Off Day At the Track

On the ground rests a slip of paper worth $96. A janitor, mop and cigarette in one hand, kneels down and studies the fine print. CALDER LEG 1: 4, 6, 7; LEG 2: 3.

He stops there. He mops on, smokes on, looks on. Later he returns with a dustpan and wipes up the trash under Seabiscuit’s 1937 MassCap banner.

            Outside, the oval is kept well enough, dragged through and through with a six a.m. tractor and a six a.m. man. The enclosing fence defines pristine as white. In the infield lurks a fountain in its off-season.

            At the nearest betting window, a sign hangs reading “CLOSED.” In the window next to it, a sign reading “CLOSED.”  A third window missing its sign is closed.

            On the wall hangs a painting of a horse standing on a patch of grass. There is no one on the horse, but the length of the grass patch in front of the horse is equal to the length of the grass patch behind the horse.  Behind the painting of the horse is a mural of another horse. There is a man on the horse in the mural, but the painting is on that man.

            A square machine in a hole in the wall prints a slip of paper worth $24. It falls into the hand of a man with a custom-made coat made for someone else in someone else’s era. It will learn if it deserves the ground.

            The man limps out to the track and squints at the finish line. No one has crossed it in three months. Not a single loser. He limps back inside.

            Twelve TV’s in two rows of six flash odds, pools and payouts. POST TIME blinks on the set simulcasting live from Aqueduct. The horses approach the starting gate resolute and in low-definition.

            A cluster forms. All heads turn up, all eyes take in the screen a few feet under heaven. “I know a guy,” the man says. No one mutters an answer. “I know a guy who had a dream about the number five. So he woke up at five and took the fifth train out of the station. There were five people in his car. He shows up at the track, and in the fifth race puts five grand on the five.”

            The race goes off.

            “Horse finishes fifth.”

            2:03:20 later, the race ends. The $24 slip of paper lazily finds the ground, worth nothing.

            The man heads for the machine in the hole in the wall. It does not smell like horses.