My grandmother was a betting woman. She also taught me a few good lessons about taking risks and beating the odds. And how there is no such notion as a sure thing. Marge loved a good game of penny poker and always invited my friends and me to “decorate the mahogany” with a few coins (pronounced "kerns" if you born in Brooklyn like she was).
But her favorite gambling activity was spent at Saratoga Race Track to watch her winning horse round the bend, especially when it wasn’t the favorite to win. It was the Sixties. Every August, my parents, brother and I would join my grandmother at this historical and gentile track, located about an hour north of our summer house in Upstate New York. It was one of our family traditions, started when my grandfather was alive and we were even much younger. Marge loved to watch — and bet on — flat horse racing. At Saratoga, this only happened a few weeks a year. That was when some of the best thoroughbreds and their jockeys came up from New York City to race at this gentlemen’s track where high society women wore summer hats to racing events.
As young kids, my brother and I always looked forward to this day because we knew Grandma would always slip us a few bucks and teach us the ropes of horse betting. She patiently explained the meanings of Win-Place-Show, Daily Double, and Trifecta and which race could make you the most money if you picked the right combinations. She usually played the long shots with the biggest pay offs. Well before the first race, Marge would pick a quiet seat in the Grandstands to study her racing tip sheet she bought for a dollar on the way in. She went down the list of jockeys and the horses that were racing. She slowly and deliberately reviewed their statistics — jockey weight, wins/losses, and other data like whether they liked to race on muddy tracks or on turf. She’d also check the odds for each horse to learn how much she might win if the horse came in.
As I said, she was a gambling woman. Marge would share her analysis with us, but she would never tell anyone which horse she would finally bet on. Truthfully, sometimes I think some of her final bets were placed on a hunch or how much she liked the name of the horse, but I’ll never know for sure. Minutes before each race, Marge would quietly leave her seat and place her bet. She’d sit poker faced until the end, and then rarely told us whether or not she actually won. I’m not sure why she didn’t want to share her news. Maybe she considered it bad luck. Whatever the case, I always hoped I’d come home with more than I came in with. Although that didn’t happen all that much, when I did win a race I felt the rush of excitement as I went to the window with Marge to collect my winnings.
After the days at the races, we’d ll pile into our station wagon and head back to our house, stopping for ice cream along the way. Years later, I realized that whether I won a few dollars or not I always did come home a winner. With me, I took the day's memories I'll always treasure as well as these life lessons: 1) Take calculated risks. 2) Don’t always play it safe. It may have a bigger pay off in the end. 3) Route for the underdog. Most times, they are winners. 4) Sometimes all it takes is a hunch. 5) Never show all your cards. 6) There is no such notion as a sure thing. Thanks, Grandma.