Why the long face?
Betting on horses at Del Mar Racetrack stirs up conflicting emotions
Back in my Bukowski-wannabe phase, I relished any opportunity to indulge in vices for what could potentially become story material. In those days, this lowlife living felt akin to enlightenment. When you’re in your 20s—especially as a straight white man—it’s very easy to confuse hedonistic excess with profundity.
But while my idolization of Bukowski and his proclivities feels embarrassing now, it’s hard for me to shake the exciting and romanticized way he wrote about horse races.
From Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office:
The track had moved down the coast a hundred miles or so. I kept paying the rent on my apartment in town, got in my car and drove down. Once or twice a week I would drive back to the apartment, check the mail, maybe sleep overnight, then drive back down.
It was a good life, and I started winning. After the last race each night I would have one or two easy drinks at the bar, tipping the bartender well. It looked like a new life. I could do no wrong.
Given that Post Office follows Bukowski’s life as a letter carrier in Los Angeles, it’s likely that the track he’s referencing—the one that moved “down the coast a hundred miles or so”—is the Del Mar Racetrack. And I think that’s pretty cool.
However, I’ve lived in San Diego for over a decade and haven’t been to a single horse race. I live twenty miles away from a world-class track and all I know are descriptions from a drunk writer’s novel.
On one hand, it’s a little strange I’ve been a degenerate writer for this long without having been to a horse race. I enjoy drinking, and I love gambling. If my younger, drunken, 20-something self knew that I had lived in San Diego for over a decade without visiting the track, he would’ve…I don’t know, quietly seethed and written about it in his Livejournal? Plus, it just seems like an inherently weird—and therefore fun—thing to do. How often does one get to yell at large animals these days?
But on the other hand, let’s not forget that racetracks are pretty much horse murder machines. Just google “how many horses die per year at del mar” and the results are crushing. I’m surprised there’s not a very profitable Elmer’s Glue factory next door. So, to answer your question, 20-something-year-old me, this is the reason that I had not been to the track. (And while we’re at it, please stop listening to Eminem—you’ll thank me later).
The decision to finally head up to Del Mar does not come easily. Can a person enjoy something without condoning it? For hardliners with their principles intact, I’m sure the answer is a resounding no, but I’m a man with a slippery constitution. I contain multitudes.
Also, my homeboy and former San Diego CityBeat music editor Peter Holslin is in town, and when I float the idea of hitting up the races, he’s more than down for the adventure.
We arrive at Del Mar an hour and a half before the first race. I’ve been to the fairgrounds many times, never for any dignified reason: the Del Mar Fair, spooky Halloween attractions, cat shows, a gun show. Perhaps this is why I’ve decided to wear a yellow Pismo Beach shirt and frayed jorts. Dress for the trashiness you want, right? Peter at least wears a button-up shirt.
As we approach the entrance, it becomes abundantly clear that we are among the worst dressed here. Men wear suspenders and actual waist-to-feet pants (fancy!); women are decked out in dresses and onesies. There are so many professionals wearing expensive shoes with no-show socks. The outfits are ridiculous—like grown ups going to the prom—yet I still feel self-conscious of my own shabby appearance. Pretty sure everyone here has the kind of money that they could simply bribe an usher to move me out of their field of vision if they desired it.
We pay the cheapest admission, which allows us to, uh, just stand around? I feel good about this decision. There’s a certain joy to not being tethered to a seat, and the way Peter and I stroll aimlessly around the fairgrounds feels a little like two teens dropped off at the mall. It seems punk, as if somehow supporting animal cruelty could ever be construed as punk.
I make my way to a bar, and the bartender tells me that cocktails are half off until after the fourth race, so I order a “marg” with gusto. Turns out half-priced cocktails at the fairgrounds are still $11, so I procure a little pouch containing $50—the amount I’ve allotted for myself to spend—and hand over the bills.
(Oh, I forgot to mention that a week prior, I lost my wallet. It was one of those things where I went out into public wearing sweatpants, and you know how the pocket situation on sweatpants is different from traditional pants? The butt-feel is just different. At some point, my wallet simply disappeared and I didn’t notice until I got home. Whether it slipped out or was stolen, I’ll never know. Let this be a lesson to never wear sweatpants in public. Also, having no wallet forced me to experience life like a pre-teen with an allowance. Imagine me fanning out a measly stack of bills at the bartender and saying, “These are all the monies I have.”)
