I’m in an obscure back room within Fairmount Park, far from the horses, with the diehards, next to a man called Lucky. I’m looking for some insight into the smallest, poorest and oldest track in Illinois. It’s the day of the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, which is run in Baltimore. Fairmount is swollen with people, masking the fact that attendance has been in a steep decline since the arrival of riverboat casinos in 1991. Lucky leans forward in a back room, illuminated by a glowing grid of old Toshibas. He’s yelling at the TV screen a few inches in front of him.
“C’mon 1-horse, you beautiful thing — I’ll scream my head off.”
Once a race starts the horses lose their fantastical, gaudy names, like Fusaichi Pegasus and Dust Commander, and become a 4 or a 6, the vicarious adrenaline of the race boiling everything down. Lucky is a balding fifty-three-year-old white man, with a Mizzou tiger curving over his potbelly. His glasses hang far down his nose, uncannily professorial. His constant shouting is mostly directed at horses and jockeys in their frenzies of horizontal movement, never quite exiting the screen, their centrality maintained by shifting camera angles. Lucky says he’s known some of the jockeys a long time, pointing to a pixelated man three or four inches in size. “Yonny, my buddy.”
Summarizing one of Fairmount’s stereotypes in a 1994 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Bernie Miklasz refers to “deranged lunatics screaming at televisions,” and I realize I am looking at the largest symbol of that lunacy. The room that Lucky prefers is buried in the back, about the size of a high school classroom. It is a pleasant day in July, but you’d never know it. The room is divided into one hundred cubicle-like carrels, five rows of twenty. Each carrel costs one dollar to rent and features a desk lamp and a personal TV.
The track motto “Every 19 minutes this place goes crazy” stretches around the plastic exterior of Lucky’s souvenir Pepsi cup, but Fairmount’s old adage is obsolete. With simulcast betting capable of broadcasting any track in the world, there is almost always a race in progress, distributing that collective craziness throughout the cubicled lattice of the room. “Where you at 12? WHERE YOU AT WITH THE 12? That ain’t him. Is it? Nope. I NEED THE 12 TO WIN. Don’t know who he is. That’s the 12. I can’t tell. If that’s the 12, I got him. Thank you baby, woo. 12-6, yeahhh, 12-6-5. Woo. That’s more in the bank.”
Fairmount is not too different from an Off Track Betting facility, with its number of live racing days in free fall and a double-sided rack of 200 TVs running like a spinal cord through the main viewing area. Bettors huddle below them, as if the boxes provide warmth. Fairmount as a whole has a surprising diversity of age and gender, but the crowd around Lucky is older and decidedly masculine.
Some of the TVs are grainy and with mute men talking on the screen, it’s difficult to decipher what’s a replay and what’s actually happening. Each TV has about forty channels, most of them horse-related, though a couple have other sports, and some have random offerings like cooking shows. The room, like a movie theatre in its narrowing of vision, skews perspective. The interior is dimly lit, never having seen sun, only a pixelated imitation.
Fresh snowy mountains are visible out one doorway, but they are flat across a Coors poster: Cold, Your Best Bet. The sky is a ceiling of pulpy intestinal insulation. For a moment something appears to be wrong with Lucky’s TV. “Where’d the Meadowlands go?” He asks, as if the New Jersey track itself vanished, rather than just the signal. He sighs with relief when it reappears, a small red light signaling that the TV is alive and well.
Advertisements are perpetual white noise. On one TV, a trumpet indicates the start of a race. Another TV gushes, “I love how clean my mouth is now, why doesn’t it last?” Over the din of the horses, the recorded voice continues, “Keeps your teeth 91% cleaner.”
To the other bettors, Lucky has been habituated into the room’s cacophony of advertisements, announcers and chatter. I turn toward him as a reflex with each outburst. The Xerox-machine noise of tickets printing by the back wall is as regular as if the room were breathing. The only sound that isn’t machine-generated is the banter of the bettors, their laughter grooved with familiarity and a hundred remember whens.
Lucky is somewhere between the two poles, both robotic and reactive. “Beat the 2, beat the 2, 8, beat the 2, get the 2, 8. Amen,” he yells. The number combinations are related to more advanced bets like Trifectas and Supers, which involve predicting the place of more than one horse. “C’mon baby. C’mon sugar pie, what are you doin’ back there—here comes the 12. What are you waitin’ on, what are you two waitin’ on? What are you waitin’ on, c’mon, c’mon, keep comin’, they ain’t nuthin’; they sitting and waitin’, they sittin’ and waitin’, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, damn; waited too long; you waited TOO LONG!”
“Put some glue in his mouth. He’ll be like this,” says someone in our row when Lucky leaves the room, miming a muted Lucky attempting to speak but failing, head convulsing back and forth. A group of guys laughs hysterically. Someone makes a comment about sending Lucky to a rendering company, where animal remains are converted into useful byproducts.