The guy with a nervous twitch and a plaid sports coat sucking down the Grand Slam breakfast in the corner booth at Denny's is a sure sign race season is almost upon us.
He's part of the annual migration, a special time of year on the North Coast, marking the end of the pig-and-cattle competitions of the Del Mar Fair. The carnies leave, making way for the exercise walkers, Lasix dealers and failed jockeys that follow the racing circuit. They're joined by Arab sheiks, cheap hustlers and trust-fund playboys who can find nothing finer than to spend every day at the track betting on horses with bad limps.
They are the "race crowd," the folks who "play the ponies." Unlike the Super Bowl or other "sporting" events, when the masses parachute in, urinate on the streets and leave, the race crowd moves in for two months, providing new flair and verve to the local scene, especially if there is a margarita special at Fidel's.
The race crowd is far different from the simple folk who attend the races twice a year, picking horses by the color of the jockeys' silks. Those are the amateurs, the marks, the wide-eyed dinks. They plunk down hard-earned dollars for "tip sheets," complex documents offering a foolproof system for winning, even though logic dictates that if it was indeed a foolproof system, the guru probably wouldn't have any need to print his picks on cheap colored paper and sell them for $5 a shot.
No, the die-hard members of the racing tribe are the ones that travel from track to track, Santa Anita to Hollywood Park to Golden Gate, tracking the horses and developing their own systems for grand riches. They are found sitting in lawn chairs on the Del Mar beach at 11 a.m., in Bermuda shorts, their pasty white skin covered in red splotches, poring over the Daily Racing Form. They eat steak dinners at Bully's and spend long hours in local bars making jokes about geldings.
Tony Soprano would call these people "degenerate gamblers." In that, he would be joined by the Bible thumpers and talk-radio fans who believe gambling is a horrible, sinful activity created by Satan, right after he gave women nipples.
But according to the state of California, horse racing is good gambling, unlike, say, running a craps game out of your backyard, which would be bad-very bad.
When it comes to the ponies, forget all that crap about gambling corrupting society, bankrupting the soul and deflowering virgins. When it's a bet on the horses, it's just clean fun, maybe even the Lord's Work, if you happen to hit the trifecta.
Del Mar is like the Grand Caymans of the race circuit, a far cry from stained betting parlors of the East Coast. Del Mar is known as "Where the Turf Meets the Surf," which sounds better than "Where Your Shoes Meet the Loser Vomit." That doesn't have the same catchy ring to it, even though it might be a tad more accurate if you find yourself near the margarita stand on the backside of the grandstand at 7 p.m. when a 30-1 shot breaks up a sure-thing exacta in the ninth.
Del Mar is one of the few tracks that embraces the amateurs and allows them to mingle with the serious folks. The infield is open, making it a great place for a family picnic, especially if you want to teach the kiddies a few lessons about how to bet complicated parlays.
The wealthy and cheap hustlers dress up to gain entrance to the grand Turf Club, where suits and nice dresses are required, creating a stark dividing line between the haves and the have-a-Styrofoam-beer-cooler crowd. The fine folk can literally gaze down upon the masses, looking vaguely Caesar-like in their funny hats as they enjoy the sporting competition.
The folks sitting in the beer puddles of the grandstand can only look up and wonder if someday they might enter the sacred Turf Club, perhaps not realizing that all it takes is a few extra bucks and a willingness to wear a jacket on an 80-degree day.
This is all sideshow to the real race crowd, who prefer to get up at 7 a.m. to watch the workouts, distrusting the information available in the daily information sheets. They would never think of spending money to get into the Turf Club, when that money could be parlayed into a tasty Pick Six bet.
In general, the race crowd is a genial group. Many are mathematically inclined. Provided the right encouragement, they will often share fascinating stories of lost riches and adventurous women.
There is a certain purity to their pursuit, even if it is rooted in evil sins and an inordinate interest in the bowel movements of horses. Theirs is a quest for a golden day of picking horses that defy the odds and run to glory as the sun sets over the Pacific, which is nobler than, say, selling condos.
Best of all, the race crowd can actually be classified as "economic drivers." They rent condos and buy large bottles of gin and chug many espressos, pumping money into the local business scene.
The race crowd is officially good for the economy, which means San Diego can forget all those moral "gray areas" and embrace these degenerates with open arms. B
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SD citybeat.com.