Of course, it helps if the typical horseplayer also looks just like Robert Taylor in Tip on a Dead Jockey -- dark fedora, slacks, black shoes, and racing daily form peeking out of an overcoat pocket. David Handler surveys Golden Gate Fields through a sleek pair of binoculars. "I'm just out here playing with Friday's profits," says Handler, co-owner of Photoworks, with deadpan conviction. "If I lose and we don't have a good take on Monday, I'll just have to let someone go on Tuesday." Handler breaks into a smile and bends over the race schedule, thoughtfully weighing his options and offering casual advice: Pace makes the race -- if there are several horses that like to run out front, pick a horse that will come up from behind when the others have run one another into the ground.
In sun-bleached stands, young families, students, and grandparents gobble up hot dogs and admire the $5,000 fillies and mares as they make their way into the paddock. Handler scrutinizes the horses through his binoculars.
"Never bet a lot of money on the first couple races," he advises. "These are the cheapest nags on the grounds. Cheap horses are unpredictable. And these horses are old (4 years and up) and cheap. You can tell by the way they move, they're just thinking about a big field and plenty of grass."
I watch as a huge network of muscle rolls under a silvery mare's paper-thin coat; it seems improbable that such delicate legs can support such magnitude. Her ears twitch attentively as the jockey says something only she can hear; he looks as substantial as a paper doll. Handler shakes his head: "She's more taped up than a mummy."
Hot Summer Fling is the hands-down favorite, but Handler says you don't make money betting with the crowd. We walk inside where the din of 700 televisions announces races from all over the world. While Handler places $10 on Court's Amiga to win, a snow-haired man who could be Handler's body double studies yesterday's results, places his bets on a screen-activated self-service terminal, and slips into one of the dark off-track betting rooms.
"The people in here," says Handler referring to all the off-track bettors, "are the real nuts. They don't care whether the sun's out or not."
With 14,000 possible bettors in the seats, the odds are someone is really gambling with his payroll, but Handler insists, "Your best odds in Vegas are beaten by your worst odds out on the track, and it's a beautiful day."
And they're off! Before I know it, the horses are halfway round the dirt track. From a distance, the progress around the 1- 1/16-mile course looks totally smooth -- almost supernatural -- with only the horses' heads and necks rising rhythmically above the dust cloud; then the hooves are upon us like a thunderclap, tearing into the sand and loam. Handler is on his feet, arms stretched to their limit, mouth a large, silent O. As he predicted, the top three horses exhaust each other and Court's Amiga comes up from behind.
During my first race -- six furlongs for 3-year-olds -- I select four horses by odds alone, then choose my winner by physique and attitude. Cozy Drum catches my eye, and Handler doesn't balk. Being a tinhorn, I only shell out $2 to place. Handler puts down $20 to win on Chantage and buys a $2 Exacta (naming the first- and second-place winners, reaping huge dividends). Since discovering the track 15 years ago -- while attending nearby Cal on a grant -- Handler's biggest win was $9,000 for a Pick Six, but there are other rewards. "It's one of the only things I have in common with my parents," says Handler. "I didn't even know they went until I mentioned it. Now, we go whenever I visit for Thanksgiving."
And they're off! The horses fly down the track. I've already lost track of Cozy Drum, but the crowd's on its feet, and Handler's yelling and waving his arms -- something his friends say could only happen at the track. Then a gasp. Hands cover mouths. And silence. Cozy Drum is down, sliding, his legs angled in unnatural positions. The other horses pass. He tries to get up, falls, then hobbles to his feet, looking around the empty track, confused by the pain. A doctor rushes to the fallen jockey, who rises slowly. The animal ambulance arrives, followed by a nondescript white truck. Families leave the bleachers in droves as a blue screen is erected between the horse and the spectators. I watch through the crack as Cozy Drum hits the track a final time.
"Jesus," says Handler, "that's the very worst thing that can happen. I haven't seen that in years."
The day's remaining horses do not have a claim price, and I suddenly understand the difference between a $12,000 horse and a horse that is not for sale at any price. They are mythic animals with shiny coats and wild eyes, but the accident has put a damper on the proceedings. Handler decides to call it quits before he ruins his chances for the 125th Kentucky Derby.
As his 14-year tradition dictates, Handler is at the track at 8 a.m. placing bets on the first Saturday in May. After coughing up $156 for enough Trifectas to couple Prime Timber with every other horse on the field, it's over to Saul's Deli to pick up food for his second annual Kentucky Derby party.
Handler's front door has a sign that says "Starting Line." His bathrooms are for "Colts" and "Fillies," his dining room is the "Clubhouse," his study the "Loan Dept.," his couch "Millionaires Row," his stairway the "Paddock," and his bed the "Winners Circle." In the hall, a vintage movie poster for Racing Luck hangs over several how-to books from the '40s that offer helpful hints: Don't take a picture of your horse before a race and, if you must play the races, don't take women to the track.
There are plenty of women at Handler's, most of them discussing the "old boy's" game over fresh mint juleps, but when $2 "bets" are taken for a random ticket pulled from a hat, everyone gets down to business. Maurer, Handler's gambling partner of five years, puts down just $45 on Stephen Got Even, but his wager is made with passion.
"Sometimes," says Maurer, "you can just sense the animal's desire; you see a spark, the beauty. A horse like that can capture you for life. You follow its career, then its son's, and maybe you see something of the sire in the colt's eye, and it just gives you goose pimples. You can be lonely and depressed one minute, and cheering and hollering the next."
Stephen Got Even is such a steed. As the horses enter the starting gate, Handler walks in front of the big-screen TV with a riding crop. "If I lose, everybody should leave very quickly." Handler loses. So does Maurer. Charismatic comes from behind and wins by a neck. My horse comes from behind and places 18 out of 19. Handler and Maurer look like young boys holding deflated balloons, but I'm thrilled to death. At least, they all finished.
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By Silke Tudor