“It’s About Just Makin’ It”: Chasing The Triple Crown In The Back Room
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this place goes crazy” stretches around the plastic exterior of Lucky’s souvenir Pepsi cup, but Fairmount’s old adage is obsolete.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.
In his bed one day, just divorced, Lucky was down to his last two hundred dollars. Something told him to get up and gamble. Within the rainbowed fluorescence of a riverboat casino, he stuck $20 in a slot machine and hit $300. Then $300 more. One minute after double jackpot time, he hit $3600. He was rolling, feeling it, a lot like the protagonist of “Let It Ride,” his favorite movie. Richard Dreyfuss plays a down-on-his-luck gambler named Trotter who has one amazingly lucky day. Every horse Trotter picks wins. Lucky left the boat for the OTB in Alton and turned his money into $8000. In the movie, Trotter accrues $67,000 and then “lets it ride” one last time. His horse wins right before the credits roll. Lucky had an interview to work for Capri Sun. He left. If he’d stayed, he thinks he would’ve made another $25,000. But he was trying to get the job. “Way it goes,” he thought.
Lucky’s real name is Tim. He’s been coming to the tracks since he was a boy, when he could read a racing form before he could read a book. Years later, with a fishing business on the side, he worked in a Schnucks warehouse until he broke his back being thrown from a pallet jack. The pain hasn’t gone away and he feels betrayed that Schnucks didn’t cover his injury. Some days he can’t walk. The warping of his body is apparent with the serious effort that lifting himself requires, totally reliant on his arms as levers.
Lucky isn’t as bombastic when he discusses his life outside of horseracing. He acknowledges he’s had problems like anyone else, and he credits his church for helping him work through a lot of them. His mood is consistently jovial. Lucky is not staking his rent money—these are two and six-dollar wagers. He loves the challenge of exotic bets, picking the long shots, the possibility of cents becoming thousands of dollars. He takes a lot of pride in being right and everyone knowing that he’s right. “Not no easy game,” Lucky says.
He doesn’t need a racing form like other bettors. He’s got it all in his head. Whereas other desks have tip sheets and pads cluttered with detailed notes, Lucky’s has only a mountain of losing tickets, stained with leftover ketchup and intermingled with Sweet and Low Packets. The winners are all crammed into his pocket. He knows he has skeptics. After all, Fairmount teems with cons.
In the main viewing area, there is an old lady who seems old-lady-like: hunched over, slow, looking lost. A track veteran tells me she is Fairmount’s most infamous pickpocket. She shows up for the biggest racing days, like the track’s very own guest star. Her pocketbook is stuffed full of wallets. Meanwhile, one of the friendliest guys in the concession line is also known as Little Al Capone. He tells me he masterminded a scheme that used poor black people as mules to exploit a loophole in a Lumiere casino promotion. The casino banned him for life. He buys me a beer.
A man in his seventies tells me there are a lot of guys like Lucky—he knows the type. Talks a big game. Some are winning and some aren’t, he says. “People around here get mad at me because I have too much knowledge they don’t understand. I lost a lot when I was younger. God’s givin’ it back. It’s believing that makes things happen,” Lucky says.
In the Kentucky Derby, 15 to 1 long shot named I’ll Have Another beat favorite Bodemeister in a dramatic finish. Everyone wants to know if I’ll Have Another can do it again, but Lucky says he knew months ago. He made thousands on the Derby, he says, and stands to win $10,000 more if I’ll Have Another wins at Preakness. Lucky has a separate bet of $100 on I’ll Have Another to win the Triple Crown, based on a gut feeling. Since 1978, ten horses have won two of the races, but none has been able to win the third. I ask Lucky how much he’ll make if I’ll Have Another not only wins today, but pulls off the Triple Crown too.
“I could buy Fairmount and the next six cities—it’d be nice, brother. I could live for the rest of my life, not even sweat. I could even buy hair,” he says, laughing, and then resuming his repetitions of odds and horses. “But if he wins the Triple Crown you’ll never see me. C’mon, Monte Carlo and the beach for the next six months. I ain’t goin’ to no casino, no racetrack—I’m gonna look for every beautiful babe I can find. Five minutes and I’ll know if I’m on my way to a Triple Crown.” Lucky’s been in this room before, in the same situation. Each time his horse has fallen short, but this feels like the year. TVs contain no memories, and they aren’t mirrors unless they’re turned off.
“If 9 wins I’m gonna be the happiest man in the world,” Lucky says. The room gets louder and some people are standing and clapping as the race begins. “You right there baby, 9-7 when you hit that wire. C’mon 9-7, you ain’t got no boogie on me today. C’mon Another, C’mon Another, you’re in my prayers, one more, I go big time.”
The announcer, 718 miles away in Baltimore, says that I’ll Have Another is racing 4th. “NOT FOR LONG. C’mon with the 9. Oh, if you win this, baby, I got it bigtime. Go get it—go get it, baby. He’s on the front. Go get it, GO GET HIM. Go GET HIM, ANOTHER! C’mon Another.” Lucky pounds on his desk. “I got the Tri right now, anyway, c’mon Another, c’mon Another. NOW TURN ‘EM LOOSE. NOW TURN ‘EM LOOSE. C’mon Another, c’mon Another. C’mon baby. C’mon Another.”
