All around the cavernous room of the Cal-Expo off-track betting,
TVs blare simulcast as the crowd in jeans and sloppy sweatshirts
treks to the betting windows, trampling an autumn’s worth of losing tickets.
The old man doesn’t miss the emerald grass and red geraniums,
the women with big hats at Churchill Downs. He never tasted a mint julep
as the mahogany horses stepped out like carved statues.
And he doesn’t mind the smell of stale beer or the damp cold
that seeps through his jacket and stiffens his already stiff hands.
He’s spent weeks lying on his bed in the board and care
waiting for this moment when Zenyatta, the mare who never lost a race,
called in The Times “the coolest horse in the world,”
goes for twenty out of twenty. So the only question is who to place,
who to show, to make a trifecta that will bring back the days
when he skipped out on grinding afternoons at the dry cleaner’s,
sweating at the mangle, saturated with solvent fumes,
as he bagged woollen coats and linen dresses and the jockeys’ silks—
gleaming pinks, buttercup yellows, and aquamarines.
When they picked up their colors, they slipped him tips on who was hot,
and he’d escape to the track at Aqueduct to see those myths of muscle,
flanks quivering, flashing their tails. And now and then he’d score,
gather up the family and head to Chinatown for lobster with black bean-sauce.
Once he even took them to Lancaster to see the Amish in their buggies,
their aprons and little white hats. But you could write the story
of all the paychecks fed like hay to the horses.
And he’ll lose this one, too. In the final stretch,
Blame, a homebred chestnut colt in the lead.
Mike Smith up on Zenyatta closing hard, going to the whip.
Originally published in The New Yorker. Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Bass. Used with the permission of the poet.