Friday, July 26, 2013

A Night at the Races

So, last weekend, I took my kids down to my parents house in the small river town of Martins Ferry, Ohio.

To them, it's a Shangri-La land of milk and honey where they can swim in an above-ground pool, eat sweets to their hearts content and watch endless reruns of SpongeBob Squarepants--with little or no nagging on my part. Hey, it's a vacation.

To me, my parent's house is a place where I grew up for 18 years before leaving for college. It's a place where I've made many memories - both good and bad - around every corner in almost every nook and cranny of the valley. It's a place I love to visit for nostalgia and leave due to the nostalgia.

So, what do I do when all of this nefarious gluttony is going on at my parent's house? Well, I visit my only little island of decadence, the Wheeling Downs Race Track.

I wrote about my Mother's Day visit to the track a long long time ago. One of the only other times I've visited the track was when my brother and I took my then 4-year old niece to the track to see the cute dogs (and of course gamble and drink beer on our end).

Of course, I've been to the casino, which is connected to the race track, numerous times and lost plenty of money. But never the dog track. For some strange reason, I stayed away. I'm not really sure why.

But, like the sirens to the dizzy, horny seafarers in Homer's Odyssey, the track has beckoned me time and time again .. to my demise. In fact, I've visited the race track on my last three visits to the Valley. And I've proceeded to lose money every single time as well ... including this last visit.

But, I'm learning. Oh, am I learning.

Upon entering the Downs, I bought an evening program from the cordial lady at the entrance for a small sum of $1.50. I then proceeded to the bar area and purchased a draft beer of Bud Light for $3.25.

Two minutes in and I was already $4.75 in the hole.

I glanced out to the Wheeling Downs 'scoreboard' in the middle of the track (see above picture for reference) and noticed only 9 minutes remained until the first race.

I best be getting busy.

I opened up program to Race #1 and scanned the dogs. For each race, the program has the name of each of the dog which corresponds to their official number, or placing, in the race. The #1 dog is closest to the inside of the track, while the #7 is farthest way.

Additionally, you can view details of the dogs' last six races including where they placed at each turn as well as final finish with time.

Next to those particular numbers, you can read a small recap of how the dog performed in each race (e.g. No Threat, Clipped 2nd Turn, Steady Gain, No Contender, etc).

You can also read a little bit about the owner, the kennel and what level of race said dog has raced (e.g. Grade A is a pretty good race with lots of great dogs while Grade D is not so great. At least this is what I've gleaned from watching said races. I'm probably wrong).


I won't bore you on the details of betting, but on this first race, I surmised that dogs 1, 3 and 8 were going to finish somewhere in the top.

So, I bet the 3-6 Quinella (which means if the dogs finish 1st and 2nd in any order, I win), #3 to Win and a 1, 3, 8 boxed Trifecta (which means that I'm betting 1, 3 and 8 will finish first, second or third in any order).

Total price for first race: $10

I made my bets, and with five minutes left before the race, I walked outside to get a good view of the dogs and enjoy my beer around my fellow gamblers...all eight of them.

You see, most of the gamblers were hanging out inside, smoking, drinking and jotting down endless amounts of numbers on notepads. And pretty much no one looked exactly happy because, well, this is probably their job.

And, the rest of the people? Well, they were blowing their money at the Casino.

“Racing is 10 percent of our business, and the casino is 90 percent," said Mike Meastle, Vice President of Operations at the Wheeling Casino in an article I found on, which is a sad, sad state of affairs for the track.

So, the dogs were placed in their respective bins. If you've ever seen a horse race, the bins are similar, but smaller, dog-size.

Then, the announcer shouted "Here comes spunky!"

Spunky is a white clump that's attached to metal bar that moves around the track. It's supposed to mimic a rabbit, which serves as the stimulus for the dogs to run, like Pavlov's experiments.

Back in the day when I was in high school, Spunky was actually a stuffed animal rabbit (see image above) tied onto the bar. Now it's more weather-proof and doesn't really resemble a rabbit at all ... it's shaped more like a bone than anything else. But, alas, the name still remains

In any event, as spunky comes around the metal track on the bar, you can hear the dogs barking crazily in their boxes. Then, as the rabbit rounds the final turn and gets closer to the bin, the dogs get silent. It's showtime. Time for the dogs' to earn their paycheck.

Then, they're off!

