I have been looking for an excuse to wear my fedora. When friends from church invited us to the horse races, they assumed we had been before. They do not know I am still working through the list of things my church said we should not do for fuzzy religious reasons. Pat Robertson of 700 Club fame recently confused everyone I grew up with by buying a race horse.
We were excited to attend the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in the Triple Crown, but I really wanted to go to the horse races you see in movies set in the 1950s — racing’s “hay day,” more horse puns to follow. Instead of sitting with Jeannette, Phil, Caroline and James — delightful people though they are — I wanted to sit with Lucky, Sharkie, 8-Ball and Ice. I wanted to put on Brylcreem and carry binoculars.
I imagine old-timers hanging around the paddock to see if a horse looks tired, feisty or worried about problems at home. They scribble numbers on folded-up racing forms, make wagers based on half-baked hunches, and squander inappropriately large sums of money. They tear up losing betting slips and throw them on the ground.
Nowadays, the most successful gamblers are not at the track but at their computers analyzing statistics and running algorithms. They are thousands of miles away, making calculated bets without emotion. They might as well be trading stocks.
I wanted to place my first bet at a window with cash and a cashier who smiles when I say, “This is my first time.” The threat of sinking into the seedy underbelly of gambling is what kept my people away from the ponies. We believed one sawbuck on a longshot would inevitably lead to drinking gin from the bottle and betting the mortgage on a coin flip, but I am too old to have a mortgage.
I am ready to tempt the fates and make a foolish wager based solely on the cleverness of the horse’s name. Horses have cool names like May the Horse be with You, DoReMiFaSaLaTiDo, and A Horse with No Name. Horses get clever puns like Berneighs, Dr Neigh, and Neigh Sayer. Lucky horses get horse-related names like Buckaroo, Colt and Pepper, and Hoof Fairy. Some horses have horse names like Horse Power, Horseradish, and Gift Horse.
Horse names help us appreciate our culture — Whinny Weasley, Fifty Bales of Hay, and ZZ Trot. Horses have romantic names like Just Mare-ied, Mane Attraction, and Talk Derby to Me. Some horses receive honest names — Genuine Risk, Giant Gamble, and Need Cash Now.
Some of the best horse names celebrate famous women — Britney Spurs, Filly Eilish, Lana Del Neigh, Mane Austen, and Oprah Whinny-frey. Famous men have horse namesakes — Bradley Hoofer, Christian Haybale, Jon Bon Pony, Sylvester Stallione, and Usain Colt.
I did serious prep on the sport of kings. I watched the last five minutes of Seabiscuit, the horse that ended the depression. Tobey McGuire thinks he was the star, but Popcorn Deelites, who played Seabiscuit, clearly was the lead.
I practiced a few lines that would make me sound like an expert: “His mother was a mudder!” “He really spit the bit!” “What a chalk eating weasel!”
It took a while, but I found my fedora. Interestingly, I learned that while everyone loves the jockeys’ bright, silky shirts — and football fans often wear jerseys to the game — wearing jockeys’ silks to a race will draw attention.
“I briefly considered betting on Skippylongstocking, who met the clever name requirement.”
I briefly considered betting on Skippylongstocking, who met the clever name requirement. The favorite and eventual winner of the Belmont was Mo Donegal, but I did not bet on any favorites or winners. I ended up losing my money with Creative Minister at 6-1. I don’t feel bad about making a contribution to an industry that does not need my contribution, because anyone who names their horse Creative Minister deserves our support. He finished fifth — the highest finish for any horse I’ve ever picked. The horses on which I bet start slow, slow down, and look forward to a second career working in Central Park.
I enjoyed my day at the races. The atmosphere was more Boomer frat party than I expected — cigar smoke and booze. The women’s floral headwear was outstanding, but the men could not figure out which decade we were trying to get back to. I saw a peculiar combination of top hats, bowlers, boaters, berets, baseball caps and a surprising number of Peaky Blinders hats.
I will try to stay open to the possibilities, but I don’t feel the call to horse racing chaplaincy, which I only just learned is a real thing. I see why people love the races, but I won’t be heading back to the track any time soon. I don’t envy the guy playing hunches, the middle-aged frat boy, or the computer geek. If I feel the need to throw away more money, I will go to the grocery store while hungry.
Brett Younger serves as senior minister at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Do or donut; there is no try | Opinion by Brett Younger