Except for a few cackling seagulls, the only motion at the track is a chubby man in a red sweatshirt leading a gorgeous chestnut with taped fetlocks in endless circles around the paddock. Occasionally he leads the horse into stall number 8, turns it around, backs it up, then leads it out again for more paddock-circling. It must be a nervous horse or a horse new to racing. They must need the extra time to get it accustomed to the track and the stall.
A few minutes later, I check the program and find Number 8 in the first race. It's a 3-year-old filly named Ceol Na Mara, and she's only raced twice in her life, both times on the Aqueduct turf track -- now closed for the winter. In her debut she finished second. Last time out she was unresponsive and ran seventh. She has a new jockey today, though, the solid Javier Castellano. Normally I don't like to bet on females -- in life OR in racing -- but I'm superstitious about skittish horses. I've been lucky with the nervous ones, the ones who don't want to go into the gate at all. I put a $10 hunch bet down on Ceol Na Mara.
It's not what most people think of as a racing day. No one will be using the picnic tables. There are virtually no women in the grandstand or clubhouse. The gift shops' only customers are cigar-buyers. The winter season at Aqueduct is not really for tourists or day-trippers. Of the three great New York tracks -- Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct -- Aqueduct is the least glamorous. It's a working man's track, the only track in America that has its own subway stop. In fact, you can stand on the subway side of the clubhouse and see the skyscrapers of Wall Street in the distance. Aqueduct is the kind of urban racetrack that doesn't really exist anymore in the rest of the country.
I love this place.
"This is the city track," says Fran La Belle of the public relations staff. "You come here to bet horses. It's a hardcore group. It's a horse fan. They've been coming here all their lives, for the most part."
Part of the reason I like it -- don't shoot me -- is that it's such a male environment. Women will go to Saratoga for the social season, or to Belmont for the flowers and the pageantry, but Aqueduct is a place you come to gamble. Sure, you could bet the same races at off-track betting parlors in Manhattan -- or, for that matter, in Las Vegas sports books -- but the real Damon Runyon types take the A train to Aqueduct at 10:30 in the morning, have their lunch in the Equestris restaurant (largest dining room in New York, with 1,600 seats), crowd around the paddock before each race, and crunch numbers like crazy before they make their bets. They chew the fat with the other horseplayers, rag on the jockeys, rate the trainers, and occasionally even trade their vaunted "inside" information.
There are old guys who have been performing the Aqueduct ritual since the '50s and still come every day, and as a result this is probably the toughest betting environment of any track in the world. The New York horse bettor is so sophisticated that the pari-mutuel odds are always more or less correct by post time. The chances of a long-shot play, based on betting against a fickle but uneducated public, are virtually nil. This is why some of the big bettors go south in the winter, preferring Gulfstream in Florida or Del Mar in California, where there are enough tourists and vacationers -- guys like me, who place a bet because they like the frisky horse exercising in the paddock -- to distort the odds in interesting directions.
"The trainers used to take all their top horses to Aiken, S.C., or Florida from Christmas to Easter," says La Belle. "Gulfstream was the main winter event. But this year Hialeah closed its stables during the Gulfstream season, and there wasn't enough space for everybody. So we got the benefit of that. The trainers either went to the Fairgrounds in New Orleans or just decided to leave their horses here."
I've come to the track on a Thursday in December, but the racing card could hardly be considered cheap. There are only two claiming races, and the last three races are all allowances. Aqueduct will occasionally run a claimer as cheap as $23,000, but those are few and far between. For the most part New York still gets some of the best racing stock in the country, and they've done that without the slot machines that have propped up other East Coast tracks like Delaware Park.
Next year, they may be even stronger, though. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the New York legislature was casting about for ways to generate revenue, and they chose gambling. Bills that had been lying around for years -- "video lottery terminals" at race tracks, participation in the "Powerball" multi-state lottery, and six new Indian casinos -- were all rushed through and approved.
Aqueduct, Finger Lakes, and three harness tracks will all have the slot machines by this time next year, and that means they could start offering the big purses that would make them once again the national leaders in racing.
It's hard to believe that the New York tracks haunted by the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and Morrises and Du Ponts would resort to slot machines to keep up with the times. Aqueduct, after all, is where Man o' War ran his most famous race, defeating John P. Grier in the Dwyer Stakes in 1920.
When the new track opened in 1959, Bill Shoemaker rode both winners of the first Daily Double, and Eddie Arcaro won the first turf race. It's the track of Kelso, the only five-time Horse of the Year, from 1960 to 1964. (The nicest of the many lounges, bars, restaurants and betting parlors inside the clubhouse is called the Kelso Room, decorated with photographs, drawings and paintings of the gentle gelding.) And Aqueduct is steeped in lore that would only be known to horse people -- for example, the race in 1944 that was the first, last and only triple dead heat in a stakes race (Brownie, Bossuet and Wait a Bit in the Carter Handicap). Buckpasser won 12 of his 17 races at Aqueduct. It was the track where Steve Cauthen won 23 races in a single week and where Angel Cordero won two straight Eclipse Awards.
But horse racing is not the social sport it once was. The New York newspapers, where Grantland Rice was both the greatest sportswriter of his day AND the greatest horse-racing writer who ever lived, scarcely even keep up with it anymore. They have betting tips and a paragraph here and there when there's an accident or a scandal, but otherwise it's not considered a sport so much as just another form of gambling.
