I have ridden a horse once in my life, in a party of beginners at a resort. It was not a success. The horses were fitted with English, not Western saddles, and the young man who led the tyros out tried to teach us how to post in one easy lesson. I could not sit down for half a week. If I have to set out on a journey, I call a cab. Yet, child of machinery though I am, I know at one remove two men who made their living from the turf.
One friend’s father was a professional gambler. I assume that anyone who gambles a lot does so as a matter of need, not habit. Gambling is a way to make the universe demonstrate that the gambler is worthy (or, since most gamblers eventually come to grief, a way to demonstrate that he is worthless). There are no atheists in the casinos: A goddess rules the gambler’s universe, Fortuna. When she’s smiling, the whole world smiles at him. Gambling can test the water, the little bet before the big one: George Washington, Virginia gentleman, lived in a world of gentlemanly wagering, but at moments of great tension — heading to the second Continental Congress — he would wager more than usual. Heads I win, tails George III does.
Those are my assumptions, anyway — Methodism run through Freud. Yet despite all that, my friend’s father’s approach to gambling seemed to be entirely businesslike. He only played poker and bet on the horses. Skill and psychology in the first, and knowledge of the second, gave him, he believed, some edge over the iron odds. All other forms of gambling he dismissed as the swindling of fools. He managed by these means to live a middle-class life and send my friend to a fancy school. In his later years he hosted a radio show about the races, which suggests that the pressure of even businesslike betting required some relief, or that the profits of kibitzing and cheerleading were steadier than those of betting itself.
My friend became a producer, which I have many times reflected is another form of gambling, and one of the reckless forms his father disdained. The prudent gambler deals only with tracks whose lengths are specified; horses, jockeys, and trainers whose records are public knowledge; and the weather, which happens to all of us. A producer by contrast lives in a wonderland of funders (coy rich people, nonprofit bureaucracies), talent (often difficult, sometimes crazy), and broadcasters (sure we have a slot — would 11 to 11:05 p.m. on a Sunday in 2017 work for you?). For beating the iron odds he might as well be playing the slots or trying to outsmart the Russian mafia. Every summer my friend goes to Saratoga to enjoy the races and perhaps contemplate the forge of his destiny.
Another friend’s stepfather worked on the other side of racing as a trainer, at the big track on the island where this friend spent his teens. It had a 14-hand statue of a horse out front; every year it hosted a stakes race that was the local equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. My friend first encountered this track at an awkward juncture in his life; his father was leaving his life, his stepfather had not yet arrived. His father owned a string of horses and a chain of restaurants besides. Busy busy busy, my friend remembers him, and he himself has some of that entrepreneurial spirit, but business was also an excuse for his father to pay not much attention to him. The track became a refuge. Feeding, grooming, and exercising the mounts; the call to post; the moment the gates flung open — these routines were both engrossing and soothing. So was the company: Horses mostly did what they were supposed to do.
Not to make too much of the pun, but my friend’s stepfather stepped up. He married my friend’s mother, and he had time for his children, sons and stepson alike. My friend cherishes a picture taken after one of his stepfather’s horses won the stakes race: trainer, horse, jockey, and owner together in the winner’s circle. The track closed in the Seventies, and most of the horses and their retinue went to Florida (not my friend’s stepfather; he liked where he was). What happened to the site? I asked. My friend said it became a hotel, though he believes the horse statue is still there.
Racing is the afterimage of the time when horses were ubiquitous. That time was not so long ago — three generations — although it seems unimaginable. For the end of mounted warfare we might pick 1898, when both Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill rode to battle on horses (San Juan Hill and Omdurman respectively). In the next century Hollywood made westerns. Now Mayor de Blasio wants the horse carriages out of Central Park. Horses and their qualities — their excellent memory, their strange fears, their devotion to trusted riders — are things most of us now learn from books, or Wikipedia.
My wife and I did go to a horse farm one night to get manure for our vegetable garden. We were friends with a woman who boarded a horse there (that is one other survival of the horsey life — women who rode as girls). It was warm June, the farm backed on a small slow river, the horses were out in the field. Lightning bugs flickered over dark shapes. In the barn, cats prowled among the hay bales, hunting vermin. We filled a contractor bag and, while I would not bottle the essence and sell it as eau de cheval, it was not at all offensive. We worked it into our compost, until we got asthma (evidently it had not rotted enough).
Every week as we drive to the bus that takes us back to the city (note: two internal-combustion engines), we see, as the road crosses the ridge, a field with grazing horses. They are beautiful, small, and remote. Decorative.