Joining the seamy underbelly of the horse track (or how I won a prize with a hat)

21 Jul

This has been going on for months, me hanging out and having a drink with Jockeys.  Not just Jockeys, but people involved in all aspects of running and maintaining of a working horse track.  I looked forward to sitting at the bar and hearing interesting stories from behind the scenes, unruly race patrons, and the intricacies of training a race horse.  None of these things I knew shit about.  The closest I’ve come to a horse race is attending the once-annual at the fair in my home town of Fresno, Ca with my dad when I was about 6.  Like all things done in Fresno, it was half-assed and completely forgettable.  I knew about as much about racing as I do about horses themselves.  I’ve neither rode a horse, nor even physically touched one. I had the opportunity to pet a horse once.  Said horse pulled away from my hand in disgust so I didn’t press it.  Horses are big, muscular, and frankly they scare me just a little bit.  Something about their eyes.  They just seem very smart, and I would feel bad riding one.   How did this all begin, me hanging out with the horse-folk and eventually at the track?  Its all Ross’ fault (of course).

Ross chose the apartment that we currently reside.  It’s far from anything, inconvenient, and impossible to get to without a car.  This poses a real challenge when we both work full time, on opposite ends of town, and share a car.  If I get off before him, I usually will take the MAX from downtown in which it drops me off not too far from his work where the car will be waiting.  On occasion, I arrive about an hour before he’s due to get off work.  Not enough time to realistically drive home and back, too long to sit and wait in the car.  One such day as I was walking from the MAX, I realized simultaneously that I had to pee and was starving.  I really couldn’t wait to appease either.  My choices were a Burger king, a chinese restaurant , and a mexican cantina.  Burger king was automatically out.  The other two were a gamble.  Both looked really “white” and not authentic to either’s respective cultures AT ALL.   Both offered booze, so it was between whether I was willing to pay for bad chinese or bad mexican.  The chinese place was nearly windowless, so I couldn’t tell what kind of vibe I’d be walking in to.  I noticed some shady-looking gentlemen by the smoking area engaged in what clearly was a drug deal.  I looked over at the cantina.  It was painted in bright, cheery colors with a sign boasting a typically racist picture of a mustached man in a sombrero.  Honestly, I’d much rather prefer to choke down bad mexican rather than bad chinese.  I mean, there’s always chips and salsa…right?  Turns out, I made a wise choice that day taking a gamble with The Burrito House.

I entered a very dark bar with only 4 other people inside.  3 older men were at the bar, 1 woman behind it pouring drinks.  It was oddly soothing and serene inside.  I sat at the remaining empty bar seat, ordered a salty dog and some tacos.  Soon after, we were all engaged in conversation.  We talked about all sorts of subjects, but mostly horses.  They all worked at the Portland Meadows in varying capacities. The Meadows loomed large, just a stone’s throw from the cantina.  I was always curious about it.  I would see the huge structure every day from the freeway on my way to work.  I thought it would be an experience to visit.  I mean, a working horse track with live races has to get weird, right?  The jockeys knew the town I was from (because of the Fresno Fair races) and were fascinated that I knew so little on the subject.  I quickly discovered that this bar was the official watering hole of everyone who worked at the Meadows.  The regulars had posted framed photos of themselves with their racehorses behind the bar. As people introduced themselves to me, they pointed to their respective pictures and told me their horses names. The conversation was honestly fascinating and by the end of it I had resolved that I would use my next day off to go to the races and see what it was all about.  The men themselves were polite in the sort of way that most men aren’t any more.  Classy gentlemen who treated a lady like they would back in high-bred social society in the 50’s.  They called me Ma’am, and lit my cloves for me.  The jockeys were very small in stature, but dressed to the nines in turquoise and silver.  Decked out in cowboy hats, crisp and pressed wrangler dress shirts, and ostrich leather boots that probably cost more than my laptop, their appearance was as pleasant as the conversation. They urged me to go and see them ride and check it out. I discovered the live races are only a few short months out of the year, and only on two days a week. With me working full time, I knew it would be tough for me to get there. I marked it on my calendar and decided to make it a priority.