Horse racing today is all about off-track betting and simulcasting and watching the races at remote locations. Twenty years ago, Aqueduct would have been bustling with action, even on a Thursday in December, but today there are very few bettors who care about actually looking at the horses at any time other than the two minutes they're actually racing.
When the latest Aqueduct was constructed 42 years ago -- earlier versions go back to 1894 -- it was considered the most modern track in America (the first to have elevators and escalators) and was designed to hold 40,000 people, with more on the infield when necessary.
Today the official attendance is 2,846. There are more people watching these races in Las Vegas casinos than in the grandstand. The old bettors' arguments -- about whether a horse has low pasterns, tied-in cannons, bandy legs or a cramped stride --don't occur anymore because it's impossible to examine the horse on a video screen.
It's a shame, too, because two years ago Aqueduct spent $3.5 million on a new weather-enclosed paddock that gets you real close to the horses. The jockeys like it, because the spectators watch them from above. The old paddock had a narrow gauntlet you had to pass through on the way to the track, allowing every catcall to be heard. Now, if you want to yell, "You suck," you at least have to walk outside first.
Aqueduct runs seven months a year, October to May, with the staff moving over to Belmont and Saratoga in the summer, so even though it's broken into seasons -- right now it's the Inner Dirt-Track Season, using the weatherized track that made winter racing possible for the first time in 1975 -- there's no one big race, like the Belmont Stakes at Belmont or the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, that qualifies as the biggest event of the year. In April, Aqueduct has the Wood Memorial, a Kentucky Derby prep that has been won by the Derby champion two years running, and in the fall they have the Jockey Gold Cup and the Cigar Mile Handicap. But there's almost always a stakes race on the card, and anyone who bets at the track every day will eventually see most of America's best horses.
Still, there are purely local stars, even in the winter. Like Golden Tent, a 12-year-old gelding who's still racing. Like Jorge Chavez, who was New York's leading jockey six seasons in a row but never went south for the winter. (A jockey is paid a percentage of the owner's winnings, usually 10 per cent for first place and 5 per cent for second or third. When he rides out of the money, he gets a flat fee, usually $65 in a small race and $105 in a big race. So the top New York jockeys tend to go to Gulfstream, Hialeah, the Fair Grounds, Hollywood Park, or Santa Anita, where the purses are historically bigger in the winter.)
This season the bettors favor a jockey named Aaron Gryder, a 31-year-old Californian who won his first race in Tijuana, apprenticed at Hollywood Park, and won two riding titles at Churchill Downs before settling in New York. He's going for his fourth straight "inner-dirt-track" winter title.
The low attendance does make it a cozy place to watch the horses, though. You can get a seat at any bar, restaurant or lounge. (I tend to favor the Saratoga Bar, done up in old style New York wood paneling, with vintage racing photos on the walls.) They have those miniature TV monitors in the Kelso Room, the Man o' War Room, and Equestris, where the corned-beef-and-cabbage special goes for $14.95. There are grills and sandwich delis scattered throughout the building, work desks everywhere (don't try to claim one unless you know it's not "owned" by one of the regulars), and they even have "replay kiosks" where you can view any race run within the last three months. (The guys who use them will notice that a horse is starting slow, or charging late, and try to figure out whether it's a fluke or a flaw in the horse.)
Aqueduct is also probably the most closely regulated track in the country. After a "ringer" scandal in the sixties, they developed a horse identification system that's virtually foolproof. They have extremely tough rules about Lasix, the legal blood-clotting drug that is sometimes used to mask the use of other drugs. And the pickpockets that were once notorious at the track have been almost wholly eliminated (partly because there aren't enough bodies to warrant a hard-working thief's time).
And since Aqueduct is the toughest betting environment in America, I think the regulars take a certain pride in coming there every day to try to beat it. My own attempt went awry, though. Ceol Na Mara, my nervous filly, seemed to be startled when the starting gate swung open. She took two strides, stumbled badly, and Castellano had to point her toward the rail as she had dropped to dead last, 15 yards behind the field.
He made up that 15 yards on the first turn, then started pushing through the field along the backstretch. She obviously likes to run, and by the time they hit the second turn, she was still well back in the pack but striding easily, and Castellano was standing up, as though to hold her back.
He waited until the final turn to let her go. She responded and passed four horses, but there was not enough real estate. She finished fourth. The winner was the favorite, a gal named But, who paid a mere $4.80 to win. If Ceol Na Mara hadn't stumbled . .
Which is why you should never bet on women, especially at Aqueduct.
AQUEDUCT RACE TRACK
Rockaway Boulevard, Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y.
Theme: The last classic urban race track Opened: 1959 (original track 1894)
Total investment: $26.5 million
Known for: The blue-collar track.
Marketing niche: Serious horse players.
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Rapid
Ticket windows: Easy, plus automated self-ticketing machines
Judges: Friendly to the gambler, frequently giving refunds or consolation doubles when a race goes haywire
Slots: Coming next year
Rooms: Owners and trainers stay at the Holiday Inn JFK Airport, the JFK Plaza and the JFK Airport Hilton.
Surrounding area: Five minutes from JFK in a residential area of Queens.
Web site: nyra.com
Overall rating: 90
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $75 after trying to play with the big boys: total to date: +$175
(E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at joebob-briggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)