Tuesday, February 26, 2013


by Mark Cramer
Having failed to sire a horse race handicapper after having produced four "runners", I see my last chance with my grandson, Zane. So around his fourth birthday, I took him to Santa Anita, the beginning of a last attempt to pass on the flame.

The M section of the grandstand, where I used to hang out on most racing days two decades ago was now nearly empty, even though this was a Sunday of a holiday weekend with perfect weather in the low 70s. In the past, we needed to leave a newspaper to hold a seat. Not necessary any more: you can come and go as you wish and you’ll always have some space waiting for you.
Zane and Mark in their seats in section M
I went up to the press box and asked DRF handicapper Brad Free if he had sired any handicappers. His three offspring are all running successfully, but in different endeavors, far from the track. I asked a few other guys up there, and none of them had sired a handicapper. Brad Free was well-positioned to encourage his kids, having won a $40,000-plus pick six and having used a chunk of the winnings for a family vacation. Today, children don’t know that french fries come from a farm, that iPad games come from a vast and complex infrastructure, and that an exciting vacation sometimes comes from a score at the track. (I'm sure Brad made sure his kids knew.)  

I decided to take Zane to every corner of Santa Anita, to immerse him in the culture. After all, in so many families, livelihoods are passed on from one generation to another. You can see this with the Romneys, the Kennedys, the Gores, and the Bushes. 

I took him to the paddock. “Why can’t I ride the horse?” he asked. Good question. Perhaps racetracks could use pony rides to attract the kids.  

Mark and Zane meet Summers Dignity.
I took him to the stables. He was able to meet Robby Peterson, former jockey, who has worked for 54 years on the backside of Santa Anita. Zane met one of the Thoroughbreds under Robby’s care, in Scott Craigmyle’s barn, a two-year-old named Summers Dignity. Zane had a chance to witness a partnership between human and horse, between an elder and a youngster, and his eyes lit up when he petted the horse.

Immediately following a race, I took him to see the losing horses being walked back to the stable. More grooms, mostly Mexicans, worked with horses with dust caked on their faces after a stint of work.
Mark and Zane watch the losing horses walking back to the barns.
There was not much time to read the Racing Form, but I did teach Zane the meaning of “finish line” (not an easy concept), and then had a winner at 3-1 and took him to collect, sharing a piece of the profits, which some child psychologists might consider bribery.

In fact, it wasn’t a bad crowd out there, but there was lots of space and no lines to make a bet. Where were all the racing fans?

Here’s what I think. Among the many reasons for the decline in on-track ambiance is a shift in culture, a change from being reflective to hyperactivity. Once upon a time, we had nine races and no simulcasting, and a half hour between races. In the M section, that half hour seemed to move by a little too quickly, but it was still uncluttered time, something we don’t seem to have or want these days. The race track was a place to hang out, but today, hanging out makes folks nervous, makes them feel unproductive. In fact, squeezing too many activities into one’s life may actually dilute the pleasure that comes from savoring the few things we truly cherish. But who has time to think about that?

So as soon as Zane is old enough to really understand what a horse race is all about, and how reflecting on past performances is a creative process, I intend to take him back to Santa Anita, letting him think inventively during the half hour between races. This may not inspire him to adopt racing as an avocation, but it might be good for his development, including learning the great rewards of idle thought.

According to Dr. Michael Ungar, “Children who experience a lack of programmed activity are given an opportunity to demonstrate creativity, problem solving, and to develop motivational skills that may help them later in life. Are we really doing our children a service by removing quiet, unstructured time from their lives?” (“Let Kids be Bored {Occasionally},” Psychology Today, June 24, 2012)

Today’s conditioned need for instant gratification is better served by on-line wagering than relaxing at the track and watching the San Gabriel Mountains frame the backstretch as the horses load into the starting gate. Just as our children are disconnected from the sources of their fried potatoes and iPad distraction, horseplayers are increasingly removed from the horses they bet on and the thoughtful patience that got those horses into the race.

I imagine it’s not our fault. We have been duped into believing that a whole afternoon of glorious idleness is immoral. 

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