From 4th, I’ll Have Another makes his move, breaking toward Bodemeister, the same setup as the Derby. Lucky is a cannon, constantly reloading—at least twenty more “c’mons” pummel the screen. I’ll Have Another wins by a nose, again. Lucky is slapping the walls of his carrel, his scream withered into hoarseness, high-fiving people with massive force, including the woman behind the ticket booth. When he high-fives me, it is with both hands and I almost fall backward. The winning jockey is describing what he is feeling right then, at the highest peaks of euphoria.
None of us can hear. Nobody cares. Lucky is all smiles, revealing a missing tooth. He goes to high five someone singing the praises of I’ll Have Another, giddy, embracing anyone who supports his horse. “I said if I ever pick another Triple Crown winner, this is it, this year. Never picked one before. I’ve always got two legs of it. I’m gonna be a nervous wreck till the Belmont.”
After I’ll Have Another wins, the room begins to empty, the losing tickets littering the floor. When Lucky gets up for a minute, the man sitting to his left asks me if Lucky actually got the Super, a long-shot bet Lucky was shouting about. I tell him I don’t know. The man says he saw Lucky a lot at the OTB in Alton. I ask him about Lucky’s reputation. He just shakes his head and laughs. “You have to see it. Just like you have to see the ticket.”
As a race begins, the man stares ahead, emitting strained sounds, eyes glued to his personal TV, slapping his thigh in a controlled painful rhythm. I wonder how much difference there is between these two men, side by side, how many little explosions get lost in the presence of dynamite. I wonder if intensity is deaf, if Lucky is just the way we all are in our heads.
“Can’t be any better than life, baby! Didn’t I tell ‘em I’ll Have Another would win again?” Lucky asks no one in particular when he sits back down. We talk more and it seems like a loop, with number sequences endlessly rearranged. It’s getting late and he tells me he doesn’t want his name—Lucky—in the story. He doesn’t want attention. When I mention the possibility of a pseudonym, though, he agrees to let me use it because if he were a character, Lucky would be perfect.
“Luckiest day of my life,” he says after another race, without a shred of irony, touching the brown blur that is his horse. “You a good liar. I know that much,” someone intones from the back row, as Lucky gets up for some drinks.
The guys who compared him to a big dumb beast have long suspected he was a fraud. How could he not be, when he seems like such a maniac? They’ve never spoken to him. They don’t know his name. They wanted to know the truth, though, because there was no way someone so full of shit could be winning. So they asked a friend of theirs who works in the betting window. It turns out he’s actually pretty good and does win. They used to be regulars at Fairmount but they’re not part of it anymore. “It’s a dump,” says one of them, from Chesterfield. They yell too, as loud as Lucky sometimes, but not nearly as frequently. It’s not serious, they say, it’s not real—they’re just busting people’s balls. “Stay low,” the man from Chesterfield tells me.
Lucky comes back and I’m surprised when he is holding a soda, not liquor. He has bought one for me too. He tells me horseracing is about insight. Building an educated guess. Observing some characteristics and projecting. I think about Lucky and how much he’s shared with a complete stranger, telling me about his life and even some of the secrets of his betting. He is still loud even after his audience has shriveled to a fraction of its former self. I don’t know this man at all.
“Not about being famous,” he tells me, his voice fading, on its last legs. “It’s about just makin’ it and living a good life. Get God’s blessing once in your life. Been taken to the cleaners being with girls, divorce, my step kids and all that, girls I live with. When they had nuthin’ to give their kids at Christmas I found a way by making some money at the track. I told her I’d be back in two days. Come Christmas morning you couldn’t even fit in the living room. Everything you could ever imagine.”
Lucky isn’t there when I come back to Fairmount three weeks later for the third leg of the Triple Crown. I recognize a tough-looking man from our row and ask him if he’s seen Lucky, but he’s suspicious. I tell him I was chatting with Lucky at Preakness, that I’m writing a story about him. He is incredulous and refuses to tell me anything: “You’re either in or you’re out. Guys in the back row here, everyone here, we a family. It’s like cards, you’re in or you’re out.”
When I ask what he’s worried about, he gruffly replies that I might want to put a hit on Lucky, that he might owe me money and I’m seeking him to smash out his knees with a baseball bat. If Lucky were the protagonist of “Let It Ride,” I can’t help speculating, it would be destiny for his horse to win the Triple Crown. The long shot. The underdog story. There would be some climactic final drama. But there is no storybook ending. There isn’t even a chance. A day before the race I’ll Have Another got tendinitis in his knee and withdrew. He’ll never race again, just like that, the rest of his life devoted to reproduction in Japan, a living horse factory tasked with making more like him.
I stay for the meaningless race and observe a sparse, underwhelmed crowd. Sometimes I check the back room for Lucky, still hoping he’ll show up, but without him I don’t belong and I move quickly, the chatter gibberish, the screens a blur. The TVs are all tuned to different channels, their transparent glass eyes curving outward, the pupils of their imageries fuzzy and old, the pixels just grains of sand.
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