Washington. -- I like spending an occasional sunny afternoon at Laurel Race Course or Pimlico. Especially so, since I have been told that my bets are now co-mingled with others across America. It makes me feel good all over, like donating blood.
Recently I've noticed an aging of fans. They no longer sip highballs at the clubhouse bar, near the finish line. Instead, they congregate around a solitary water fountain, near the men's room. It is an occupied space without walls with a protected environment, like a waiting area in a doctor's office.
These punters rarely tout each other on horses, owners, jockeys and trainers the way they used to. They now spend more time storytelling than betting. They co-mingle personal observations and opinions about how to handicap quotidian experiences.
It's all so very different from the younger, larger, faster-moving crowds I was a part of in the early 1950s. It was a time when a silent, grim student of past-performance charts, Richard Nixon, and an exuberant arm-waver, Lyndon Johnson, frequented Laurel and the now-closed Bowie -- though I never saw them together at the track.
Nixon, it seems to me, was always in a gray felt hat and coat; maybe I only saw him on chilly days. Johnson once told me he attended Georgetown Law School at night but decided not to continue on for a law degree. He complained he didn't have the time or patience. Asked his opinion of a certain horse's chances to win the next race, he replied that the bet was "as good as a Roosevelt dime."
"The thing to do is to remember that there's a special way to walk, if you want to avoid pneumonia," a septuagenarian near me spoke up, his right forefinger chopping air as he filled a conversational pause.
"How?" someone asked.
"It's easy. You raise your knees high up. That's how. Really high-step. It makes your lungs expand." He high-stepped in place. Twice. He tried to touch his jaw with his knee. The distance between them was shortened because his head was bent with age. The sudden maneuver winded him. He leaned on the fountain to catch his breath.
Another horseplayer who had waited his turn for the appropriate moment to speak up, spoke up.
"Sometimes my wife doesn't breathe when she is asleep. In the middle of the night, she'll become deathly silent. She has . . ."
"That's it. Apnea."
"So, what do you do?"
"If the blood isn't circulating in my arms, then I do the best I can with whatever works. A leg. A foot. A nudge. If I can move my fingers or hand, I tap her nose. To wake her."
"How do people live with these things in countries that aren't as advanced as ours?"
"Lookit the way countries are collapsing nowadays."
"Russia is kaput. Yugoslavia is kaput. East Germany is finished."
"Mostly, they die from starvation and civil wars."
"They don't live long enough to die from pneumonia or apnea."
I recalled seeing a sight I didn't expect to see the day after President Kennedy's assassination. In an America awash in grief and shock, awaiting answers, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and his sidekick, Clyde Tolson, were seated at a luncheon table, up against the wall, in the far corner of Pimlico's dining room. It was November 24, 1963. The feature race was the prestigious Pimlico Futurity for 2-year-old colts. Right Proud won the $117,000 race. (Chateaugay, who ran fourth, went on to win the Kentucky Derby next year.)
Sartorially elegant, in white starched shirts, striped ties and razor-sharp double-breasted worsted suits, Hoover and Tolson cheered for their horses right through roast beef to a chocolate dessert. They did not receive a dinner check but Tolson left a visible tip. Racing at Pimlico had been called off after the fifth race the day before, a Friday, following a track announcement of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. This day, Saturday, was just another day at the races for Hoover.
The track announcer said the feature race of the day was next on the program. "What did she say?"
"She said the feature is next."
"I can't wait. I've got to pick up a frozen chicken on the way home. We're having company for dinner."
"There'll be plenty more racing . . ."
"Look. Over there. There's a young couple with twins."
"Yeah, an exacta."
"And, over there. Isn't that President Clinton's mother?"
"With all those galoots?"'
"She's a Kelley."
"It's the social security. That's who is with her."
"She's supposed to have gray hair. It's black. It's nearly jet black!"
"How old is she?"
"Around 70. A few years under."
"She's gonna make a bet."
"She's a horseplayer."
"She's just gotta get lucky."
"And stay that way."
"It's never too late to get lucky at the races."
"It's the staying that counts."
Sheldon Tromberg is a free-lance writer.