How beauty of a horse racing ‘madhouse’ lost its luster
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When I was 16, adrift in my green-boned youth, Zack, my best friend, taught me how to handicap the horses, something you can see people doing today in preparation for the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. He was two years older than I was, a wiry, handsome youth with a winning grin and a swagger when he walked. He had started playing the horses when he was 11.
“They wouldn’t let me in the handbook,” he told me, ”so I sat outside and paid an older man to carry in my bets.”
Zack introduced me to the Daily Racing Form, a newspaper he told me, as sacred to a horseplayer as the Bible was to a Christian or the Quran to a Muslim. Zack explained that knowledge of bloodlines didn’t guarantee choosing winners, but allowed one to explain losing with more authority.
Zack took me into Lenny’s, our neighborhood handbook, for the first time. One entered from an alley into a large and windowless chamber littered with worn and shabby tables and chairs. A row of tellers behind caged windows wrote up the bets and dispensed cash to the infrequent winners. The walls were covered with large sheets listing the horses running that day and, after the races, how the winners had finished.
A large rusty loudspeaker suspended high in one corner kept up an unceasing cackle of reports and, at intervals, broadcast the running of the races.
At those times the crowd in the hall would fall silent, surging to gather beneath the speaker, staring up at it with the rapt attention one would show a holy icon.
When the results of a race were announced, some listeners lamented and others exulted.
“The place is a dump and smells awful!” I told Zack after my first visit. “People walk around moaning about losing or boasting about winning! One race begins as another race ends so you don’t have time to think! It’s a madhouse!” Zack gave me a broad grin and slapped my shoulder.
“That’s the beauty of it!” Zack said.
My initial bleak impression did not stop me frequenting those dismal environs daily. I went over for a few hours every day after school. Then, I simply stopped attending school, a truancy I concealed from my parents.
Zack had dropped out of school two years earlier so he was unencumbered. He’d pick me up in the morning, my parents believing we were going to school.
At Lenny’s, we huddled over the racing form like generals planning a major campaign. Yet, whether we won or lost, the day unfolded in a series of highs and lows that had us riding an emotional roller coaster.
“Maybe we’ll have a better day tomorrow, ”I said. “Win or lose,” Zack gave me that embracing grin. “That’s the beauty of it!”
My wagering tenure lasted another five years, an affliction that burdened me into my marriage and through the birth of our first son.
Whatever job I held to pay my family’s bills was subservient to those hours I gambled. I borrowed money from friends, stole cash from the liquor store where I worked, pawned my brother’s suit and sold my sister’s books. I won a little but mostly I lost. While winning was better than losing, it was the tension of the racing that ensnared me.
Those years were an agony for my family. My wife often cried, pleading with me to stop, threatening to take our son and leave. But we loved one another and she stayed and we suffered together.
Meanwhile, I lived with the fear of being arrested for theft, the shame of not repaying debts from friends, the wasted hours and days frequenting the handbook and the stress imposed upon my family.
Finally, a catastrophic day, when unable to pay our rent, I borrowed $200 from my father, his month’s salary from the church where he served as priest. On my way home, I stopped in Lenny’s to make a single $10 dollar bet on a horse I’d been following. I felt secure because I had $10 dollars of my own for the bet, my father’s money safe in a trouser pocket I vowed not to touch.
My horse lost in a photo finish. Frustrated at coming so close and with another race ready to run, I broke into my father’s $200 to bet another $10. When I lost that bet, raging at myself for my weakness, I burrowed into the $190 again and again and kept losing. I kept betting in a demented fever, winning a little but mostly losing. By late afternoon I had lost my father’s $200. Pinned between despair at what I knew I had become and shame at having to confess my transgression to my wife, I mark that day as the time when I began a labored ascent from Hell.
With my slow move into recovery, Zack and I lost touch. I had a postcard from him once from Arizona and then, on a Christmas, he phoned me from Vermont where he was working for a phone company. He was married, still gambling, but hoping to taper off. Following that phone call I did not hear from Zack for almost 30 years.
After spending several years with my family in California working on screenplays of my stories, we moved back to the Midwest and bought a home overlooking the lake in northwest Indiana.
One summer afternoon, I heard a car ascending our driveway. I met the man who emerged at our front door. He appeared to be in his late 50s to early 60s, gray-haired and with a weathered face. I was sure I had never seen him before. He greeted me with a smile.
“Hi’ya doing, Harry!”
I kept staring at him, still certain we had never met. Then I saw the Racing Form folded and wedged under his arm that rattled the bones of memory. It was Zack. He had seen one of my essays published in a Chicago paper that mentioned my living in northwest Indiana and he had tracked me down.
Zack had worked different jobs in half-dozen states. His wife and he had a son and then were divorced, the boy remaining with his mother. Zack had served six years in prison for stealing office equipment from a company where he’d worked. After his release, he had open-heart surgery and prostate cancer they’d treated with chemotherapy. The cancer in remission had returned, and he needed surgery. He was living alone in Chicago, working at a trucking company on the North Side. All those years he had never stopped gambling.
I tried to coax him to stay for dinner but from the fear of old devils on my wife’s face, I knew she was glad he refused. He smiled, patted the racing form under his arm and told us he was driving to Washington Park to bet on a filly he’d been following running in one of the day’s late races.
I signed a couple of my books to Zack and then walked him out to his car.
He got into the driver’s seat and opened his window. We pledged we’d get together again soon but both of us knew that wouldn’t happen.
“I never made it,” he said with a faint smile. “You did make it. That’s the beauty of it.”
He turned the key and started the car’s motor. He gave me a final wave and then Zack was gone.
Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.
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