One City, Ten Races, Countless Losers
There’s the old joke that Toronto only has two seasons, winter and construction. It was May 25th, and construction stopped again. I was stuck on a bus wearing a coat, having forgotten how to wear a coat on a bus. The wind cut right into you outside, but inside the 37A it was packed, and it was too hot, and a passenger was shouting at another passenger shouting at the driver, because he was hot and he wanted to get to where he was going to, and “Shut the fuck up so she can drive!” and the bus wouldn’t move because everybody was shouting.
We were all heading to the same place. There was barely anywhere else to go in the wasteland between the city and the suburbs. It’s all big chunks of land with car lots and places like the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries trying to coax God into the west end. But we were all sinners, because we were going to the track.
I grabbed a seat when the bus pulled into the station and settled in the back, with a row of old men behind me. For 45 minutes, one of them offered advice freely, even though nobody seemed to reply to anything he said. He unveiled all sorts of systems and methods. I stopped listening when he revealed, in the middle of it all, that he hadn’t “won” in 3 years.
A gentle, hollow automated voice called out, “Woodbine Race Track.” I didn’t even care about the track anymore. I just wanted out. Another asshole got in the driver’s face about being late. He had bets to make, and there was no time to get in before the first race and that was entirely her fault, which was both true and not true at the same time. Some kids sneaked in through the back door of the bus, while the driver was distracted, and tried to get their friend, who was waiting to pay, to sneak in too. “He’s such a fish,” one kid said to the other, of the law-abiding friend. I didn’t know what that meant. Maybe he called his friend a sucker. Maybe he was right. Why pay $3 for a bus that’s late?
It used to be that you didn’t need to wait on a bus for 45 minutes to get to a horse racing track. At the turn of the 20th Century, there was one deep in the west end, at Long Branch, and a few in the east end, by Thorncliff and Greenwood. They ran horses on Center Island and on the Exhibition Grounds too. Toronto was a horse racing town.
This all changed in the 50s, when the Ontario Jockey Club bought out the rest of the privately owned tracks and built Woodbine on the northwest edge of the city, in the then-new suburb of Rexdale. They were still successful and popular, but, you know, putting all the eggs in one basket, or you build, they’ll come, that sorta thinking. And, yeah, if you tear down every other place to watch a race, people will be willing to make the trip.
Toronto is no longer a horse racing town. Step right in to Woodbine and you can go right up the escalator to see the horses, but most wait in line to get their ID scrutinized for the slots. It was a good racket for a while: before, the province split the cut of the slots. Half went to the track, half to the province. Now the province is just renting the space, and keeping 100% of the slot revenue, the real money maker. Hundreds of millions of dollars ripped out of Woodbine’s hands. If you had to judge by the main floor, with its lights and excitement, you wouldn’t be too worried. Even if you took the escalator up and noticed the crowds on a Saturday and Sunday, there’d still be no hint at the trouble that’s really beneath it all. Go up another floor, though, and it’s mostly deserted, a sea of empty blue seats. The floor above that isn’t even accessible, shuttered, the escalator off.
These are not the signs of prosperity.
Earlier in the week there was a plan B. There were talks about the city getting a casino. Most were against it outright. What Woodbine offered was a compromise: expand their casino, make it the real deal instead of just slot machines. But Toronto’s city councilors spiked the deal. There will be no casino in Toronto, but that hasn’t stopped the suburbs from considering the option. And if a casino opens just next door across the city line, who will even bother with the track?
I waited in the plastic blue chairs outside, each with a uniform, spray-painted “No Smoking” sign, for my long-shot horse to lose. Her name was “Hey You, Pick Me” and I did, and immediately regretted it. That wind kept cutting sometimes and I tried to disappear into my coat, a comically long thing with the lining all shredded to hell that made me look like somebody’s grandfather or serial stalker. I was determined to watch my horse lose and when she did – badly enough that I don’t even want to divulge how badly – I made my way inside. I had 30 minutes before the next race, enough time to check the odds on the next race and see how far $2 dollars could get me.
