Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 27, 2014

Doc B’s Swan Song, Part Two

To tell a tale of epic proportions, a writer seeks a suitable stage on which to portray the clamor and din of human endeavor. War is an epic theme. About 2,800 years ago, our first poet, Homer, set his Iliad during the Trojan War, followed by countless writers, including Tolstoy, James Jones, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon.

Travel and voyages are another iconic trope. Look no farther than the remarkable Huck Finn, as well as Beowulf, Robinson Crusoe, Ishmael, Kerouac and myriads more. There’s the city — Dreiser and Henry Roth; the desert — Frank Herbert and Paul Bowles. As a setting unmatched for its dramatic qualities, however, allow me to propose the racetrack.

As I mentioned in Part 1, my home town had a harness racing track (horses pulling drivers on 2-wheeled carts called “sulkies). It was a lively enterprise until it closed in 2103 after 65 years of operation. Here’s a photo of the grounds:

Race track aerial

I learned about horse racing from some of the men in my family. From my earliest days, I overheard discussion of the arcana of the pari-mutuel bet: Cover both win and place; box three when you can; avoid the Daily Double unless you know what you’re doing or can box in some reasonable way. I learned to read a program and to parse the recondite pages of The Racing Form. I puzzled over strategies for generating winning wagers from that bible of equine performance.

These horse racing minutiae obsess the sport’s devotees, but the fade to insignificance beside the scene itself. Like Homer’s Troy, Huck’s Mississippi, Melville’s primal sea and Crusoe’s uncharted island, the track is fertile source of spectacle. It’s a world that contains worlds” paddock, stable and grandstand. Every day or night of racing at every track sees a thousand dramas played out across the grounds, replete with characters ripe for the pages of a novel, a screenplay or a musical comedy; one merely has to write ’em down.

I’ve been to tracks all ’round, from glamorous Santa Anita and Del Mar to gritty Midwestern county fairgrounds. They share something more than horses running around an oval: They’re festivals of the human condition.

Dad worked at the track throughout my childhood, selling tickets. He wasn’t collecting admission; he was one of the track employees behind the windows who take your money and dispense the tickets indicating your wager. The long-ago term was “tote tickets.” “Tote” stood for “totalisator,” which was an early name for something we call … what is it now? Oh, yes, “computer.” Then, “computers” were analog electromechanical devices built specifically for computing odds and wager payoffs. (Race odds and results are still displayed on a “tote board.”) Selling tickets was a part-time job, evenings and into the night during racing season, which at our track was fall and winter.

Dad started there before some of the improvements to the grandstand accommodated all the betting operations. It was a typical county fairgrounds structure, open to the weather. A few of the sellers and cashiers were in an unheated shack they called “Little Siberia.” Each ticket machine required a physical plate to stamp the specific race information. They were, essentially stamp machines.

The world behind those windows was just one of the racetrack’s microcosms. Dad and his fellow sellers and cashiers watched a lot of human drama, and got acquainted with the winners and losers, the regulars and the rookies, the sharps, the desperate and the foolish.

Of course, they paid attention to the general drift of things. Was So-and-So — who owned the favorite in the next race — betting against his own horse? That might mean something. Was ol’ What’s-his-Name, the brother of the driver in the second race putting down a considerable sum of money on the Daily Double? Hmmm …. Was Mr. G., who managed the horse van fleet looking nervous about the 7th race and holding onto his money? What did that mean? Brothers and sisters, there was a novel playing out on that floor every night, and I would need the art of Tolstoy to do it justice.

There was another microcosm down at the rail, where the chatter was sometimes cautiously sub rosa and you’d need a sharp eye to catch what some of the regulars had marked on their programs. Why was that well-known driver walking fast to get to the $10 window between races? Why was the owner-training of a couple of well-known out of town horses pointedly NOT catching the eye of the track veterinarian?

Wheels within wheels, played out in twenty-minute segments between races.

Should the announcer call out the late scratch of the four horse in the first race, a buzz ran through the crowd and even the in-the-know guys who prided themselves on never rushing to the window were suddenly having a race of their own to rejigger those Daily Double covers.

During my senior year in high school, I got a job there selling programs from a booth just inside the grandstand entrance: fifty cents a program.

The entrance in more recent days.

(The entrance in more recent days.)

