by Harry Parmenter
The place to be in the SCV last Saturday was Santa Clarita Lanes, and more specifically, the OTB section of the bowling alley. OTB, for the uninitiated, stands for “off-track betting.” In other words, it’s the place where you can separate yourself from your money while the ponies run on TV. On this particular day, Justify was going for the greatest achievement in horse racing: The Triple Crown. Yes, action —a chance to feel that adrenaline rush crash and burn.
The sign on Soledad advertised “Belmont Stakes Saturday … Go Justify.” ‘Round midday, the joint was jumping. A giant rec room harboring a C-shaped bar, two dozen screens live from racetracks across the land, tables, chairs, a couple hundred people within and without at adjacent screens (and, of course the festive lanes, day-glow vibe and people having a blast trying to knock down those ten pins), three betting windows and twice as many computers to lay your money down in hopes of winning – which, if you do, is much sweeter than making money at an actual job.
The Triple Crown is comparable to the NBA or NHL championships, both of which had been won in the previous 48 hours. The Crown consists of three races within a five-week span: The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and The Belmont Stakes. Justify had won the first two events in Louisville rain and Baltimore mud, but the weather in Belmont, New York was beautiful where 90,000 people gathered while millions of others watched and wagered around the globe.
Inside the OTB, people pored over their racing forms and programs, studying cell phones while hunched over a hunch, trying to decide what to lay on which horse, which trainer, which jockey, the elusive trifecta of success; early lick or a finisher, a horse in a spot or moving up/down in class; the favorites, the long shots, the wildcards, anything for a golden ticket, instead of a loser crumpled and tossed on the floor in disgust, watching that hard-earned cash go down the drain. Winning is the thing, right smack into the wallet with a cluster of bills and a double shot of Anejo down the pipe.
Personally, I had been doing my own blind research that week, reading this, that and this again, then began the day with a workout to try to get in mental and physical tune with that elusive intuition, the gut instinct to zero in on victory and have the nice lady cashier hand me back more money than I gave her … a tall order.
I parked in the boiling hot sun and went inside, scoping out the place, wandering around until I found what I hoped would be my Castaneda power spot, a face in the crowd a few feet from the betting window, the bar and screens showing Golden Gate Park, Santa Anita and Belmont, not to mention the Angels game. I laid three bucks down to show (third or above; to place is second or first; win is a win, natch) on a couple of long shots in the 7th at Santa Anita, the beautiful Arcadia venue with a breathtaking view of the San Gabriel Mountains. Getting my feet wet, trying to find that rhythm. It worked: one of the horses finished third and I broke even.
Then, it was an hour wait for The Main Event. I strolled. The crowd was predominantly male, blue collar, working people, millennial-free, and an apolitical zone. I saw an electrician who had done some work at my house years ago, and another guy who looked vaguely familiar wearing a black t-shirt with white and red lettering: “Alcatraz: Psycho Ward Outpatient.” Smokers waited outside. Retirees, racing forms, and shorthand. Day laborers. Vodka and false teeth. A hard-core racing crowd, pondering, deciding, betting. A hot little room. No country club. I walked up to the window and laid it all down on Justify, heavy favorite odds taking five bucks to win four, but it felt like destiny.
Finally, the horses entered the starting gate in New York. “And they’re off!” Actually in the OTB there was no audio, no frantic announcer rattling off the race, just the silent screen and the pack of horses as they broke, separated and galloped. At a mile and a half, The Belmont is the longest race of The Triple Crown and there went Justify immediately to the front after drawing the challenging pole position. Nine other horses gave chase. It was close for a bit and then he began to pull away, slowly, inexorably, around the gentle curves of the long track, then here came a couple of challengers, but no … they never really challenged him … he ran easily, almost without urgency. A beautiful creature to behold, the crowd volume in the rec room rising, shouting, urging him on, Justify thundering, pulling away, closing, WINNING THE TRIPLE CROWN! THE THRILL OF IT ALL!
Savoring my triumph and not wanting it to end, I stuck around in the thinning crowd for the 8th at Santa Anita as Team Justify celebrated in the winner’s circle on the adjacent screen. And damned if I didn’t pick another winner at 3-1 and roll out the door flush, a rare pleasure for this amateur as the odds, like the house, are against you.
As I stepped into the late afternoon the smell of smoke hit me. Familiar hazy burnt orange cracked the sky and I could see tiny ash flakes swirling in the Sand Canyon air. KHTS reported another fire, off the 5 by Calgrove. The adrenaline burn was back, but with a side of queasiness. The OTB isn’t the only gamble in the SCV.