EAST BOSTON, Mass. Sol “Nosey” Niman has been playing the horses at this second-tier track in a working-class neighborhood of Boston for over half a century, and he says he’s never seen the place in worse shape. “All the old guys are buying the farm,” he says, shaking his head. “Without we get the kids interested in the ponies, horse racing is gonna die out.”
A day at the races.
So management has tapped a core group of regulars including Niman to pass on the traditions of the track to youngsters whose attention spans have been shortened by video games. “I hate to think of a kid sittin’ indoors all day at his computer when he could be out in the fresh air,” says 74-year-old Mike “Money” Antonucci as he puffs on a cigar.
The old guard looks as nervous as freshmen before a college mixer as they stand at the Blue Line subway stop and prepare to meet the first contingent from the local chapter of the Young Turfmen’s Club, the name that has been chosen for groups of junior plungers around the country who will get their first taste of “The Sport of Kings” under the watchful eye of experienced horse players.
“Now you look like a real bettor, kid!”
“Hey there kiddo–how ya doin’?” Niman says to 11-year-old Timmy Salmon, whose name came to the attention of track owners when they hacked into the customer database of a local video store and discovered that he had rented “My Friend Flicka.” “First thing we need to do is get you a new hat!” Morty “Moxie” Graberman says as he removes the boy’s baseball cap and plops a fedora down on his head.
The boys take seats in the grandstands where they are treated to hot dogs and sodas as their pari-mutuel professors explain the basics of betting to the tyros. “You got three basic bets,” says Niman, “win, place and show.” He explains the nuances of each–how a “show” bet is the safest because it pays off as long as your horse finishes in the top three, and how a “win” bet is the biggest payday for your betting dollar. “There’s a real life lesson for ya there,” he says, as his fellow faculty members nod knowingly. “The greater the risk, the greater the reward–the lower the risk, the greater the chances you’ll win.”
“Yeah, you can go into business and make the big bucks, or you can be an accountant and you’ll do okay, but you won’t get rich,” says Antonucci. The kids fidget a bit as they will in classrooms a week from now, but they become animated again as their instructors lead them over to the betting windows for some hands-on laboratory experience in the art and science of playing the odds.
“Who you like in the first?” Graberman asks Bobby Del’Appia, a studious boy with a head for figures.
“I think . . . um . . . Cogan’s Bluff,” the boy says as he chews on a stubby pencil.
“Did you read your Daily Racing Form there?” Graberman asks skeptically.
“I got Nostromo in the first–who you like?”
“Well, yeah,” the boy says hesitantly.
“Well, look at the sky. It ain’t rainin’, so the track ain’t muddy. Nostromo’s your best bet on a day like today.”
“Thanks for the tip!” the boy says as he plunks down a $5 play money bill provided to him as part of his “stake” by the track, then reaches in his pocket for a real bill to play the daily double combination that he’s learned about in the orientation session.
Over at the betting window, Antonucci shows young Nicky Panagakis a trick he sometimes uses to stretch his betting dollar when times are tough. “Lotta guys, they forget they bought a place or show ticket, they throw it away when their horse don’t win,” he says as he picks through tickets on the tile floor. “Somebody’s a sucker like that, you don’t give him an even break.”
The boys take their seats and when the starting bell rings for the first race, they rise to their feet and stay standing right down to the wire, where Nostromo beats Cogan’s Bluff by a nose, causing the senior members of the group to clap Del’Appia on the back. “See–I told you,” Graberman says, and the boy repays the man for his tip with a box of raisins his mother had given him for a snack.
As is typical, the boys pick both winners and losers over the course of the day, then assemble for their “graduation” ceremony under the grandstands while their parents look on proudly. “Youse kids–you did a great job out there today, okay?” Graberman says before handing out individual awards. “I think our big winner today–the guy who’s got the biggest roll in his pocket right now is . . . “–he hesistates for dramatic effect–”Timmy Salmon! C’mon up here and get your swag!”
“And they’re off!”
The young boy steps forward and receives a Certificate of Achievement, an undersized cigar tailored to a youthful mouth and lungs, and what he is expected to value most highly–his bettor’s nickname or nomme du track. “Let’s see–you’re kinda short and sneaky,” Antonucci says as he sizes the boy up. “How ’bout ‘Timmy the Weasel’?”
The boy’s face takes on an expression of distaste and he looks at his mother, who by her glare admonishes him to be grateful.
“Whatsa matter–you don’t like?” Antonucci asks kindly as he bends down to look the boy in the eye.
“If you don’t mind,” he says meekly, “I’d rather be ‘Timmy the Hamster.’”
Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”