Life on the rail

Updated: December 17, 2000, 3:10 AM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com
The rail is a pretty special place at the horse races. Let me tell you what I found out there the other day. The same thing as I found five years ago. And three years before that. And two before that. That's one of the things that makes the rail special, the consistency. The rail is like the Route 66 or horse racing. The Jockey Club is the Autobahn. A bar is the freeway. The rail is a colorful back road. You don't find a large cross-section of humanity out there. When last I was at the rail, I observed three single women nearby. One was a trainer. One was a window clerk on a break. One appeared to have just walked away from her boyfriend, mad. The man-woman couples seen at the rail are usually tourists and they dont stay long. You don't find a lot of serious handicappers at the rail because of the view, which is limited. When the horses go behind the tote board, it's like a black hole. It seems to take forever to get them out the other end. It's a strange time at the rail -- the horses blast out of the gate and the excitement is wild. And then they disappear behind the tote board and the railbird's time is at once reflective. Oh Lord. One break. It's all I ask. And then the horses run from behind the tote board and its hysterical again. Even the view right in front of your nose can be pretty confusing. They're way up there. They're here! A question frequently heard at the rail is: Who won? There's not a lot a person can do with newspapers and Forms and documents and calculators out at the rail. Traveling light is best, a rolled-up Form in one back jeans pocket, a program in the other. Put something down at the rail only if you dont want it back. What you can see really well are the horses and jockeys and trainers. And these close-ups can be invaluable. From a comfortable chair with a soft seat and arm rests, you can't always tell lame from game, even on a television screen. So sometimes what you find are big-time handicappers in khakis rushing to the rail for a look at the health of the animals and then scurrying back to the security of a club. Closely studying the behavior of humans from a handy spot at the paddock and then from the rail can be helpful. Bad-acting people don't put out nice horses on a regular basis. Betting at the windows closest to the rail can be an adventure. When you fly a propeller job on a commuter hop, your flight attendant is not apt to have tenure. The most experienced hands will be working the flights to Paris. Similarly, the most skillful people working the windows at the races would probably want to be where it was close to 72 degrees and closer to people in jackets, the good tippers. The rail is where the gamblers who could use some money can be found. Once the general admission tab has been settled, the rail is free. It's hot dog and beer territory. It's us against the house. People who wouldn't socialize anywhere else become friendly at the rail. "Who do you like in the last race?" a man asked me when last I spent a day outside and down front. I took my Form from where I had rolled and tucked it in a chain-link fence and looked at some notes I had made and informed him of my selection, a horse that was 10-1 when he asked. It can get a little grim out front, before the last race  all the beer cups and non-negotiable tickets, every step, it's like a dream is crunched beneath your feet. I told the man standing beside me who I liked and he thanked me. "It's my last two dollars," he said, reaching into a front pocket. "Wait," I said. Last two dollars. Nothing like a little pressure to end the day. So we went back at the Form and went over every line and number and tossed out my 10-1 original pick, which would have gone better with your first two dollars, not your last, and we settled on $2 to place on something like the fourth choice in the race. It won and my pal made a profit of more than $4! "I wish I would have bet it to win," the fellow said solemnly. And that is one of the things you hear in every corner at the races.

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