Probably skip the food, order a drink instead.
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The most “Mexican” thing here.
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I now consider myself a semi-regular to the Meadows. That first time we went, Ross and I had no idea what we were doing. The place was massive. Beyond massive.  We spent the first hour simply walking the building and the grounds trying to figure out how it all worked. We sat in front of one of the machines in which you could place bets and googled terms.  Soon, we sort of figured out how to bet.  We tried our hand at it, won a few small pay outs.  I was most interested in the other people that were there.  We went on a dreary Wednesday afternoon in October.  the place was sparsely populated, or so it just seemed due to how large the space was.  Its massive square footage could easily dwarf a crowd of hundreds to seem like a ghost town.  I noticed a man sitting by himself at a betting station, papers spread out before him.  He was furiously punching numbers into a graphing calculator and recording statistics into a large ledger.  It was apparent that this man gambles on horse races full time and probably as his major source of income.  I slowly sipped my greyhound and watched in awe of what he was doing.  After a little while, he noticed me watching him.  He glared at me and slammed his note book shut.  He gathered all his papers, briefcase, pencils, etc and moved to a far table while muttering under his breath.  Clearly, he didn’t want me to discover his secret strategy.  If only I were that astute.  I still count on my fingers, dude.  This shit is WAY over my head.  If you noticed, I said that this first visit was in October.  The Meadows is gloriously equipped with a fully-enclosed observational deck.  You can go out and stand by the track, or not.  Watching the horses race was interesting.  They were beautiful and seeing them race to cross the finish line with people cheering was exhilarating.  I had to get over any hippie girl notions deep down inside of me that felt like this whole affair was cruel and barbaric.    That voice was screaming out.  I had this conversation with the horse-handlers at the cantina and they assured me it isn’t.  I chose to relax and try and enjoy the experience and trust what they’d told me.

The observational deck.
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Finish line.
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Winner. 
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The Meadows opened in the 40’s. It was destroyed in a flood in the 70’s and rebuilt. I doubt many renovations have been done since then. The place isn’t shoddy or run down at all. Instead you walk in and enter another time. Its like being on a movie set. Its one of the few places I’ve been where I feel classy and trashy all at the same time. I feel that same way in Vegas. Its like stepping into another world. Whenever I go, I feel compelled to dress up and to pleasant surprise others feel the same way. I love going, walking around and seeing the white-haired regulars in their best suit watching the races with an old-fashioned in their hand. The ladies are almost always in some amazing vintage dress paired with white gloves. The trashy element comes through with the chronic gamblers. My mother was a gambling addict, and I know the look of one. That obsessed look in the eye paired with sadness and desperation. It literally turns my stomach and is the reason I refuse to gamble in any capacity. Ross will, but I won’t participate. Usually when I get in the Meadows, as soon as I see one of those poor souls I run to the bar for a drink to soften the edges around unsavory memories of my mother.

That first day we went, I saw some of my Burrito House regulars there in their element. They were excited that I made it and let me know which races they’d be riding in so I could watch. How fun. It wasn’t crowded that day so I got to stand right up at the finish line and see the race up close and personal. It was interesting to see what kinds of other people go to the horse races on an October weekday. There were all sorts, even little kids. Shouldn’t they have school right now? I suppose its none of my concern.

