Letterpress List No. 58: What Are the Odds?

His name was Gray Wolf, and Shop Boy was smitten. What a great-looking horse. Lead-gray hide with black spots, a thick black mane. One of those magical, merry-go-round ponies, you know? Looked fast as lightning just standing still.

Easiest money Churchill Downs ever made.

A few years back, Mary and Shop Boy were in Louisville for a wedding just after the Kentucky Derby was run. Our bed-and-breakfast was just down the street from Churchill Downs, the famed racetrack, and we decided we had, had, had to go. Now, let me tell you, the place might look all spiffed-up on Kentucky Derby weekend, but man, it’s a depressing-looking place come Tuesday afternoon when all the Jim Dandies have left town for Baltimore’s Pimlico racetrack and the Preakness Stakes.

Still, Mary and Shop Boy got in line with the other non-dandies at the gates, paid the fare, and prepared to play the ponies … by ordering up a mint julep. (When in Rome …)

In a souvenir glass. (When in Rome as a tourist …)

Cocktails in hand, we decided to take a walk around the joint. Ramshackle old place, with a grass racetrack inside the big, oval dirt track. There’s the bar and a really grungy “parlor” area where the TVs showed racing events from the other big tracks around the country. It was cool and dark, and it smelled like wet wool and lousy cigars. So we had a quick look-see, then stepped outside into the warm sunlight of the paddock area, where they parade the ponies before each race begins so that you can see whether the one you’re about to bet on has a bad leg or just has a bad attitude.

Not that Shop Boy even knew what to look for. I’ve never been much of a gambler. In college, Shop Boy and his pals would go watch jai alai games in Newport, R.I., every so often when we noticed a trend in the newspaper that we could exploit. Like the numbers 2 and 4 not showing up for a few days in the winners column. See, in my home state, you can pretty much count on shenanigans. (You should have seen some of the bad acting by the players favored to win when they somehow missed an easy catch.) So we didn’t even pay attention to who was inside the jersey. We’d just play 2 and 4 to win. Our “system” would pay for our gas, the bridge toll and the beer, and we’d get to heckle the cheaters. The American way.

Now, don’t even ask Shop Boy about the two hands of blackjack he played in Las Vegas. OK, I’ll tell you: $10 gone in five seconds … and I sprained my ankle getting off the stool. Honest.

My dad used to play the greyhounds at Lincoln Park, a grungy establishment since turned into a posh betting palace with dog races, slots and countless other ways to leave your cash behind at the door. Dad’s slick. And he ain’t greedy. He’d usually win a little. And on those days he’d lose his limit in the first few races? See ya.

So Shop Boy comes by his “don’t get greedy” mindset naturally. The slickness? That didn’t come with the DNA. I much prefer the lucky hunch anyway.

True story: Mary and Shop Boy were guests about a couple of weekends ago at the International Gold Cup, a steeplechase and “flat” racing event in the lush, hilly horse country of Virginia. It’s an event of “friendly bets” and drinking stuff like Virgina Gentleman bourbon while flitting tailgate party to tailgate party in oversized hats. Mary’s fabulous cousin Mollie Ottina had gotten us into the, ahem, VIP section. Sweeping view of the bucolic racecourse. Sweet deal.

OK, so first race, Shop Boy looks out at the field as the horses warm up. My heart skips a beat. There is Cuse, a speckled gray horse with a raven mane.

“Oh, that must be your horse,” Mary giggled.

“Man,” quoth Shop Boy, “he looks fast.”

Then as Cuse jogged casually — but beautifully, it must be said — from the start, our whole party began laughing. Can Shop Boy pick ’em, or what? On and on he jogged in last place. I can’t remember the other horses’ names, but every time the announcer would give an update, it’d sound a bit like this: At the first turn, Flash by a length, with Bail Bonds, Felonious Intent, Ripsnort, Baby Boy, Goombah and No Love shoulder to shoulder … and Cuse, um, out there somewhere …

The horse must have heard the dismissiveness in his voice. Because … wow.

Cuse smoked the entire field in a furious final sprint, winning by a stride as we whooped and hollered like nuts. “Oh, that rider was brilliant,” Shop Boy pontificated. “And what an amazing animal.” To which the local Episcopalian bishop, a cheery fellow (reminded at the bar by Mary that she grew up calling folks from his denomination “Whiskey-palians”), added that the Big Jockey in the Sky was having a great day when he built the running horse.

