Like many children who spend time at the track with their family, author David Hill learned a lot while studying past performances (Photos courtesy Eclipse Sportswire).
When I was in my early twenties I dated a rich girl from New England. We got along great, she was smart and attractive and funny, and we seemed to share a lot of the same interests. Everything was going swell until one fateful day when we were driving down the street and passed an OTB. A man was walking out holding a racing form in one hand and holding a little boy's hand with his other.
"That's awful," she frowned. "Taking a child to a place like that. That poor little boy."
That was our last date.
It cut me pretty deep because when I saw the man and his little boy walking out of the OTB, I didn't see something awful or worthy of pity or scorn. I saw a father and son spending time together. I saw myself with my own father, tickled pink, so happy to be getting attention from him and even happier to be learning an interesting and exciting game. My dad used to tell people that I learned to read from reading the Daily Racing Form. It was only half-right. I had already learned to read by the time he started teaching me how the Daily Racing Form worked when I was nine. But I did learn a lot about math trying to calculate how fast a horse ran each furlong in the workouts tab; not to mention figuring out the fractions on the tote-board odds. There's no better way to learn arithmetic than trying to calculate how much money you stand to win if your horse comes in.
EVEN THE LITTLEST FAN ENJOYS TIME AT THE TRACK
But I'm not making the case for the educational value of horserace handicapping here. I'd rather make the case for the value the game has to families. I grew up out at the racetrack. It was always a part of my family, something we did together, and factored in to our relationships with one another and who we were. I wrote about this phenomenon about family and racing in Grantland last year. And the writer David Roth wrote about it recently after the Belmont Stakes for SB Nation. It's a trope that's well-trod territory for sure. Especially given how these days the sport is mainly something handed down from generation to generation within racetracker families, as opposed to a sport with the appeal among the general public it once held.
I suspect that the woman I was dating who took such pity on the little boy leaving the OTB had actually been to an OTB before. They aren't always fun places. They are filled with gamblers of all stripes, and that runs the gamut from well-heeled and dignified to down-on-their-luck and desperate. But the game is the game. You can watch a baseball game in the seediest of watering holes, or you can spend a day at the ballpark. And even then, you could choose to judge a day at the ballpark by the rowdiest and rudest fans, or you can judge it by the families that show up with gloves for foul balls and scorecards for playing along and posterity. The game is the game.
I have two children of my own now. One is three and the other is nine months old. My wife never spent a day at a racetrack before she met me. And she likely would have shared my old girlfriend's judgment of the father and son at the OTB. But over time as a young couple, tagging along with me to Saratoga or Oaklawn or Fairgrounds or Del Mar, she learned to appreciate the unique charm and the rich experience of the racetrack. When we started our family, we made trips to the track a part of our tradition. Our son was at the Travers when he was only three months old. We brought along some friends and their small child as well, and they've been yearly guests of ours at the Spa ever since.
HILL AND SON GUS AT THE 2013 BELMONT STAKES
Photo courtesy David Hill
One racetrack that is especially suited to families with kids is Belmont. The backyard at Belmont has a duck and turtle pond, two pristine playgrounds, and during the summer has a weekly children's day with clowns, petting zoos, bouncing castles, face painting, music, and other entertainment for kids.
On a recent trip to the track with my family we met a number of other families of small children at the playground. They all shared similar stories with us.
"My parents brought me out here when I was three years old," said Michelle, the mother of three-year-old Cailyn. Cailyn was sharing her ponies with my son on the ground near the playground as we chatted. "We brought Cailyn out here when she was two months old."
"If you count time in the womb then she was at Saratoga, too." added John, her father.
"This sport is great for the kids," says Travis, whose two kids are older, but not too old to chase each other around the playground. "I got him a horse on a stick when he was little," Travis says about his older son. "He used to say he wanted to be a jockey."
"They love the horses," says Michelle.
"And the playground makes it easier," says John. "Because we love to bet. So we can take turns watching the kids and making bets."
He was right. The playground certainly made things easier for parents with kids. It was far away from the racetrack, but close enough to the betting windows. I didn't see any contradiction, honestly. The majority of fans at the track that sunny afternoon were in the backyard, soaking up the sunshine, eating with their friends and families at long picnic tables, watching the races on TV screens. You don't have to be next to the animals to be in the game. And at Belmont, you're never too far from a horse. From the horses walking from the paddock area to the ponies' stables, the horses are everywhere.
"I hope my kids bring me here when I get old," says Travis.
"You mean to the playground?" I joke.
"Sure!" he yelps. "Hopefully that means I got grandkids!"