A SHORT STORY BY RICK SWEENEY
The number four horse was four lengths off the lead as they made the turn into the home stretch. Most people were surprised that a horse that went off at fifteen to one was running so well; but not Al. He had picked that horse, War Painter to win.
Actually, I had placed the bet. I had just allowed Al to pick the horse. This was the second leg of the Daily Double. Al had picked the winner in the first race and that horse ran away from the field and won by nine lengths. Now if War painter won, we were in for a big pay-off.
The horse made his move at the top of the stretch. He overtook two of the horses in front of him on the outside. He was neck and neck as they neared the finish line. Then, just as Al had predicted, War Painter passed the other horse and won by a length.
“Told ya. I told ya that horse would win.” I could hardly hear him over my screams. I had been cleaning up at the track since I started taking Al to the track with me. He was never wrong.
Al was always delighted to go to the track with me. He claimed he loved horses. “I can tell which one is going to win just by looking at them. They talk to me and I talk to them.” He never got to go much of anywhere. He lived with his mother and his aunt and they didn’t have a car. So any invitation to go out thrilled Al.
I met him at the ball field near his house. He came to watch the games. He had offered to be the bat boy for our team. Now this was just a beer league. There was not really a need for a bat boy. And besides, Al was not a boy. I estimated his age as about the same as mine. The other guys on the team had mixed responses to Al’s participation. Some let him perform as a sort of mockery. Others saw him as a kind of a mascot. Al had serious mental challenges.
I wasn’t quite sure why I liked Al. It certainly wasn’t some righteous cause. I knew I hated it when the other guys called him retard. I guess I always had a soft spot for the underdog. I guess I sort of took him under my wing. I listened as he would tell me about how he loved horses. “I watch the races on that cable station all the time.”
Since my divorce, I was always looking for a diversion. The track was one of the places I could hide from the loneliness. I always thought that if I could win some money that wouldn’t count towards my alimony, all the better. But just like the rest of the losers who hang around at the track, I was lucky if I broke even most nights.
After one game I asked Al if he would like to go to the track with me the next night. “I would love to go to see them horses run if my mom will let me go.” I got the impression that mom was understandably protective of her special son.
So I went in to meet his mom. There was no sign of a father in the house. She wanted to make sure that I was not someone who was going to hurt Al. I reassured her that I liked him and I would not let anything bad happen to him. She said, “I guess it’s OK. He loves horses.”
That first time at the track, Al asked if we could go down to where the horses walk around before they are called to the track. “I want to see them up close.” We wandered down to the paddock area as the horses paraded by. Al was doing more than just admiring them. He was studying them intently.
“Which horse to you like Al?”
“Number seven is the fastest of them all, but he will fade before the finish line. I betcha number five will win. He’s steady Eddie.” Al laughed at his joke. I figured, “what the hell? I haven’t exactly been picking winners up till then. So I placed a modest wager on number five. He was six to one. That’s not a bad price.
“All right Al buddy, I am counting on your horse sense here. I have ten bucks on this nag.”
“Don’t worry. He will win.” Al reassured me. The horse had trouble getting out of the gate. But he got back to within striking distance by the second turn. It was then that I noticed that the number seven horse had opened a big lead on the rest of the field. “Coincidence” I thought. But damned if he didn’t start to fade in the far turn. Steady Eddie slowly gained on the rest of the field and won in a close finish.
“Al, how did you know that was going to happen?”
“The horses talk to me. Not really talking, I just have a way to tell which one is really ready to run.”
I was amazed. But I wasn’t convinced that Al had some magical power to decipher which horse was going to win. “Beginner’s luck” I thought.
I didn’t feel like running down to the paddock area and back up to the betting window for every race. So the sixty bucks I won was soon gone. Al did not seem to be enjoying the evening as much as he did at first. I thought he had gotten a taste of picking a winner and dampened his enthusiasm without picking a winner.
The final race of the night I told Al that we would once again go down and have a close look at the ponies. Once again he studied them like a mathematician searching for the solution to a difficult problem.
“Number eight” he said with great certainty. I looked at the racing form and saw that number eight was a real long shot. Nineteen to one was a suckers bet. But I wanted to let Al have some fun. I only made a two dollar bet. The last of the big time spenders. You probably already know that horse that seemed destined for the glue factory won going away. So I collected my thirty-eight dollars and we headed home.
“You really seem to be able to pick em Al. Would you like to go again next week?
“You bet” Then he laughed again. “Get it? You bet?”
The next Friday I picked up Al at his house. His mom was grateful. “Al don’t have many friends. He really liked going with you last week.”
‘I’m glad to have him along” I said.
The first race Al studied the horses and told me he was sure that number two would win. I bet number two and he won. The second race we went to check out the horses up close once again. “Number two. No doubt” It was another winner. Now I was starting to believe in whatever magic Al possessed. I was cleaning up. Al had never once asked for any of the money that we won. I started to feel a little guilty about not sharing the winnings with him. I offered but he refused. “That’s your money” he said. I was starting to think of Al as a friend, and not just a way to pick winners.
The next week was the same. I was cleaning up. Then when he picked the winners on the daily double we were talking about some serious money. I went a little crazy. I bet more money than I had ever laid out before. Al made his selection. It was another long shot. That seemed to be his specialty.
“And they’re off.” Our long shot was Charioteer. He lagged at the back of the pack until the home stretch. I wasn’t even worried. I was adding up how much money I would take home with that huge bet I had made on a long shot. Charioteer moved up to third, then to second. He was getting close to the leader when all of sudden the horse fell to the ground with the jockey’s leg beneath him. I stared in disbelief.
“Oh my God, O my God, that horse is hurt” Al wailed. “He’s hurt.” I thought he was going to cry. I was already near tears myself; not for the injured horse, but for the staggering financial loss I had taken.
I couldn’t be angry at Al. He had been right more times than anyone I had ever heard of. One the way home, Al was very quiet. Don’t sweat it Al. you win some and the lose some. That’s how it is with horse racing.” Bu Al was not consoled because he was not upset about not picking the winner. He just kept muttering, “That horse; that poor horse. I think he broke his leg. He was trying so hard because he knew was supposed to win. Then he broke his leg. Now they will shoot him. That poor horse. I jinxed him.” I ain’t picking winners no more.
When we got to his house I asked, “Next Friday?” He stared out the window and said, “No. I ain’t going no more. I can’t stand to see them get hurt.”
“Come on, Al. That doesn’t happen very often. Don’t give up on me now.”
“No. You just want me to go so you can win money. I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t stand to see them get hurt.”
That was the last time I took Al to the track. How strange it was to think that he had some way to connect with those horses that none of the rest of us could understand. With his mental limitations, he was able somehow to make a connection with those horses that went beyond words of explanation. Maybe he really could hear those horses. Was it possible that he was able to communicate with them on a deeper level than anyone else? I sure as hell wasn’t smart enough to figure it out.
In the long run I had broken even as usual. But I had gained something else. There was a kind of giftedness that I would never understand. Thanks for the lesson, Al.