The glittering exterior overlooking the track.
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Our vast winnings.
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Lady-jockeys.
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We went a number of times after that time.  We took friends who had just moved here and went just for a fun, cheap thing to do on a day off.  I drank at the Burrito house waiting for Ross to get off work more.  Go, have one drink, chat with the regulars-some of them more colorful than others.  Sometimes I get a drink bought for me, sometimes I get asked out on a date, usually a too drunk regular will pledge to “watch out for me” and that “he doesn’t fuck around”, other times I hear interesting things about horses that I would have never guessed to be true.  I’ve chatted with an Alaskan fisherman, a former playboy bunny, a man who builds casinos, even a guy who owned a farm in Fresno!  Always interesting conversation over chips and salsa (which is really more like marinara sauce, but that’s the Pacific Northwest for you).  Once I saw a Craigslist “Missed Connection” about a young girl writing in a laptop at the Burrito House.  Considering I’m the only one I’ve ever seen in there under the age of 45 and definitely the only person who’s ever drug a laptop in there, I’ll go ahead and assume it was for me.   I should have saved it to my hard drive for y’all to read, because it was super weird.

SUMMER OPENING

For the first time in its history, The Portland Meadows chose to do summer live races.  Its kind of a big deal.  Previously, as I mentioned before it was only open in the dreary months, creating a sort of desolate and bleak background.  Suddenly, for whatever reason they chose to open up for summer.  A fantastic business decision, in my opinion.  The thing about Portland is during winter, people either hole up in their neighborhood bars or they hibernate all together.  Summertime is a magical time where everyone goes out and enjoys everything.  Every bar patio is packed, streets are flooded with bikers (both motor and ped-driven), the city really comes alive with activity and excitement.  When I heard there would be a July opening day at the Portland Meadows I knew it would be awesome.  I also saw that there would be a hat contest for ladies.  For those of you that know me well, you’ll know that I fucking LOVE contests and I will enter any that cross my path, regardless of prize.  This is especially true if the contest is based on a craft.  I have a certain gift of crafting, and I like to compete with it.  The contest rules were simple:  Show up on opening day, while wearing the best “Kentucky Derby” style hat-win money.  ITS ON.

As luck would have it, I was scheduled the opening day off from work.  It was clearly a sign, as it was on a Sunday and folks who are retail managers such as myself never have a weekend off.  Ever.  I convinced my friend Kyle to go with me.  He wouldn’t be wearing a hat, but assured me he would don his finery for the occasion.  The day before the race, I bought a floppy hat that was on clearance at my work to use in my craft.  It wasn’t necessarily my favorite, but I didn’t have a lot of money and it was cheap so I HAD to make it work.  I set my alarm for 10 am (when Dollar Tree opened) and planned on hitting up the store for supplies and creating my hat while drinking my morning coffee the next day.  I have to admit, I had reservations.  Once upon a time, back in fresno I entered a “best pet costume” contest with my dog Ham.  I had the perfect idea:  Create a giant Ham for her to wear.  I went to the craft store, invested $20, and created a pretty badass outfit for my dog.  I stood back, looked ant my handy-work and thought I had it in the fucking bag.  I looked around at the other contenders.  True, some other people’s dogs were purebred and I suppose “cuter” than my dumpster pound dog, but only one other person and myself actually hand-crafted a costume for their pet.  Everyone else just slapped some store-bought, generic thing on their pooch and called it a day.  People were going crazy for my dog’s outfit.  The newspaper came and interviewed me.  Some guys in a local band took her picture and said they were using it for their album cover.  Holy shit!!  The year’s worth of free dog food prize is fucking MINE!!!  My dog seemed to know it too.  She wore the totally cumbersome costume with a sense of pride.  She was grinning with doggy glee, and nearly wagged her tail off her body.  Come judgement time, I was dumbstruck when we didn’t win.  We didn’t even place.  The other dogs that won just had target, store-bought costumes that anyone could go and buy.  Clearly, it was rigged.  What the FUCK?  We won nothing.  Ham and I slinked away, heads hanging in shame.  How did I not win?  I’ve been in doubt of my craftsmanship ever since.

