Rangas say, “Our boy is running today!” We would bet what money we could muster and then wait serenely while the race was being run. Hurry Home Harry never let us down.
When the Washington Park Race Track was in season, Rangas and I hoarded our money and once a week rode the South Shore Line to the track. We’d sit high in the grandstand until late in the day when the affluent box holders would vacate their sanctified environs. Rangas led me down to one of the boxes overlooking the home stretch. He’d enthrone himself in the box with an ease and assurance that suggested he was exactly where he belonged. From time to time, a dyspeptic usher would chase us out of the box, but as the stands emptied, the ushers grew apathetic and allowed us to finish the day’s racing in an aura of luxury.
On a day near the end of the Washington Park season Rangas and I were at the track. The last race, a six-furlong allowance, was about to run. We had made our bets and were sitting in a box near the finish line.
The horses sprang from the gate and raced bunched around the first turn. Rangas had our single set of binoculars and as the horses circled the oval, he let loose a sibilant whistle.
“The number eight horse in blue colors,” he said. “What’s his name?”
I looked into the program. “Bright Star,” I said. “He’s twenty-five to one.”
Rangas handed me the binoculars. “Watch him…”
I focused on Bright Star who was about twenty lengths behind the leaders but who appeared to be flying past the horses ahead of him.
“He’s going to take it all!” I said. “Maybe,” Rangas said.
Bright Star did not win, place or show that day but finished fifth, a mere two lengths behind the winners. But the speed at which he was closing left no question that given an additional furlong he would have won in a breeze.
“We’ll watch for him next time…” Rangas said. “The Racing Form will only show the horse finished fifth. No one could know how fast he was running unless they had seen him.”
For the following few days, Rangas and I saved our money. About a week later, as I entered the handbook, Rangas met me.
“Don’t take off your hat,” he said. “We’re going to the track. A conspiratorial smile creased his sad face,” Bright Star is running… a longer race.”
“I’ve only got ten dollars,” I said.
“I have $500,” Rangas said. “Last week I cashed in my $2000 dollar life insurance policy. I’ll loan you a $100.”
I was aghast at his affluence.
“If the horse loses I’ll never be able to pay you back.”
“You’ll pay me back at the end of the day.”
We left the handbook for the South Shore station on 63rd Street. Seated in the train, I felt in some kind of cocoon, sounds of people around me muted as I thought only about Bright Star and the fortune we would be betting.
We arrived at Washington Park as the fourth race was beginning. Rangas rented a second pair of binoculars. Our programs showed Bright Star entered in the last race of the day and his odds posted at 10 to 1.
“He’ll go down a few more points,” Rangas said. “We’re not the only ones who were at the track that day he ran.”
We waited impatiently through the intervening races, betting no more than two dollars a race. As the last race was posted, Rangas and I walked to the tote windows.
“Five hundred to win on Number nine, “Rangas said. I caught a flash of respect in the teller’s eyes,
Afterwards, I followed Rangas down to one of the prime boxes overlooking the finish line. That day I had no fear of being thrown out. Rangas radiated such confidence no usher would have dared question his legitimacy.
As we lounged in our seats Rangas unsheathed a pair of cigars.
“Five dollars apiece,” he said. “Victory stogies.”
“How can you be so sure?” I asked, my own heart thumping in apprehension.
“Death, taxes and Bright Star,” Rangas said.
The horses were mustered into the gate, A moment of tense silence and then they were off. Rangas and I sat frozen to our binoculars.
The field ran bunched for the opening furlongs, Bright Star near the rear of the pack.As they rounded into the far turn, Rangas whispered, “Now…”
An instant later Bright Star, wearing his blue colors, passed his first horse. Then he passed a string of other horses. A rumbling swept the crowd and people stood to get a better view.
As they pounded down the stretch, Bright Star was only a length behind the leader. A moment later he had taken the lead. As the horses raced toward the finish line, Bright Star pulled further and further away, leaving the field of horses in his wake.
I cannot remember whether I shouted or cheered. I do remember catching a glimpse of Rangas’s face in that moment, all his customary somberness and hopelessness replaced by the visage of joy and triumph.
Through his teeth clenched on his cigar, I heard his voice, hoarse and reverential, ”Beautiful… beautiful…”
Not long after Bright Star’s victory I quit gambling. Many years passed and I never saw Rangas again although several times I considered returning to the handbook to find him. But I feared being ensnared once more, so I do not know what happened to him.
Whenever I think of the glum and despondent old gambler, lamenting his day’s losses, tossing aside his useless tickets, chewing forlornly on limp cigars, in my memory all these are overshadowed by that matchless moment at the track when with mane flying and majestic head extended, Bright Star romped to victory. And the radiance in Rangas’ face as he murmured, “Beautiful… beautiful…”