There were a fair amount of people who stood the cold outside, but inside was where the action was. An old woman swept discarded betting stubs with a new push broom. Folks milled around a long row of cashiers, clumped up in formless groups until somebody was ready to take or redeem their bet. There were self-service betting machines, separating the pros from the casual enthusiasts. Perpendicular to them were long rows of TVs with feeds from different tracks, which one can bet on if one is feeling exotic. The crowd was more sedentary, except for one man cursing loudly at a TV. Nobody else was fazed by it. Programs were 75 cents, or, I could splurge $2.50 for a full color copy with previous race history. I laughed when the man offered it to me. “I really don’t think that’s going to help.”
The track wasn’t what I expected. This was no grimy hole. Everything looked showroom model clean. There were bachelorette parties and young men in suits and families smiling together. And children. So many damn children. Most weren’t old enough to walk. One played with his rattle on the floor between discarded racing slips. Another man carried his child in one of those slings while wearing dark sunglasses and a pink V-neck, looking all hit man chic. That’s what separated the track from the sinking, overwhelming feeling I get in casinos. Children tame the place: You can hate kids, you can feel disgusted by their presence, but you cannot be threatened by kids.
I walked up to a cashier, an older man (there were no young cashiers) in a pressed white shirt.
“$2 on number 4 to place in the next race.”
He handed me the slip. I thanked him and I went to watch the race. There were rows of seats inside, separated by a set of automatic sliding doors from the outside, but why bother coming if I wasn’t going to watch it from the stands? There were stairs heading down, on track level, but I liked where I was. There was a sense of perspective, and scope.
I got out in time to see the horses walk the inner dirt track and I already knew that if my pick ran as well as she walked, I had pissed away another $2. When the horses were on the final bend before the starting post, one horse, Bangla Dancer, broke from the pack and ran in the other direction. The jockey tried to get her under control, but she kept going. They showed her on the jumbotron, a chain gang fugitive who wanted out. The announcer delivered the news: She was out of the race. In unison, men all over the track bolted up and trotted inside to change their bets.
She slowed down, of course. I looked out to the highway on one side, and the power lines and leering high rises on the other. Maybe she realized there wasn’t anywhere to go.
On my way to place my bet on race 4, (yet another dud), I saw that Blue Jays were losing 6-3 to the Orioles. There was a young man passing by, and he shook his head, just like I had a few seconds before.
This was supposed to be our year.
We all said it. “This is gonna be our year!” We said it the way we say it every year, except this time there was something to back it up. New players, new blood, new team. This was going to be the Blue Jays’ year.
That optimism is long gone. Hope is a dangerous thing to leave in somebody else’s hands. Toronto learns that again and again, every year.
Toronto has always been a hockey town. Unlike horse racing, it never fell out of favor. The last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup was in 1967, but you wouldn’t know it by the crowds that show up at every game and are willing to pay at least $60 for the worst seats in the house.
Just a month before we were in the NHL playoffs (It’s always “we”, not “them”, not “The Leafs”, but “we”). We had forced a seventh game in the series. And everybody you spoke to said, “Well, it was a good run, but we’re not getting much further than this.” We said that after every game. 2004 was the last time the Leafs were in the playoffs. We had learned not to get our hopes up.
But then a funny thing happened.
We went into the 3rd period, up 4-1 against Boston. We were the lock. This was it. We were going to the next round. This was going to be our year, and we all believed it. There was no way we could lose. To blow a 3 point lead with one period left would be both tragic and humiliating.
The game ended with Boston winning in overtime.
And overnight it was no longer “we.”
I moved up a floor. There were no kids there. I didn’t see any cashiers, just self-serve betting machines: this was for people who took this seriously and wanted to be removed from the crowd. It had the hushed air of people quietly concentrating, like a bank in the middle of the day. I fit in as well as I fit in downstairs, which is to say I didn’t. If downstairs was the family fun center, this was the dreary office where people worked.
One of the favorites in the next race was named Aldous Snow. I was disappointed that somebody who had enough money to own a horse also thought it was a good idea to name it after a minor character in the Judd Apatow cosmology. I always thought horse racing was the sport of kings, but you couldn’t even drink and smoke in the same spot. Not that I could afford either: I dragged cans and bottles accumulated through the long winter down to the Beer Store earlier that week. It gave me a little something, but anything aside from lunch was going to have to come from my winnings, and I wasn’t winning.