The band’s album cover, featuring the ham costume.Photobucket

We had gone out the night before, so of course I slept though my alarm on race day and fell behind on my schedule. I woke up, darted to Dollar Tree and quickly shopped for supplies. Thank god for Dollar Tree in general. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used it as a resource. The hat I bought posed some challenges, aesthetically. It was blue and black striped. I knew I didn’t want to make a tacky hat. I wanted to make a hat any woman could feel beautiful wearing. Something glamorous. That’s kind of hard to do when we’re discussing hot-glueing Dollar Tree crap to an ugly clearance hat. I used what I know about color theory to choose my accents and headed home to assemble. I drug out my craft box and within 30 minutes created a hat. I looked at it. It was good, but I thought to myself that it wasn’t a winning hat. It hit all the points I had wanted to achieve as far as attractiveness goes, but I felt it was too safe. Didn’t stand out enough. I resolved that I probably wouldn’t win, but it will still be fun to dress up and participate. I was so behind in time, Kyle showed up at my place while I was still in pajamas and the gold spray paint on my hat was still drying. He appraised my work. Yay. I raced to put a dress on and get going.

All dolled up
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A close-up of my handy-work.
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Before we go any further, I feel compelled to remind you guys that my very nice Nikon is in the shop. This forces me to either use my shit 3GS iphone camera on my phone or shoot with my ancient film camera. I’ve been opting for the latter. In addition to this, I have a stock-pile of film I never used that is about 15 years old. Being someone who used to be very “into” photography, I am fully aware that the quality of that film has degraded with time and the temperature in which it was housed. I choose to use it anyway for that vintage feel that those instagrammers are constantly striving for. Considering where I was going and the look and feel of it, I felt that damaged film would be perfect to shoot with.

When we arrived, I was overwhelmed with how packed the parking lot was. As I’ve already mentioned,the usual season was super dead. This summer grand opening was POPULAR. I was eager to get inside and register with the hat-folk and see what others had made. I soon realized that no one else was wearing any sort of elaborate derby hat. Shit that’s awkward.  I pulled up the facebook page for the Meadows and double-checked.  Yep.  Says right there that there’s a hat contest.  Man, were people staring.  Oh well, I figured I’ll have a glass of red wine and own that shit anyway.  Yes, I totally have 7 pounds of crap on top of my head and I’m wearing it with pride.  I registered, got my wine, and hung out while Kyle and Ross placed some bets on horses.

Ross’ lunch.  Incidentally, they only had two kinds of soda for sale that day:  Doctor Pepper and Mountain Dew-the white trash faves.
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A dapper Kyle placing a bet.Photobucket

Turning one dollar into 8
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I always order from the upstairs bar, not sure why.
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After betting a little and eating some food, we decided to mill around and people watch. Also watch each race, which posts about every 20 minutes or so. While watching a race, often times someone will come and stand next to you and try and educate you on the race and the stats.  They probably assume we’re some douchebag hipsters there for the irony.  I guess that may be why we went there the very first time, but we keep coming back because in some way we belong there.  I like to hear them tell me about the races anyway, even if I already know the information.  Its fun to hear someone talk about something they’re passionate about.

I don’t know what any of that shit is.
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Getting ready to race.
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Finish line
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A handsome day at the races.
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Horses are pretty.
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Crowded.
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Collecting winnings.
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The other bar.
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If you’re a lucky girl a jockey will flirt with you here. Its all about jockey groupies.
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Because I wasn’t sure if the film in my camera would ultimately be useable or not, I asked Kyle to take back up pics on his iphone just in case.  The film ended up working fine, so the extras he shot weren’t necessary.  Even still, I thought I’d share a few highlights from his camera roll with you:

This guy actually played Eye of the Tiger on that thing at one point.

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Some butts for you.
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During our day there, many random folks wanted to take their picture with me and my hat. A woman from The Oregonian came and interviewed me. I was getting a lot of attention for the hat and at that point I had really wished I had put a tiny bit more effort into my hair and makeup. Oh well.  Another glass of wine will probably make me stop worrying so much about that.

