Weekday racetrack regulars are a special breed. Carol Giovannetti is the breed's Secretariat. The 74-year-old North Beach bon vivant -- author of Horse Racing Fun!, a book of letters from 1970 chronicling her unrepentant love of and addiction to racetracks as she loses her job and husband -- repeats scatological jokes, tells off whomever she chooses, and amuses the end of the bar at Capp's Corner and O'Reilly's.
At Bay Meadows Racecourse in San Mateo, everyone, it seems, knows Giovannetti by name, from the ticket-taker to the maitre d'. She has the run of the place, but, when we went there together recently, she never left the Turf Club bar. Her people were there, guys with names like Jocko, Elmo, and Goofball. There was Lucky, a favorite-uncle sort who speaks like Joe Mantegna, winks when he's putting someone on, and tosses off this sort of chestnut: "Do you believe that money talks? All mine ever said was goodbye."
On our visit, Giovannetti first informed me I was a "cherry," but then, in her own inimitable way, shared the basics of betting on the horses, so I could share them with you. I learned that, well before a race begins, jockeys bring the horses from the stables to the paddock, a viewing area where they're fitted with saddles. When the bugle sounds the post parade, they're led in front of the grandstand into the starting gate. Races are measured in furlongs, each of which is 1/8 of a mile, and the distance between horses is described with the imprecise lexicon of lengths, necks, or a nose. Races usually run between 5 furlongs and a full mile, culminating in the stretch run that brings glee or frustration for the wagering crowd.
Handicapping is the ancient art of assessing the winning possibilities of a horse based on such factors as record, breeding, training, track, jockey, and so on. Most people at the track are only too happy to teach you about that art, to answer questions, and to dispense advice. Take it all, Giovannetti insists, with a chunk of salt. "Those are the old handicappers. They don't make any more than the rest of us!" she says, laughing.
Her own strategy is not as complex, and at least one I could easily master: "Whatever strikes your fancy first, play 'em!" On my first visit to the track, this Memorial Day, I expected the crowd to be a blend of cigar-chomping Burgess Meredith types and problem gamblers who used words like "moxie." Those living clichés are around, but they're dispersed amongst a kaleidoscope of tropical shirts, Indian saris, strollers, impeccably white cowboy hats, magnifying glasses, gold chains, bandages from minor surgery, and pre-Ashton Kutcher trucker caps.
In fact, until Memorial Day, traffic court had been the most multicultural gathering in my experience, but no longer. The grandstands this holiday were a fantastic cultural gumbo of lifetime horsemen, families, Filipinos, players, frat boys, Mexicans, retirees, and reprobates. There was a four-year-old in a tracksuit. A dwarf. The scene made Glide Memorial look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
As a spectator sport, horse racing is like baseball in the sense that the pace allows you to either obsess on complexities or just enjoy the social aspects. Either way, the day can be passed in bragging and bullshitting, razzing your losing friends, and washing down hot dogs with beer. It's time well spent, and it lends itself to family participation. (There's something refreshingly unwholesome about a parent explaining an exacta to a young child.)
The whole pleasant melting pot boils over in the stretch, when, regardless of your reasons for being at the track, it's just about the results. And that illustrates the truth of the matter: anyone can go to the racetrack and find fun. For Giovanetti, the track means Scotch over rocks among friends and satellite TV in the Turf Club. For three good-time gambling girls from my neighborhood and me, it was about sun and laughing in the shadow of vice. Take your pick. Or take a chance -- make it a daily double, and do both.
If Youre Going
During the summer months, the live horse-racing action takes place at the county and state fairs, which rotate around the Bay Area and beyond. Many local bars sponsor buses that take patrons to a rowdy good day of wagering at the track. (And with a bus, of course, there's no need for a designated driver.) For schedules, directions, and other information, try these Web sites:
Alameda County Fair June 25-July 6
4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton
Solano County Fair July 9-20
900 Fairgrounds Dr., Vallejo
Sonoma County Fair July 23-Aug. 4
1350 Bennett Valley Rd., Santa Rosa
San Mateo County Fair Aug. 8-17
(Live racing returns to Bay Meadows Aug. 29)
San Mateo County Expo Center (racing at Bay Meadows)
2495 South Delaware St., San Mateo
California State Fair Aug. 20-Sept. 1
Cal Expo (150 Year Extravaganza)
Exposition Boulevard, Sacramento
Placing a Bet
To place a bet at a California racetrack, give the teller your information in this order: Track, Race Number, Amount, Type of Wager, and the Number of the horse or horses you are playing.
You can bet to Win (that your horse will finish first), Place (first or second), or Show (first, second, or third).
Exotic Wagers, such as an Exacta, Quinella, Superfecta, or Daily Double are combinations of horse finishes and races. To win the Trifecta, for example, you must pick the first three finishers of a race in the exact order they come in. For the Exacta, you must pick the first two finishers, in order. You win the Daily Double if you pick the winners of two races in a row before the first of the races begins. The more unlikely and complex the bet, the greater the payout.
The wagering is known as "pari-mutuel," which means that you are not betting against the track, but instead against all the other players. Odds printed in the newspaper or racing form may change as the race draws near. Always keep your tickets until the races are ruled official, because horse or rider fouls may change the result.