Thursday, June 26, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Glued To The Tube: Two walls lined with televisions keep Race Place patrons abreast of the action.
I laughed the first time I saw an advertisement for the Monterey Race Place. The pamphlet showed a color photograph of an extremely happy group of middle-aged people sitting at a table while staring at a wall of television screens that would give Circuit City a run for its money. Over the photograph was a caption telling the reader to experience the heart-pounding excitement of horseracing right in downtown Monterey. Since I wanted to experience that kind of excitement and more, I went to the Race Place on Kentucky Derby Day, the biggest race of the year.
Walking into the building, located at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, I can literally feel the body heat from the other 650 handicappers. All of the seats face one of two walls filled with regular- and jumbo-sized television screens.
Most of the seats are taken, so, ducking down like a latecomer at a movie theater, I scoot down the row until I see a friendly face. It turns out to be Monterey artist Andrew Jackson, who informs me that he is a big fan of the Race Place.
"I''ve been coming here about seven years," says Jackson. "I think it''s the funnest (sic) thing to do in Monterey."
Since I am a real novice at this betting thing, I ask him for advice. "Two dollar bets until it grabs a hold of you," he says.
I decide to collect a little more advice before placing a wager, so I head over to an older gentleman, hoping he will take me under his wing. I end up with Charlie R. Mills, an animated man with an "I Love Fishing" hat perched on his gray head. For some reason, he tells me to call him Charlie the Tuna.
Mills cracks me up with his take on the horses in the Derby. "When you get a shoeshine for ten cents, that''s a good deal," he says, referring to a horse named Ten Cents a Shine. Mills ends up leaving me with some simple, valuable advice; "With no luck, no win."
Maybe I should get a woman''s advice before I put my five bucks on a steed. I find Susan Hayes on my way to place a wager. At first she pretends not to know much about horseracing, but after a few minutes, I wish I could take notes faster.
Her take on the Derby? "It''s not a good bet," she says. She explains that the horses are too inexperienced and that there are too many on the track to make any bet a "safe" one.
Since she seems to know a lot, I hit her up for a real tip. "My advice to a novice is to stay at home," she says. But since I am already here, I need something a little more than that. "If a name pops out at you, bet on it," she offers.
I put five bucks on a horse called Ten Most Wanted. While waiting for the race to begin, I walk over to the front desk where I see a dark-haired woman wearing a manager''s pin.
I imagine her becoming angry when I tell her I am writing a story on the Race Place. I imagine the owner not returning my calls, because he thinks I am doing an expose on shady gaming operations. I wonder what my new name will be when I join the Witness Protection Program.
Actually, the woman just tells me I should "talk to Gary," and then asks if I am having a good time. She keeps blinking at me; at first I think she wants to confirm that we have an understanding. Later, I suspect that she is probably just a friendly person with some troubling contact lenses.
I find "Gary"--supervisor Gary Peasley, that is--who tells me the Race Place is not owned by a shadowy mob boss (too bad, that would have made a great story), but is run by the county to generate revenue for fairground operations. "It is one of the tools they started to make the fairgrounds self-sustaining," he says.
Suddenly, a voice comes over the loudspeaker announcing one minute to post. I find a seat next to yet another elderly man and stare up at the wall of televisions.
When the horses leave the gate, there is a burst of applause, and then the roars of the Race Place crowd drown out the loudspeaker. A frail-looking woman pounds the table with unexpected ferocity. After a little more than two minutes, the race ends with Funny Cide proclaimed the winner, and I am left staring up at the screen, waiting for more.
This horse race business is a lot like teenage sex: plenty of anticipation for a couple minutes of action.
Before leaving, I stop by the table where Mills is seated to see how he fared. It sounds like he won a few bucks, but he''s putting the money toward another beer.
"Would you like to see my pride and joy?" he asks. Sure, I say, imagining that he''ll pull out a wallet-sized photograph of a fuzzy-haired grandchild. Instead, he hands me a card featuring two bottles of cleaning supplies, one labeled "Pride" and the other labeled "Joy."
What a guy.
The Monterey Race Place, 2004 Fairgrounds Rd., Monterey, is open Wednesday through Sunday. Call 372-0315.