EPILOGUE

I wasn’t there to hear my name called, but I did in fact win the hat contest that day.  THAT’S FUCKIN’ RIGHT I WON THAT SHIT!  The Facebook page said that the prize was cash, which I desperately needed.  Everyone had left for the day, so I was unclear as to what the actual prize was.  All I knew is that I had to go to a hat store called Goorin Bros that sponsored the contest during business hours and claim my prize.  I wasn’t really that concerned about what the prize was.  I was just pleased with myself that I won and that I finally redeemed myself for that shit-show that was the dog costume contest.  Kyle and I giggled with glee and went to get the best fried chicken in Portland to celebrate.  This chicken is so good, its a prize unto itself.

Winner, winner chicken dinner @George’s.Photobucket

After slipping into a pleasant chicken coma, I knew there was only one place to go to celebrate my victory.  I donned my prize-winning hat and headed to the Burrito House.  My jockey friends were there, and cheered when I came in.  I had a drink and heard everyones stories about their wins and their losses that day and which number horse they were riding.  It was a really good day, one of the best I’ve had in a while.

The photo used in The Oregonian.
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6 Responses to “Joining the seamy underbelly of the horse track (or how I won a prize with a hat)”

  1. mintzworks July 21, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    You have to follow up! What was the prize?!?

    Also, I’m curious…would you say you now have a poetic love for the races/horses? You can find all manner of poetic prose about horse racing, from Damon Runyon to Richard Brautigan.

    I am lucky to be a bit older than you, and was alive for the miracle horse that was Secretariat. Having seen him run, and later having won some very nice money, I was beginning to love the races – standing close to the fence, editing the races into slo-mo in my mind so I could watch the mud clumps dash away from the pounding hooves.

    But then I went to the Big Fresno Fair and made some bets one day and watched as my horse crossed the finish line in first. Only to break his leg (a loud booming snap I’ll never lose sound of) and toss the jockey over his head as he fell. I stayed long enough to watch them erect a curtain of sorts between us and the horse…and listened as they tried to use a large ambulance’s siren to muffle the gunshot necessary to take the horse out of his misery.

    I’ve not attended a horse race since. But I’m glad you have, and you are embracing the vintage beauty. Next time at the bar ask one of your trainer friends to allow you to visit in the morning on race day – watch the trainers lovingly tend to the race horses, washing them and brushing them and loving on them…watch the jockeys show up on race day to try and quickly bond with their animal before walking them and finally jogging them as the race gets closer. It will inspire you, I’m certain.

    As much as your blog here has inspired me.

    I really enjoy your blogs very much. I wish there were more.

    • imbibescribe July 21, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      I don’t think I could bring myself to go to another horse race again if I had seen what you’ve seen. I know that its one of those things that can just happen, like with any sport but I don’t think I could survive witnessing the event.

      The trainers have offered for me to go behind the scenes. I hope to actually do it one day. Its hard with my work schedule, but I know it will be an amazing experience.

      The prize ended up being $250 to a fancy hat shop. I ended up selecting an old-fashioned, gorgeous hat. They only offer two like it a year. Pretty neat. Certainly something I wouldn’t have owned otherwise. I even have a big hat box to keep it in.

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for reading. I wish there were more blogs too, I just have to find more adventures!

  2. An Irish Male In America July 24, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

    Strangely enough I just discovered this place after I discovered there was a “Lowes” nearer to my house than Hillsborororororo (after I discovered that when the Seattle exit at Marine Drive is blocked up, I don’t have to drive all the way up Columbia Blvd to get to St Johns). I’m discovering a lot of things about Portland, the main thing being that I don’t know my way around at all! Mind you, the Sat Nav business just got another customer!

    Rockin Hat! I bet you seriously kick some bottom at halloween!

    • imbibescribe July 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

      ha I’m guessing that you live in st johns? That is too funny because I do too. PS: Ross works at that Lowes. HA

      • An Irish Male In America July 31, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

        I live over the bridge on the Forest Park side, St Johns would be the local shopping area/watering hole. Ross works in Lowes? Cool! Now if he ever runs into a lost looking Irishman, he’ll know who it is!

  3. Adam Bernstein September 5, 2012 at 5:46 am #

    That is the Man O’ War of derby hats! Glam slam!

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