Thursday, July 08, 2010

Moving Polaroids: Post Time

My grandfather worked at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

So did my father and a handful of my uncles and so it was a natural that I would work there when I turned sixteen.

But first I had to go to the track itself and experience it in all its glory. My dad first took me to the track when I was about eight. This wasn't your run of the mill small county fair with corn dog stands and a rusty Tilt-a-Whirl. Oh no. This was the State Fair; the Metropolis of junk food and kiddy rides and jellies and jams and pies made by little old ladies. Towering bulls and bright white sheep and livestock of all variety scrubbed up and glistening to see if they'd win a ribbon.

But that wasn't the reason we were there.

We walked in and went straight to the horse track. The fair runs at the end of summer, so it's always blistering hot. The grand stands offer cool comfort among its concrete walls and hidden coves with vendor stands offering the usual fair food and tall brown paper cups of draft beer. My dad let me sip from his cup - the beer icy cold and bitter against my tongue, but all in all I liked the lemonade he'd bought me better. He bought a racing form and we found what would become our usual spot near the show circle, where we crouched down along the cement stairs. My father grew quiet for a bit and started jotting down notes in the margins of the paper.

I studied the crowd around me. Quite a mix. Old men with short filtered cigars puffed away as they studied the forms like ancient religious tomes. Frail looking women with bright red lipstick, too much perfume and wide brimmed hats heatedly discussed numbers and funny sounding names.

Over the loudspeaker a man spoke: "Ten minutes til Post Time." I didn't know who that man was but he sounded important. He must've been because everyone glanced up at the lit board showing all the horse numbers and went back to furiously writing on their racing forms.

Then they started to line up at the window booths, money in their hands, most with a drink in the other. My dad stood up from his crouch, gave me a friendly swat on the top of the head with the rolled up racing form, and we walked over to stand in line.

He placed his bet in vernacular I didn't understand and tucked the piece of paper he got back into his shirt pocket. We walked out of the cool recesses of the Grand Stands out into the September sun and toward the show paddock.

The horses were being led around the circle and out onto the track.

I'd never seen such a thing as a thoroughbred. The ponies we occasionally had on our farm were wiry bristly things that were full of spunk and rolled in the dirt sometimes. They were more like bratty little children than anything else.

But these creatures... these were gods.

Long legged lean animals, towering up over me, muscles rippling beneath their well-brushed hides. Their bodies were shimmering obsidian come to life. Their manes were slicked back, their eyes sharp and watchful. When they walked, they pranced with an heir of pride. They were walking beings of enormous power, just waiting to be unleashed.

The horses were all led out to the racetrack. The jockeys took their saddles and they were trotted over to the starting gate.

"Five minutes til Post Time." I heard the man say and watched some of the crowd scurry back to the Grand Stand to place their bets.

My dad gave me another sip of his beer and grinned as he looked out over the infield. He stuffed the rolled racing form into his back pocket.

The excitement started to build all around us. The tension was palpable.

"They're all in line."

The crowd scurried out from the Grand Stands to line the chain link fence around the track. I stood in front of my father against the fence, looking in at the furrowed dirt track. Across the infield the view shimmered with the heat.

"It's Post Time."

My dad, along with the rest of the crowd, turned toward the starting gate.

"Annnnnnnnd they're off!"

A bell rang and metal gates flew open. A line of horses shot out of the gates like lightning and the crowd around us exploded. All around us I could hear people yelling "Go baby! C'mon baby!" Others were cussing as the horses rounded the first turn.

My father was smiling to himself and nervously took the racing form out of his back pocket. He was tapping it against his leg as he watched the horses circle around.

The announcer was reeling off the horse's names, letting us all know what order they were in. The screaming around us grew even louder, building to a crescendo. The people all seemed to be leaning toward the track, on the edge of their seats.

And then the race was over and the screaming crowd died down.

My dad kept grinning and pulled the ticket from his pocket with a nod and a wink at me.

Around us, I saw a large portion of the crowd crumbling up their tickets and tossing them to the pavement. Some shook their heads. A few gave low whistles and mumbled to themselves. Most all of them flipped open their racing forms and started looking forward to the next race to start again.

My dad and I walked down to the ticket booths and he collected his winnings. We spent the next hour or so much like that. Each race we'd sit down and plot out the race and then check out the horses as they were led onto the track.

Each race I felt the crowd surge up above and beyond themselves as a group...trying to edge their horse to the beginning of the line up through belief alone.

Some races my dad won, others he didn't. But at the end of the day, we walked away tired and smiling, with a bit of sunburn on our faces and a few extra dollars in his pocket. My father always knew what he could bet and what he could stand to lose and the two never met on the course of a horse track in his life.

I'd been through the initiation of the track. It was an odd sort of rite of passage of manhood in my family. It was a great day to experience.

A great day to remember.


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