Saturday, December 22, 2012


by Mark Cramer
   Sometimes, associating two extraneous images leads to a discovery. I recalled that for Tim Herboth and his wife Tracy (TDN Blog, 17 Dec) an integral part of the adventure of visiting tracks around the world was getting there by public transportation, and sometimes even getting lost. Then, I saw the name Bowie on the list of the 86 race tracks attended by Bill Finley.
   This association of two isolated points took me back to my teenage years. For a date with a girlfriend, we were to take the special race track bus from New York to Bowie, Maryland, during the winter of discontent when no racing was available anywhere northeast of Bowie. It was a thrill to be with a cheery girl on a two-hour bus ride, far away from home-town errands, where parents and school were not intervening.
   I already had lots of experience taking the race track bus from the Flushing, Queens subway station to Aqueduct. There were two separate cultures on those bus rides. On the way to the Big A it was a lively crowd, brimming with optimism, with good-natured exchanges on who you liked and who you didn't like, resembling the tropical joy of life I would later experience in the Caribbean.
Daumier's `The Second-Class Carriage'
   On the way back, there would be a brooding silence, and the one or two people who had won that afternoon would not dare display their joy amidst such commiseration. I felt I was inhabiting a Daumier etching called "The second-class bus."
   Same people round trip but on the way to the track you were in one country and on the way back in another.
   My recollection of the old train to Del Mar is similar. Poet and horseplayer Charles Bukowski took that train. In his poem On the Train to Del Mar, he speaks with the dining car bartender:
the bartender sees that / I am feeling good / he smiles a real smile and / asks- / "How's it going?" /
how's it going? my heels are down / my shoes cracked / I am wearing my father's pants and he died / ten years ago / I need 8 teeth pulled / my intestine has a partial blockage / I puff on a dime cigar /
   "Great," I answer him.
   (An example of on-the-way-to-the-track levity.)
   My girlfriend and I shared a sense of cozy independence on the way to Bowie, which I wanted to somehow preserve for the way back. I hit the winner in the first race, for a modest profit. Then I changed my plan for the day, radically. With my teen-age bankroll I had been used to betting a minimal amount on each race. But this time, I took insurance for the return trip, by deciding to keep the profit and pass all the remaining races. We shared the Thoroughbred spectacle, the peacefulness of the walking ring, the colorful silks, the poetry of horses galloping. We rooted for dead heats.
   It was the first time I'd ever passed a race, and I passed eight of them. You could call it "compulsive non-gambling." My compulsion was the deep desire to preserve the same atmosphere for the return bus ride.
   So here's my proposal. People are not attending the races these days. They are staying home, betting on line. The weekday Santa Anita grandstand, today a graveyard, used to be thriving. Bukowski would be sitting there, in the last section above Clockers' Corner. Today, that section is closed off.
   So why not fill the grandstands again, by reviving the special race track buses and when geographically possible, race track trains? Some folks get burned out driving to the track. Who needs the 405 to Hollywood Park or the Foothill Freeway to Santa Anita. Even in Maryland, where it was a pretty 26.2 mile drive through rolling farmland from my Gaithersburg home to Laurel, I eventually burned out from the frequent drive.
Mickey's Dining Car would be a natural stop for Mark
Cramer's racetrack bus.
   On the bus or the train, you can read the racing form, do some handicapping. So it's time gained, not lost. The special race track buses I am proposing could take the freeway, making turn-offs at strategic stops, at park-and-rides, at senior housing complexes, at Metro stations. In LA the designated bus could begin at its Spanish-style Union Station; in DC, also at its own classic Union Station; in Saint Paul, Minnesota, at Mickey's Diner: all great places for a late breakfast. Then relax with the pps all the way to Santa Anita, Laurel, Canterbury.
   Or you could have less practical more historic pick-up places: Three-Mile Island for Penn National, John Brown's statue at Harper's Ferry for Charles Town, Haymarket Square in Chicago for Arlington.
   So let's bring people back to the only place in the world where everyone gets the same odds, where one can remain oblivious to natural and man-made catastrophes, and even forget intestinal disorders and upcoming visits to the dentist: the race track. 

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