Me and Three
By John M. Haughey
Once again, I was standing at the rail at Philadelphia Park racetrack, trying to will the horse I had bet on to get to the finish line.
He had broken first from the gate, and led every step. Now as he was coming into the stretch, still two lengths to the good, as usual I lost all conscious control over my vocal chords. “Come on with this three!” The words clear your mouth before you realize you’ve spoken. We all bet using the program numbers, no one remembers or cares about the horses’ names.
Now, a few steps later, he is visibly beginning to tire. “Come on three! Have something left! Keep him going!” It was no use. Number three’s strides were shortening, and with more than an eighth of a mile to go, two horses rushed past him on the outside. It was then that I heard Jack’s voice bark in from a few steps to my left. “Crooked motherfuckers!”
Jack was on the short side and looked sixty, but was probably ten years younger. He had a Viceroy hanging from his lips. As he shouted, people began to move away from him, but he didn’t notice. He glanced towards me, said “I told you that three was a piece of shit!” and continued to mutter expletives under his breath as he turned away.
He was scribbling something incomprehensible in his program as he headed back inside the building. Like most of us at the track, Jack’s a half-loner. He comes alone, bets alone, and curses alone. But he hasn’t completely lost his grip on social intercourse. He’ll nod a hello to those he recognizes. If he sees you often enough, he may try to find out your first name. He’ll even have a conversation just long enough to tell you how he got screwed yesterday by some horse or jockey. These conversations never get to the “how's your wife?” point. He doesn’t care, and doesn’t pretend to. His eyes go quickly back into the dark agate of the Daily Racing Form.
I stood at the rail for a few moments watching the horses gallop out, then headed inside. The bar was crowded, but I spotted an empty stool next to Jack, and quickly moved for it before it disappeared. “Anybody here, Jack?” He answered without looking up from his program. “Nah, go ahead.” “I’m goin’ to hit the head, hold the stool, okay?” I said to him as I placed my folded Racing Form on the stool. Jack nodded and I walked quickly around the corner of the bar to the back wall of the track, near the saddling area. I pushed open the men’s room door, and saw him. He was standing at the urinal with his front hooves planted a good ten feet up the wall. (What the hell was his name?) A bit overwhelmed, I slowly approached a spot two urinals down and mustered up the only polite comment I could.
“Tough beat, Three,” I said. He glanced in my direction and exhaled briskly. “Yeah, thanks.” His baritone voice came from deep inside his long neck and made the exposed plumbing vibrate. I was hoping for this awkward encounter to end quickly just as he looked back at me and said “Hey. I saw you down on the rail. You bet on me?”
He fluttered his big horse-lips and began to shake his head back and forth. “Man, I’m sorry. I keep telling them not to put in these mile and an eighth deals. Keep it short I tell them. But no.” He continued in an exaggerated mocking style, “I’m ‘bred to go long’ they tell me.” “Don't apologize,” I told him. “I’m a grown-up, I know how it works.” He nodded. I was zipping up when a familiar loud voice startled me from behind.
Three and I turned our heads to see Jack’s accusing finger. Three rolled his huge eyes up to the ceiling, saying calmly, “Oh Jesus, not this guy.”
“You crooked son of a bitch!” Jack could have shouted profanity for hours without once repeating himself. I quickly moved to him, putting a hand on his shoulder gently nudging him towards the door.
“Take it easy, Jack,” I was begging.
“Take it easy? What did I tell you about this piece of crap?”
God only knew what might happen if I didn’t get him out of there. I tightened my grip on his shoulder. “Jack, calm down. Look, go back to the bar and wait for me. I’ll be out in a minute and buy you a beer.”
Jack was incredulous. “Wait at he bar? What the hell you think I came in here for? I gotta piss like a race-horse.”
I waited a moment for him to see the humor in what he’d just said. He never did.
“Jack, be a big boy and hold it, okay? I’ll be out in a minute,” I said, pushing a bit harder. He grudgingly stepped to the door, shooting a quick dagger glance at Three on the way out.
I turned to find Three on all fours, facing me. “I’m sorry about Jack, I think he’s having a bad day.” It wasn’t much, but it was all I had.
Three shrugged. It’s sort of hard to describe exactly how he communicated a shrug, but he did. “Look,” he said, “you seem like a decent guy, I’m going to help you out.”
“Yeah.” he replied. “I've got a girl, and she’s running in the ninth race. Her name is I’m Smokin’. By the way that name is pretty fitting if you know what I mean.”
“Anyway,” he went on, “I saw her last night, and she is fast in more ways than one, if ya get what I’m saying”
“Okay. Thanks,” I replied, “I’ll check her out.”
He suddenly tensed up and became indignant. I could see his powerful muscles rippling thought his sweat-soaked coat. “You’ll what? What do you mean you’ll ‘check her out’?”
Now, this 2,000-pound animal was staring me down like Mike Tyson, and I was starting to tremble. How was I going to explain, without insulting him, that I was revolted by the idea of dating a horse?
“Uh...look, I just meant maybe I’ll bet on her. I didn’t….”
“Relax,” he interrupted, “I’m kidding. I know what you meant.”
“Could you get the door?” he asked, waving his right front hoof in the air to demonstrate his lack of fingers. “I got kind of a...thing here”
“Oh! Yeah sure.” I held the door for him watched him walk out past the paddock towards the backstretch.
I bought Jack that beer, and let him in on the I’m Smokin’ tip, but he wasn’t having it. “You believe what that pig told you? You saw him stop like he was shot in midstretch and you’re going to buy his line?” I didn’t see the connection, but like most of us at the track, Jack didn’t always see things logically. I’m Smokin’ won the last race at odds of eight to one. I broke even for the day.
John M Haughey lives in Philadelphia and is a tough-as-nails P.I. with a heart of gold.
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