Peter and I gawk at the folks trickling in, commenting on the outfits, but it’s just stalling before we embark on our real mission: horse betting. In case you’ve forgotten from a few paragraphs ago, I love gambling. If I ever had money (or, you know, more than a 10-year-old with generous parents), I would easily become addicted. Hell, if there was no gambling aspect to horse racing, my opposition would be unwavering. What do I care about horse athleticism and spectacle of majestic beasts if there’s nothing at stake? Nah, bruh, not my thing.
The thing is, however, Peter and I have no fucking idea what we’re doing. How does one even bet on horses? We leer behind others as they punch actions into touch screen betting machines. I watch the video monitors to understand the odds, and nothing makes sense. We end up spending most of our time Googling just what the hell is going on. Siri, can you explain this entire place? Eventually we find an information desk and ask if perhaps there’s a brochure on horse betting. The woman gives us a little pocket-size guide that briefly explains the different bets you can make. Exactas, trifectas, superfectas—all this shit sounds like MCU characters.
I figure we should just wing it. We walk up to the window and I place a $4 boxed exacta bet on Cocktail Princess and Golden Again—horses 8 and 1, respectively. Really, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I don’t want the bookie to know that. His face is stone when he hands back my change. A ticket pops out of the dispenser, which I think is a receipt. “Take it,” he says, sternly. From then on, Peter and I make our bets at the touchscreens to avoid the mean bookie.
The first race kicks off. At first, it feels anti-climatic. The horses run, big whoop. But as they round the bend, a roar rises through the crowd. The announcer’s voice gets louder, yelling off numbers of the horses vying for dominance. The excitement feels electric; the crowd has become a screaming, vibrating mass. People wave little white pieces of paper and yell for their horses to go! Go! Go! Go faster!
The first two horses cross the finish line, neither of them are my picks. I get another marg and Peter orders a chili dog, which I covet but, alas, my budget does not allow for sustenance.
We stay for two more races. By the end, I’ve given up all attempts to make informed bets and am just going by names I like. How could a name like “Charge Cash” not win? (It doesn’t).
Despite losing every bet, the thrill of the day lingers on me—the excitement, the anachronistic rituals, the outfits, the romanticized vices. And it makes me feel like a bad person. Can there be space to indulge in things that we know are bad for us, for lesser animals, for the world at large? Would I support dog races? I mean, tons of people enjoy the NFL, which is just as barbaric and exploitative, right? Or do I just concede that I can’t be a good person all the time? Can I acknowledge that there’s a little Bukowski in me whether I like it or not?
As we’re walking back to the car, one of the Del Mar security guards asks, “Win big?”
“No, nobody won,” I say. And I feel like that might have been the case even if our horses came in first.
SADISTIC SUMMER BOOK CLUB
Hi! This week we kicked off the Sadistic Summer Book Club, in which we read Kea Wilson’s riveting novel We Eat Our Own. We’re going at a very leisurely pace—about 100 pages per week—so if you want to join, you absolutely still can and not be too far behind.
If you live in San Diego, go pick up a copy at The Book Catapult. I’m stoked they agreed to carry it (look at that ideal placement by the hand sani!). I’ll be checking the Eventbrite page for new members, or you can just email me at email@example.com if you want to join us.
I also made this intro video that gives a little background information about Cannibal Holocaust, the film that inspired the novel. I’m very proud of how this turned out and hope you enjoy it.
AWKSD GUEST LIST
The Guest List gives AWKSD subscribers the opportunity to see live music for free. Just reply to this email and let me know which show you want to see, and I’ll hook you and a friend up.
Thursday, August 11
The Intergalactic Planetary Rocketman Space Oddity Across The Universe Show @ Til-Two Club: When I was a freshman in college, I took an astronomy class to fulfill a math credit, and let me tell you: learning about the size of the universe was a humbling and vaguely frightening lesson in just how insignificant we are. But still, the concept of space is really cool. Planets? Stars? Fucking rad. And this space-themed art/music show will be similarly, uh, out of this world. Featuring performances by bands Swedish Models, Machine Politik, and A Lens to the Sun, this will be a blast for all the space-heads out there.
Monday, August 15
Oxygen Destroyer, Soul Devourment, Conjureth, Putrescine @ Til-Two Club @ I know the temperatures are high and the sun still stays out late, so perhaps I’m prematurely calling this, but... doesn’t it feel a little like the beginning of fall aka spooky season? Even if that’s not the case, there’s always room for more evil in our lives, and a vicious death metal show is just what the doctor ordered. If your soul isn’t black by the end of Oxygen Destroyer’s set, then you get your money back.
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