I’d get there well before the first race, count my change drawer and and carry my box of freshly printed programs to my stand. Early on, before the first race, the crowd moved in steadily but leisurely: cooly, even. I changed a lot of dollar bills for two quarters and handed out the books. As post time approached, things got more frenzied, and I hardly had time to look up. Patrons desperate to get a program in time to pick their horse and put down a bet tossed money on the counter and grabbed a program. At the peak of the rush, I often ended up with a dollar when some guy didn’t wait for change — I was fifty cents to the good!

I came to recognize the regulars, but there wasn’t much chatter. I was too busy, and they were focused on their own business.

My outer part of the grandstand wasn’t where the action was. Everyone headed past me to the betting windows, the seats in the grandstand above, or to the rail or the bar. A few people would loiter there while they caught a few quiet minutes to study the next race on their program, drink a beer or smoke a cigarette. Of all those characters, charlatans, desperadoes, regular folks and fools I encountered there, one guy stands out. I shared that lonely beat with him through all the chilly fall evenings and the bitter winter nights: Doc B.

I was there because it was the best place to catch people as they entered and sell ’em my books. Doc was there for a similar reason.

Doc was a tout. This word can mean a variety of things, but a racetrack tout is a person who sells advice on betting. For a dollar or two, depending on how much you wanted to know and how badly you wanted it, Doc would sell you a tip on a race.

To me, at seventeen, Doc seemed incredibly old and wizened. Thin and thin-faced, with the dark skin of a lifelong smoker, he was slightly stooped and on those chilly fall nights wore a dark trench coat that hung open over his gray tweed jacket. He had a head of slicked-back graying dark hair. He was never without a cigarette, either in his hand or mouth.

I didn’t have to hawk my programs. My booth was in the stream of traffic with a big sign, “PROGRAMS 50¢” on it, so people came to me. Doc, though, wasn’t an employee, and didn’t have a stand. For all I know, his game was technically illegal, though I never saw anyone hassle him. He did have to let his clientele know he was there. Like hawkers everywhere, he had his call:

“HEY! Ya get a winner when ya get Doc B!”

Doc B Cry003 - trim

Some rube would sidle over. Doc would hunch his shoulders and lean in, conspiratorially. What race? What bet and for how much? He’d take the program out of the guy’s hand and “mark it” for him, indicating the horse that was sure to deliver the goods in the next race. Win tips cost more than place. Daily Doubles cost extra, of course.

“Hey, let me mark that program for ya,” he’d say to a passing figure he’d done business with before. Sometimes they’d stop, sometimes not, probably depending on whether Doc’s previous tip got them to the cashier’s window.

I wondered where Doc got his info. Was he a savant? Did he have an endless supply of inside dope from the stables? Now, with the passing of years, I understand something about the scheme Doc was running. If on any given race he handed out seven tips, he’d spread them across two or three favorites. If one of those horses came in, there were Doc’s next repeat customers. The other ones were unhappy, but he had their buck!

There’s a time-tested saying that goes, “Never play poker with a man named Doc.”

Doc B. was a real person, not someone I’ve invented. To my regret, I didn’t get to know him at all. To my immature self, he was one of the Adults who inhabited a world I watched, but didn’t belong in. I should have been smarter and more curious. I should’ve asked.

Over the years, I’ve tried to put him in a story, but I never get him right. He was a vivid, real person, but a cipher to me.

In the succeeding years I’ve spent learning to write, I can’t do Doc — or any part of the Track — justice, because I failed to peer in and look below the surface. I was a spectator, and not a participant. I regret it. Why didn’t I ask more questions? I don’t know if Doc lived locally or came in from somewhere. I don’t know if he had another income. I don’t know if he moved on to other tracks when our season closed (I’m betting he did). I don’t know what became of him as the years went on. I don’t know his first name.

We’ll leave young Brad there, with Doc off scanning the crowd for the next mark. It’s getting late, time for the seventh race. Over the loudspeaker we hear the track announcer give his call that never varied for thirty years: “They’re all behind the gate! The gate swings into the stretch and … heeeeeeeere they come! They’re OFF and pacing!”

In all those weeks and months, I never asked, “Hey, Doc, mark this one for me, will ya?” It would’ve only cost me a buck. Who knows what I’d have learned in return? I had a lot to learn, and I failed that lesson.

© Brad Nixon 2014, 2017

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