Amen.

Anyway, with his gray-horse karma reversed, Shop Boy began thinking this pony thing was no sweat. Yes, Shop Boy was slick. Five events later, I practically pranced to the paddock to make our pick for a final race before we needed to head out. We stood at the rail as the horses were paraded in. And there he was. Not a horse but a jockey. Cheeks red with rage, spitting, swearing, smoking and stomping toward the stable. I think I heard somebody say something about a weigh-in. He’d have to carry more weight — a larger “handicap” — or something. Whatever. Dude was ready to kill. We were going to watch which pony he hopped aboard.

Salmo. Got it.

And they were off. Four-mile race, with 22 jumps. Screaming around the course, the jockey’s silks flying and smoke still pouring out of his ears. Impossibly fast. Headed into the home stretch, pedal to the metal.

It might have been the extra weight, the strain of setting the pace, the fact that racehorses do not have rearview mirrors or merely that the horse just wasn’t quite as honked off as the rider was. But Bubble Economy (hah!) made his move at the final jump, snuck up from behind and edged Salmo at the finish.

It reminded me of printing presses.

How?

Um, gimme a minute. I swear, I was going somewhere with this.

Don’t bet on horses. (No, no, you knew that already.)

Oh, I remember. Every day at Typecast Press, we need to make similar bets. Like, which press is going to get us to the finish line quickest and best? Some presses are fast — like the Heidelberg Windmill — but don’t match up well with the length of the run or the make-ready issues you know you’ll face. You spend so much time on make-ready, for instance, that by the time you’re ready to run 150 cards, you might as well have hand-fed them on the slow but rock-solid Vandercook proof press.

Shop Boy’s always leaning toward the sure bet — hey, pretty much all the machines are gray/black with (ink/grease) spots on their hides — whereas Mary like to push the envelope, betting that time spent now running even small jobs on the faster machines will make us quicker machine operators down the road. You know … “The Big Printer in the Sky was having a great day when he built the Heidelberg” and all that.

True. But while she races out front to meet and tame whatever challenges await, Shop Boy’s tempted to lay back a bit. Pace myself. That way, once she’s mastered — and shared — the ins and outs, I’ll be ready to swoop in and take the glory. Showing off for visitors, that kind of thing. “Yeah, this baby gave me a few problems at first, heh-heh. Bucked a bit, threw me once or twice. But you’ve got to get right back on that horse, am I right? Heh-heh.”

Ooh. I can just see the steam coming out of her ears now.

***

Letterpress List No. 58

How about an hour’s worth of music to peruse the Daily Racing Form or simply sit back, with a mint julep (made with Virginia Gentleman, natch) and count your winnings by? Most of these tunes should be available in the usual places. Goofy and great videos are from YouTube.

Jockey Full of BourbonTom Waits (A snort or two too many.)
Clap for the Wolfmanthe Guess Who (Why not?)
A Touch of Greythe Grateful Dead (Kinda suits me.)
Dirt Track DateSouthern Culture on the Skids (Getting dizzy.)
Hot Rod LincolnCommander Cody (“Slow down … I see spots.”)
DownsHamell on Trial (High on depressives. He’d love Churchill Downs or Lincoln Park.)
Horse with No NameAmerica (How ’bout we name him “Fee Waybill,” as in …)
Talk to Ya Later the Tubes (See ya! FYI: That’s Waybill singing.)
Jim DandyBlack Oak Arkansas (Go!)
I’m All Fired Up Junior Brown (“Feelin’ my wild oats.”)
Ride Like the WindCristopher Cross (Such a long way to go, especially if you’re dragging Michael McDonald along. Sheesh.)
Jump Kriss Kross ( ;-) )
PonyKasey Chambers (Cute.)
You Better You Betthe Who (Not going to win this one.)
Run to the Hills Iron Maiden (Good idea, paleface.)
Gangsta RideSnoop Dogg featuring Silk Da Shocker (No looking back.)
If Looks Could KillHeart (I’d hate to have crossed paths with Salmo’s rider after the race.)
Saddle Sore Ted Nugent (Chapped chaps.)
Lucky OnesLoverboy (A fortunate guess? Fine by me.)
Sold AmericanKinky Friedman (Check this out.)

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