Greetings From Canterbury Park

Where the winners are losers and the losers are glue

PRELUDE:

The Winner's Circle

Let me start by saying that there may be no prettier sight in this mean, mean world than the way a winning jockey tosses his riding whip to his valet at the cusp of the Winner's Circle.

Picture the scene: There's the jockey in motley racing silks, sitting high on the saddle with the kind of upright posture no etiquette maven can teach. Face flushed with wind and spattered with mud like spray-on stucco. Beneath him, the thoroughbred is heaving, thoracic cavity completely engorged, knees swishy with fluid, nostrils flaring, maybe dribbling a thin trickle of blood. The horse is making his way gingerly across the deep loam of the track--as clumsy now as he was graceful moments ago.

The losing jockeys may have already dismounted, conducted their cursory conversation with the losing trainer and owner--what went wrong out there?--and then scurried down the concrete spiral staircase into the subterranean waiting room, for the next race, the next trip, the next rush at the starting gate.

And the winner? While the tote board in the background flashes with the bet returns--win, place, show--the jockey puts out his own high-wattage smile. The grandstands might be empty; the horse may be the worst kind of dog--or soon to be dog food, even. The jockey may have spent all afternoon sweating in the hot box to make weight, or kneeling on the bathroom floor with fingers forked, for a speed-purge. But the previous two minutes have been... can the feeling be put into words? I mean, you try describing the precise sensation of your last orgasm.

I've watched this scene about 100 times now--enough to learn to zero in on the jockey's face, where the post-race action is. And though I've noticed a similar Christmas-morning quality to all their countenances, each jockey has a trademark smile. I know, for instance, that Manuel Alicea's grin describes a compass-perfect arc, perpendicular to his aquiline nose. I've seen Jessie Lantz show his dental work, from upper left incisor to bottom right bicuspid. I now know that Ronnie Allen Jr. smiles from the eyes and that Larry Sterling Jr. appears curiously intense, as if his win has initiated a communion with higher powers. Randy Schaact, the veteran of some 18,000 trips, smirks like he just stole your wallet. And then there's Luis Quinonez, who seems to win just about everything, and looks, with his broad face and weirdly girlish eyes and long lashes, like nothing less than a movie star.

Just before the radiant instant fades and the jockey returns to the world of the giants around him, he tosses that whip, and it is thin and balletic in the air. The motion is crisp, jaunty even. The instrument of victory takes wing. Sometimes the whip flips once or twice end-over-end, or twists, or both--but I have never once seen the valet drop it. The thing never hits the ground.

Unified Field Theory

Consider the anatomy of the loser.

First the physiognomy--though that's the least of it. We have the eczemac of scalp, the way-prematurely balding and the bald, the ones with perms that didn't take. Those with prodigious bunions and other podiatric blemishes. Those with adult acne that never cleared up, and, also, the grotesquely freckled. Hippy men and hipless women. The dwarfishly low-waisted. Pear-shaped men. The congenitally beer-gutted and the ectomorphically gutless. The slouchers and the slump-shouldered and people who seem to be stooping even when they're not stooping. Those with a concavity to the chest--some hollow spot just below the sternum--where playground bullies landed dull, resonant thuds with their outstretched index fingers. This is a thumbnail portrait of the loser.

But then the cosmetics of failure--however unsightly--don't begin to address the full taxonomy of the subject. Listed below then, is a brief attempt to enumerate some major constituent categories of loserdom.

There are losers who are subjected to the whims of circumstance and suffer exquisitely for it.

There are losers who would be winners if they could but be satisfied with the scale and stature of their winning. But they can't.

There are losers who could be winners but settle for too little for too long, until they've atrophied to something less than what they might have been.

There are losers who believe themselves to be winners although everyone else can see this is not the case. And instead of seeming proud or courageous for the conceit, they seem paltry and almost insufferable instead. And they're losers for that, and very hard to be around.

There are losers who were born that way and got no breaks and died like a cur and knew themselves as such every day along the way.

Most of us are losers.

Now, we shift from the abstract to the case study, presented below. The subject: Canterbury Park. What is most compelling about the racetrack, I will maintain, is that its very currency is the karma of winning and losing. Unlike the casino (see Mystic Lake, a few hundred yards away) and its conveyor-buses of Slot Zombies playing against the house, the track allows for the mathematical viability of winning. Winning! Here, you bet not against the intractable devils of probability, but against the one-eyed veteran with the spiral notebook and the illegibly annotated racing form. Against the rug-topped orthodontist playing the favorites off the tip sheet. In the casino, everyone, by relentless statistical verities, is a loser. Conversely, pari-mutuel track betting necessitates a winner.

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