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Scott Ostler

For the Railbirds, No Free Sweaters--and Not Many Winners

November 22, 1987|Scott Ostler

The railbirds. They arrive early at Hollywood Park on Breeders' Cup day, staking out their favorite positions near the rail, getting into the rhythm of the day, sniffing the air and the tout sheets for winners.

They pay $2.75 to get in, and if they're lucky, they get a free Breeders' Cup sweater-vest before the supply mysteriously runs out.

They have come to bet the big one, but they don't often win. Somebody has to pay the jocks and horses and program vendors and winners.

They have come to be part of racing's showcase, a day of streaking, snorting bluebloods. They are a human stew of regulars, tourists, dabblers and desperadoes.

"Awesome," says a guy named Tyler, surveying the scene. "This is a beautiful track. But the pigs are coming in. We've hit two favorites in three days. We've dropped $10,000."

Tyler and his pal, Jerome, have flown in from Edmonton. They're young, well-dressed guys. What do they do in Edmonton?

"We're dancers," Jerome says. "Chippendales."

They saved for a month to bankroll the trip. Ten thou plus expenses is a lot of dollar bills tucked in the old jockstraps by admiring women, but Tyler and Jerome have a plan. A Canadian horse, Afleet, is running in the Classic. It will attract scant betting attention. They'll bet $5,000 on their home boy, to win.

"If we win, we're off to Vegas," Tyler says. "If we lose, we're finished, we go home tonight."

Afleet runs 10th. Sorry, boys, eh? Back to the same old bump and grind.

An old fellow named Steven is still trying to shrug off a crushing loss at the Pomona race track, which he pronounces PO-mo-na.

"It's a veddy interesting story," he says in a Hungarian accent.

I'll summarize. Steven tries to cash a winning ticket for $52, but the cashier denies the ticket, setting off a long bureaucratic shuffle. Result: Steven gets zilch.

"I think I go small-claims court," he says. "My horse was vin. I feel so bad. I can't get over everything."

It's affecting Steven's betting. By the fourth race, he's down $150 but doesn't worry; he'll win it all back by betting $300 on Nostalgia's Star in the Classic.

"I going to be lucky," he says with confidence.

Not so filled with positive vibes is a younger man named Doug, wearing long hair, mirror shades and a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. Doug has some questions.

"Why didn't they open the infield (to fans)? Why don't jockeys whip horses down the stretch? Why have they changed my regular popcorn guy? Why were there not enough shirts (sweater-vests) for the coupons they gave out? Why didn't they print enough programs?

"They don't open the infield, so the windows are too crowded. Thousands of people get shut out every race. I got shut out the last two. Well, one. The last one, I was screwing around, smoking dope.

"I've been coming here 11 years, and they can't handle a crowd. They ran out of the free sweaters. They always run out. The nicer the (giveaway) item, the sooner they run out. It's an old game.

"The lines for the sweaters were 400 deep. Hey, this isn't the Matterhorn."

Not that Doug would have taken a sweater, anyway.

"It's bad luck when you get something for free," Doug says.

Ruth, a young woman, also ran afoul of the free sweaters. "That was a complete mess," she says. "There were no lines, people were squirming, fighting. I got mauled, my book (program) got taken away."

If not sweaters, at least optimism and eternal hope are in abundant supply at the magic land of lakes and flowers.

"I'm almost breaking even," says an older fellow with a beard and ponytail, brightly.

"I call it breaking even," one young man says. "If I play every day and still put food in my mouth, I call that breaking even."

"I'm down a little," says a man in a black cowboy hat, "but I'll surface the next race. I'll put $50 on Alysheba to win."

A retired truck driver named John is just enjoying the day.

"I came to L.A. broke and I'm doin' all right. What more can I ask for? Damn all the money. What would I do with a million dollars? You don't need money, you need your health and strength. That's the bottom line, brother."

I'll tell you the bottom line, brothers and sisters. I got about two dozen railbird tips on the Classic, about eight different horses. Not one person I talked to planned to bet on Ferdinand. Dreamers don't bet a favorite.

At the end of a beautiful Breeders' Cup on a wonderful sunny afternoon, a fleet of armored trucks drove off with the railbirds' money.

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