I am going to have to apologize in advance for this column. I am plumb ashamed of myself. Instead of spending last week roaming the woods somewhere, or floating down the river hunting ducks one last time, I spent the weekend in Hot Springs, AR.
I had a speaking engagement in Hot Springs at a convention in the Arlington Hotel. I took Gloria Jean and Sondra Gray, who is the other half of my publishing company, along to sell my books after I spoke, because I was told it would be a large group. Sondra’s husband, David, came along and the two of us had kind of looked at going over to Lake Ouachita and fishing on Saturday. We didn’t… we went to the horse races.
There is a place at Hot Springs called Oaklawn, and from January to April they have horse races on Thursday thru Sunday. Sondra commented that when she worked years back at the Mansfield Mirror newspaper, several of the employees there, and some of her family, had taken winter vacations to Hot Springs just to see the races. She said she had never been, and she and Gloria Jean remarked they might like to just see what Oaklawn was.
I have never been much of a gambler, remembering my boyhood, when I played penny-ante poker on Friday nights with my cousins and friends at an old farmhouse, and then went to church on Sunday mornings feeling guilty if I won 30 or 40 cents. I felt less guilty if I lost, so there weren’t all that many Sunday mornings I felt really bad about Friday nights. Gloria Jean has never been much of a gambler, except for the time years ago when she married me. I guess that taught her a lesson. As a Baptist Sunday School teacher for many years, I know she would have never tolerated gambling as a form of recreation. Sondra, a devout Methodist, probably never bet anything in her life except when she lost a quarter to me that time she bet I couldn’t eat a dozen donuts in less than a minute.
David Gray should never gamble ever again. At the races, he bet $2 on three different horses twice, on race number four and race number five, and he ended up losing $12 on horses that started strong and fell asleep down the stretch. Gloria Jean did okay, she only bet $12 in two races and ended up winning $6.30. On those two races I bet $12 and somehow or another won $8. One horse I figured couldn’t lose was named Lightnin’, just like the name of our publishing company, Lightnin’ Ridge. I had great hopes for him.
Keep in mind none of us knew a thing about odds or “win, show, place”, or any of that racetrack lingo. We were complete beginners. But, gosh, it was exciting to see those magnificent animals, with those long legs, and sleek bodies, led into a select spot before the races where folks could nearly reach out and touch them, and you could see the jockeys in those brightly colored outfits. You get down close to the track and watch those horses thundering along, with sand and dirt flying in their wake, tails outstretched and noses parallel to the ground, hooves moving so fast, straining for that finish line… you cannot help but be excited.
Sondra would just look at the horse’s names, pick one out and bet her $2 on that horse. In the fourth race, her horse finished first. That is remarkable, few beginners at Oaklawn get so lucky. She went to the window and picked up $20, and bet $2 on another one. And they’re off. About two minutes later, her horse crosses the finish line a neck ahead of mine. Ol’ Lightnin’ wouldn’t get in the starting gate; wasn’t interested in racing. I had bet the farm on him, and there he was, at the beginning of the race 10 or 15 yards behind the last horse, upset because he’s a gelding rather than a stallion. But while I was tearing up my little ticket and throwing my cap on the ground, Lightnin’ decided to get in the race. Halfway around he passed the middle of the group on the outside, looking like old Sea Biscuit himself. At the last turn, he was charging toward the lead, glimpses of the movie ‘Secretariat’ going through my mind. I’m yellin’ and hollerin’ like some fifth grader at the school sack race. At the finish line, Sondra’s horse beat him by a nose.
Picking up her winnings, Sondra has invested $4 in two horse races, and her horse has won both races and she has pocketed about $40. Now folks, I am not joking about this, it is all true. She never has bet a dollar in her life on nothing, never been to a horse race, and she picked two winners by looking for names that gave her a lucky feeling. No one in our group is going to bet on the seventh race, but I decide I have to try one more time. I have bet $6 on two races, and I am about $4 in the hole, thanks to Ol’ Lightnin’ leaving the gate thinking he’s bred for the plow. So Sondra looks at the racing form and tells me she thinks I should bet on number four. I figure she can’t possibly win three in a row so I bet on number seven to come in second or better.
And I swear this is the truth. Number seven and number four come in tied for first! If I had listened to Sondra I would have won $20. Instead, we headed back to the Arlington after the three races, with me having bet $18 in all three, and winning a total of $18.50.
The experience was a good one, I am glad I saw those horses, but that crowd was awful – men and women grouped together like a huge herd, lines of people at windows, 20 or 30 at a time and a resulting traffic jam like Chicago rush hour. I am sure I will never ever go back. But if I do, I am taking $50 and Sondra, and figuring on getting rich.
The Arlington hotel was an old, historic place… one of Hot Springs landmarks. Jack Dempsey and Rudolf Valentino were pictured there on stays in the 1920’s. They arranged rooms for us on the fourth floor, next to the room Al Capone stayed in all through the late 20’s and 30’s. A maid let us in to see it, and I noticed while I was in there how much I looked like some of the gangsters who were pictured there. They said when he came, that whole wing was filled with his buddies. I may have slept in the same room where mobster Lucky Luciano stayed. I nearly went into the fourth floor bathhouse for a hot springs bath and a massage, but it was $60 for only an hour and a half. I figured that someone who played the horses for and hour and a half and could only win 50¢ shouldn’t be sitting in some hot bath where Al Capone once relaxed with a cigar. Had I known how many books Sondra would sell that evening at the Crystal Ballroom after I spoke to the convention goers, I might have tried it.
Please forgive me for the gambling. I know it was wrong and I won’t ever do it again. And I promise to never again write about horse racing, since fishing and hunting are more exciting. But you ought to go see it just once. Go on a Thursday and there won’t be such a crowd. And before you go, have Sondra give you some tips.
ON THE BEATEN TRACK – One of Sondra’s winners was this horse, which she may have picked because his rider was good-looking.