How many people really were? Rexdale is one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city. It’d take somebody smarter than me to figure out the exact relationship between poverty and the racetrack, but even I could tell that it wasn’t helping. Woodbine talked a big game about how an expanded casino would bring in new jobs, but how many of them would go to locals? Would the community get back more than it would spend at the casino? I started to think about what would happen if Woodbine closed its doors. Aldous Snow would race somewhere else. The professionals around me would go to an off-track betting place downtown. And the downstairs crowd would wait for the suburban casino, where they can shout over a craps’ table instead of in my ear. And I’d have beer money instead of another losing ticket.
The races are defined by the numbers. They’ve got their position. They’ve got their odds. They’ve got your bet. Show me the 6th race again without those numbers and you’ll lose me. Instead I intently watched the odds fluctuate and warp before the race based on the ebb and flow of bets. They didn’t change too much here. By the time the race is finished, most don’t seem to have any tether to reality in the first place. The odds makers who set the morning line want to tell one story, and most of us bet on it.
Odds going into the race
1. Strut the Course 3/5
2. I’m a Kittyhawk 19
3. Nahima 13
4. Rootham Triple E’s 3
5. Pipers Future 6
6. Reel Good Movie 50
7. Seaboa 18
I bet on Pipers Future to be in the top 3. Even at that margin I’d make more on that bet than if I went with Strut the Course, who was the lock. Plus Luis Contreras, the jockey on Pipers Future, was on a solid tear all day. It was a conservative bet, but, in the hole already, a bit of restraint would do.
They did their walk around the track and got into the starting posts.
“And they’re off!”
Nahima and Rootham Triple E’s started strong, but I knew by then that that meant shit. I’m a Kittyhawk and Reel Good Movie worked their way into 3rd and 4th. My horse was second last. Strut the Course, the favorite, was last.
Right before the bend it looked to stay that way until Strut the Course came fast from the outside. She went from last to 3rd. Rootham’s kept a good lead while everybody else was getting out of the fishhook into the last straightaway. I’m a Kittyhawk got into second. Strut the Course was third. Pipers Future, my horse, gained ground, cracking the top four.
The four men in front of me got up for the last stretch, like they do for every race. I get up to and craned my next to the side.
I’m a Kittyhawk, the 19-1 long shot, gave a final push, closed the gap in the last few yards, and inched right in. It was over, she got it. Rootham was in her dust. Pipers Future pushed ahead of Strut the Course to cinch 3rd.
The clear favorite, by a wide margin, Strut the Course, came in a close 4th.
I went downstairs to check out the slots, and mostly regretted it. The dude scanning the ID took his job way too seriously and took four minutes scrutinizing my Portuguese citizenship card, a piece of ID that has gotten me into a few casinos just fine. I told the angry guys waiting behind me that it must be my boyish looks. They rolled their eyes and said, “Yeah, right.” I spent more time in line than I did in the casino. Everything felt so claustrophobic. I went from the wide, open track to a dim hole that was crowded with people and lights and noises.
I knew my meager winnings wouldn’t be enough for a drink or a smoke, just another bet. So I put one down on Bobcaygeon which at 3-1 was another conservative bet. It was a nasty little race: One horse bumped into another near the end, calling the 2nd and 3rd place into question, which didn’t matter to me much because Bobcaygeon came in 4th. They played that footage over and over again, but nobody cared.
One horse, the 20-1 long shot Hitec Dave, went from second to last because she tripped on the bend. She didn’t fall, but the wind got sucked out of us all the same. All the cheering and name calling and screaming stopped. Nobody wanted to really think about what Hitec Dave tripping would mean. She hobbled off the track with no assistance. The next race would be delayed while she got looked over. I didn’t feel like sticking outside and seeing birthday wishes pop up on the jumbotron.
I walked past the TVs playing races in other places.
Lone Star, Belmont Park
My roommate texted me. Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, gave a bizarre, meandering interview. He denied the allegations that came out earlier that day in the Globe & Mail, that he was a mid-level hash dealer in his youth, selling to other rich kids in the well-off west-end enclave he lived in.
This is coming at the worst time for the Fords: There is – allegedly – a video of the mayor smoking crack. I checked the news every day, trying to suss out how each new bit of information fit into the grand scheme of this Elmore Leonard-esque farce. There was the buffoonish conservative mayor, liked in the suburbs and loathed in downtown. He has a fuzzy history with substance abuse – an old charge of possession of pot in Miami, a few second-hand stories about his drunkenness in public events. He also has a history of denial. He handled this whole thing in the most inept way possible: he waited five days to address the video and then gave a carefully worded statement about it, and left before taking questions.
