The Rules of Luck

As it turned out I’d actually been listening to my Uncle Wayne and his racetrack talk, trapped, all those years, at the holiday dinner table. Not enough to learn anything, but enough to pick up the flavor of the sport. The OTB storefront on Jericho Turnpike in Queens, Belmont, nicotine-stained walls, harsh lighting, a blinding amount of stats coming up on the monitors, horses getting put down, drinking glasses with naked girls on them, litter, a lot of sitting around. On the day it was my turn, and I was headed to my first horse race, I spent an hour carefully dressing. I had such a confident vision of what was ahead, I spent the train ride thinking about something else, until Jamaica where I transferred and magically stepped into the Gatsby car. Hats, heels, dresses! Pastel pants! I glanced down at my vaguely Western jean shirt and tight tank top. “But they’re dressed like it’s Saratoga.” Wayne had talked about the scene there, the trotters. My editor-companion, in a white polo and nice shoes, was already wise to it.

Once inside the Belmont security gates, however, the lawn party illusion dissipated. It was a stadium, with bathroom lines and hotdogs and a lot of green paint. Some of the fancy hats were clearly repurposed beachwear, people were milling around, shouting—that train had taken us to Long Island after all. “Are we going to drink beer? Are we going to bet?” I asked. Already I was overstimulated. My editor bought a racing form, and we retired to our seats so that he could explain it. He ran down the terminology, which led us to a discussion of the Kentucky Derby, jockeys’ cocaine habits, the ethics of horse racing: Was it as bad as the circus? A bullfight? What was PETA’s stance? Then on to the horses’ physiometry, parentage, intelligence—I argued for it, citing the Houyhnhnms of H.G. Wells. “Swift,” my editor corrected me. “Look at all these names, for the emotional bettors—‘Real Solution.’” Both of us then paused on “Finnegans Wake,” reading his chart. For practice, I placed a number of imaginary bets, and lamented all the hypothetical money I was losing.

What does winning mean? A room full of serious gamblers has the same predatory energy as a bad neighborhood. Against all the speed and chaos of the tables, the gambler has steely composure, a weird emotionless focus. It’s hard to tell whether he’s up or down. Here’s my own lived frame of reference for winning: my grandmother and I discussing what to do with our fifteen feet of mail-in sweepstakes property on the Baja peninsula, a year’s supply of frozen shrimp my mother got in 1994, my father returning from a company Christmas party with the keys to an ice blue Plymouth Sundance, and the best: the large Gund panda bear I’d coveted and then taken into my arms, in one breathtaking moment, when my number came up at the fifth-grade raffle, and how the girl after me skated across the auditorium on her knees, punching the air, to receive her Islanders tickets and lunch with Pat LaFontaine. Yes! she said. Now that was winning.

I wanted to feel that again. But it wasn’t happening. Not during the fake betting, not during the entire race I watched alone from the wrong seats, envisioning all the terrible things that had happened to my companion, purchaser of the passes, patient explainer of the rules, who’d been placing the bets while I was at the concession stand. After the race, when we’d both gone looking for cell reception and run into each other, he showed me our correct section number and refunded my money for the two scratched horses, and I said, “I’m so unlucky! I haven’t won anything!” Now reunited with his missing beer, he opened it and said, “I bet 90% of the people here are feeling that way.”

The view from the wrong seats. A very congenial crowd.

Yet it’s hard not to take it personally. At Baden Baden, Dostoyevsky, writing in his journal, said that the reason he lost at the tables was because at the crucial moment, he lost faith. Herein lies the paradox: to win something is to enjoy the wondrous feeling of being anointed, while suspecting you had a hand in it, and therefore can make it happen again. My question is what came first—the loss or the loss of faith?

I sat up in the stands, brooding about the novel I have coming out next month. This wasn’t new; in that silent period before publication, there was an alarming dog-pitched sound that only I could hear, and I heard it pretty much all the time. I was worried, and so I began mixing bets, drawing all sorts of bad conclusions from my losing streak. My diverting little day at the races was starting to seem like an ominous metaphor.

My uncle Wayne would have thought I was crazy. He and his buddies had bettor quirks, but at least they related to the track. And after forty-five years of daily doubles, lotto, Atlantic City, he got it that luck wasn’t about him, or anything. “I just play the horses,” he said. “It’s something to do.”

By the time the Stakes race arrived, the stands had filled up, excitement was rising, the fancy-hat girls had gotten drunker, and I had, too, slugging away at Miller Lite under the mistaken impression it didn’t really have any alcohol in it. My editor accompanied me to the betting window, as you would an elderly person at the bank. There’d been some trouble the last time I’d gone up, and returned having staked the same horse to place, win, and show, as if he were a personal friend of mine.

I scanned the Stakes form and took about three seconds deciding. Then I stood in the stands amazed, while Palace Malice streaked across the finish line with a good lead. We cheered against the sky. I triumphantly returned to the window where I’d earlier placed the grandmotherly bet of $3 on Palace Malice, collected my $44, turned around and spent half of it on a celebratory round of Miller Lite. Stadium prices. But I was feeling pretty good. Here’s an understanding real gamblers and I share—when you get down to it, it’s never about the money.

Jessica Lott is a writer and art critic. Her first novel, The Rest of Us, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in July.

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