In a flash, the sleek greyhounds whizz by the grandstand. Another ten or so seconds, and they round the final turn - running approximately 548 yards (the equivalent of running around a high school track once plus an 100 extra yards) and finishing in an astonishing 30 seconds or less (depending on the conditions).

During the race, people were yelling and screaming. "C'mon, you sunnuvabitch," one older gentleman yelled. "Get in there, get in there," another lady yelled behind me. Myself? Well, I was looking at my tickets, trying to remember my bets and concentrating on which dogs were in the lead.

In the first race, the winner was #8 (Treasure Island) followed by #2 (Braska Cam) and #7 (Mulberry Adam). If you remember I picked 1, 3, 8 and 3-6 and 3 to win.

Sigh. Out 10 bucks. Plus, I spent another $3.50 on a fresh Bud Light.

I tried to look at the stats of the winning dogs and find some sort of 'tip-off' to why they won and placed the way they did. I couldn't find a rhyme or reason.

For instance the winning dog, Treasure Island (#8 dog) finished fourth, eighth, seventh, seventh, fifth and first place, respectively, in her past six races. However it's lowest grade race was an A and it's hi-grade race was a AA - which was the highest of all dogs, with the exception of the #1 dog. Food for thought as I made my next bet.

The second race, I didn't fare much better. I spent $4 on a quinella and a dog to win. And came up short. Completely missing the boat on all dogs.

The third race I blew another $10 on a quinella, a win and a trifecta box and didn't win a goddamn thing.

Finally in the fourth race, I hit paydirt. I spent $2 on a quinella, $2 for the #3 dog to win and a $2 super (which is you pick four dogs to finish in the order you picked them, high risk vs. great reward). I won on the #3 dog who finished first. He took the lead and never looked back.

I won a whopping $25. Time for another $3.50 beer.

In race five, I lost another another $8 on two separate quinellas and a $4 win ticket. "One more race," I cursed to myself.

But I wasn't really angry.

I was energized. Even though I was losing more money than winning...this was fun. More fun than sitting at a bar and watching sports, pushing a button on a slot machine or tossing some money down on a roulette table. But not more fun than hunting for Bigfoot. This was something tangible. Sure, there were odds, but it felt different. It felt like it was possible that you could win big at any time. If you did your research, anything was possible.

That said, I placed my final bet on the sixth race. I chose a $2 super, a $2 quinella and a $2 bet for the #6 dog to win. I also bought another, final Bud Light for another $3.50.

As I was waiting for the dogs to commence their race, an african-american family walked down the racing area--a husband and wife and their two older children, I would say late teens, early 20's. The lady, who looked to be in her 50's, said a nice hello to me as she stood next to me. She proceeded to pull out her schedule as her husband walked up to her.

"What do you think, honey?" he asked looking over her should and scanning the race schedule.

"I think 1,8,4,2," she said quickly and matter-of-factly.

"Mmm, hmmm," the husband nodded in agreement. "Looks good."

They took their seats in front of me on a picnic table. Just for shits and giggles, part of me wanted to run up and make her bet immediately. The other part of me scoffed. "Pfffft," I said to myself. "Wishful thinking."

Then, I glanced at my tickets and daydreamed about what I was going to do with all my winnings.

So, the race commenced. People were yelling and screaming even louder during this race. Even I yelled a couple "C'mons" and "Go's" before it was over. I believe the liquid courage was finally settling into my bones.

After the race finished, my mouth dropped at the results. The winning dogs, in order, were #1, #8, #2 and #4. If she, or myself, would have bet the boxed super at $24, we/she would have won almost $6,000.

"Damn," she cackled to her husband. "I should've played that."

"You should've honey," the husband said to her shaking his head.

I was dumbfounded. I glanced at the schedule. I glanced at the dogs. But nothing, nothing popped out that these four dogs were going to win this race as evident by my picks of 2,6,5,7, #6 to win and a 2,5 quinella.

I sighed, guzzled down my beer and shuffled over to the casino where I tried my luck on video poker--
which according to some crappy websites is noted as the third-best odds of winning behind blackjack and baccarat.

Must not be true, because I lost $10 in less than five minutes.

So, my night's GRAND TOTAL: 

4 Beers:             -$14
Program:           -$1.25
Bets:                  -$44
Video Poker:     -$10
Winnings:          +$25

TOTAL:             -$44.25

But, you know what? I didn't care. Just like hiking, going to the movies, eating a great dinner or going to an Ohio State football game ... the experience was worth every penny.

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