This is also the story about – again, allegedly – of Somalian drug dealers not too far from where I was sitting in Rexdale. About people who wanted to sell the video to a news source for $200,000. It was shown off to the US site Gawker, who broke the story, and to the Toronto Star, a paper with a known vendetta against Ford. Gawker was trying to crowdsource the money to buy the video. The drug dealers served a lot of A-listers in the city, but this was going to be the big score: They could retire and move out west and burn the bridges behind them.
Churchill Downs, Pimlico
Almost everybody in Toronto is from somewhere else. Whether you’re an immigrant from Somalia or somebody from Oakville, just two towns over. Maybe they came for work, maybe to get away from something, maybe just to start somewhere else. But when you move to a city, things change. People don’t know you. You get a fresh start, and there is a definitive break in your life.
Those of us who grew up in the city and stayed in it don’t have that freedom. If you’ve been in a place all your life, then all your mistakes are also there. Every place takes on a layer of memory, until the city becomes a topography of emotional resonances. I almost think that if it was revealed that Doug Ford was a drug kingpin in Vancouver and then moved to Toronto, it’d be less of a big deal. Geography has a way of working with time to smooth things out.
But I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for this drug dealer, whose friend may have been shot, who wants to escape the city and have that luxury of starting new again. No matter how you feel about drug dealing, we can at least understand why somebody would want to move away from that.
It gets even fuzzier too: I didn’t know then, as the news came out recently, that the owner of the video faced intense pressure from the Somalian community. The community has ties with Ford – he has been their councilor for years before he was the mayor – and that connection probably also allowed that first contact between Ford and the drug dealers. But the rest of the community all came to Canada to get a fresh start too, for their own reasons, and here was somebody who was compromising that chance. They are Canadians too.
Mohawk, Finger Lakes
If all of this is true, then Rob Ford stands in the middle as a sort of grim fable. He keeps making the same mistakes, drawing connections from his personal history. There is no fresh start, no clean break: The Rob Ford who was caught with a joint ten years ago is the Rob Ford who smoked crack in Rexdale. The Rob Ford who denied shouting at a family at a hockey game is still the Rob Ford who denies a video even exists. There is no progression, no contrition, no break. He becomes less a man, and more a set of mistakes repeating over and over again.
I was exhausted and broke. A ticket was firmly clutched in my hand. The race was over. My horse, Apostolic, pulled in at the last second for a possible 3rd place finish. It was a photo finish and it went up to review. I stood, barely aware that I was standing, watching the same last few seconds play over and over again.
The verdict was reached. Apostolic was 4th. I stood there waiting. If I stood long enough, maybe it’d change.
I walked to the cashier to redeem my ticket for the 6th race, and she handed me $4.70. It’s not nothing, but it barely covered half of lunch. At the next wicket was an older man with his two adult children, a man and a woman. He was cashing in a bet too. He split the cash with them, and his son stepped forward to place another bet. His father laughed and turned to his daughter.
“You know what they say about a fool and his money, ya?”
He laughed again and turned to the cashier, “You know what da’ say about a fool and his money, don’t ya?”
I saw the end of a soccer game on one of the TVs. There were men in red shirts, on the grass, their faces contorted, tears in their eyes. It cut to men in yellow jerseys and they were hugging, and crying, and their faces were red and swollen. There was no box on the screen, no way to tell who won and who lost.
I took one last look at everything: I looked at the old men in off-the-rack suits giving thorough once overs at the pretty girls walking by. I saw young men high five and taunt their friends with their cash. I saw the guru trance of a man willing his horse to win in a race down at Belmont. I saw a young girl at the food court overcharge somebody else. I saw the crew of janitors come out yet again to sweep away the previous races losers. I saw rows of TVs with dozens of horses asynchronously running around tracks, playing over and over in loops.
I thought about putting everything on Power Phil, my namesake, on the last race. He’d win and I’d have some cash in my pockets, beating the house when it’s down. But I just didn’t feel like betting on myself.
Power Phil won without me just fine. I just wanted to get back on the bus.
Follow Filipe on Twitter @philthe25th.