A Tiny Bit of Track Etiquette

This piece is jointly published here and at Blinkers Off.

Everyone has their stories about interesting folks-about-track.  I have fewer than others, since I haven't been a regular at the races for as long as some others have been, but even I am starting to amass a collection of charming anecdotes.

There was the guy at Hawthorne back in March who, in the midst of his incoherent ranting, tried to get me on the phone with his wife to convince her to get out to the track that sunny Wednesday afternoon.  I politely declined, and he wandered off.

There was the group of drunk guys in suits on Springfield Stakes day this year who, seeing the sheaf of PPs in my hand, asked me for my picks and compared them to the sheet they bought.  They ribbed me for giving them losers when Fast Alice -- my top pick, but nowhere on their orange sheet -- came home as a 12/1 longshot over the odds-on Rivelli chalk in the second race.  I laughed, told them I gave them that one, and we periodically bantered about who we bet on whenever we ran into each other through the day.

There are always the goofballs, the drunks, the folks who get excited, the folks who swear their heads off when their horse loses that photo.  It's part of the game, and part of the charm of the racetrack.  I embrace the fact that all of us who love this sport are probably, in one way or another, a little eccentric.

This is not a blog about etiquette.  This is a blog about horse racing.  However, it's important to me as a horse racing fan that the racetrack should be somewhere where everyone feels welcome to experience and enjoy the sport.  This weekend, I had the first encounter I've ever had at a racetrack that crossed the line from "character at the track" over to "complete lack of common courtesy".

It was the end of the day.  The full card of 11 races at Arlington had ended.  The stakes races at Belmont had ended, and many of the people left at the track were still gobsmacked after California Chrome finished 1 3/4 lengths shy of immortality.  I was emotionally drained, myself: my dear Princess of Sylmar had fallen a head short in the Ogden Phipps, my beloved Palace Malice had fought for that win in the Met Mile, and I was worried sick about Ride On Curlin after the Belmont Stakes.  Emotional rollercoaster aside, I had work to do: I had my quotes, I had my chart, and I had an hour and a half before the next Metra train back to the city.  I grabbed an empty table at Mr. D's (the sports bar inside Arlington Park, which stays open for an hour or two after the races end) to start writing my recap of the Purple Violet.

There were a bunch of empty chairs near the table I grabbed, which were soon occupied by a group of drunk guys.  That's not a big deal; the place was still crowded, and as long as I had a little corner of the table for my laptop and my papers, I was happy to share the rest of the table with anyone who needed it.  One of them sidles up next to me, and asks me for some picks.  I shrug, shake my head, and let him know that Arlington's over, the stakes races at Belmont are over, and I hadn't handicapped any more races.  I had no more horses for me, for him, or for anyone else.  My handicapping was over, my horseplaying was over, and I had writing to do.  That should have been the end of it, right?

It wasn't the end of it.  He continued to badger me, and enlisted a couple of his friends to join him in trying to extract a pick out of me.  He kept trying to grab my arm, told me he'd been loving me from afar, whined that he needed one more horse so he could pay his mortgage.  I told him to stop touching me, and reiterated that I had no horses for him.  Since I was sober, and open to reason, I even tried to show him my marked-up PPs for races that were over, compared to the untouched pages of my DRF for races later in the day.  No dice.  Another guy got behind me and started trying to give me a massage, and saying that since massages were something people paid for, I needed to give them a horse.   I asked him to stop invading my personal space; he scoffed at me, but at least he knocked it off.  At about that same time, one of the other guys even tried several times to stick his finger in my ear while I was trying to start writing the blog entry.  This made no sense to me then, and probably never will.

There's a certain level of goofing around that happens at the racetrack, especially on a huge race day with more of a party atmosphere.  However, their behaviour crossed the line from racetrack joshing to being an actual nuisance.

Fortunately, I have a thick enough skin.  This wasn't my first trip to the track.  I've been dozens of times, and I feel comfortable and at home around horse racing.  This incident does nothing to change that: I will make my happy return to the track this Saturday for the Isaac Murphy Handicap, and not be scared of running into a similar bushel of bad apples.  However, one cannot expect that the next person they razz is going to be so tough about it, or be fanatical enough about racing that such an encounter won't turn them off of returning.  Boors like this are bad for the racetrack experience, and bad for the sport.

The moral of this story is simple: the golden rule applies at the racetrack, just like it does everywhere else.  Go to the track, have a good time with your friends (or by yourself), but don't stop others from having a good time, either.  Asking if someone has a pick is perfectly legitimate track banter, and can lead to a fun conversation.  However, if they say no, take them at face value.

At the racetrack, as in life: when in doubt, live and let live.

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