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The Horse Be With You

My dad occasionally speaks of our family clan's unluckiness: "We never win anything." I've never asked why he thinks that, but knowing my eccentric assortment of relatives, I don't doubt that one of them could have pissed off some voodoo queen enough to get the whole family hexed. Whether luck is real or it's pure superstition, I don't take a gamble on betting. Why risk your money when you might have bad luck? If Lady Luck hates me, well, that bitch ain't getting my hard-earned cash.

But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy watching other people in the throes of losing money. With the all horseracing fever inspired in the past couple of months by Big Brown (winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness), I wanted to get in on the action. On the rainy Saturday of the Belmont Stakes, a couple of friends and I hit Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino (the same place where Big Brown won the Florida Derby on March 31 and propelled himself into national prominence) to witness an assload of people putting their cash on chance.

Ambiance: Hot on the ever-appealing trail of drinking, gambling, and general seediness, I high-tailed it through the parking lot, past the lavishly designed paddock amphitheater with its majestic fountain. A covered breezeway stretched from the paddock to the broad, park-like track itself, devoid of actual races since April, when the 2008 Gulfstream season ended. A bar with a strong tan-and-beige color scheme sat there smack-dab in the center of the space. Pink and orange rotating spotlights hit the lantern-like light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and a row of flat-screen TVs was strung between two pillars on opposite sides of the bar, with broadcasts from seven or eight other tracks around the country. Spots to sit were scarce, as a crowd of mostly sandals-and-shorts-wearing gentlemen had formed a thick ring around the bar.

I skirted the throngs of drinking bettors and found a spot at a round, marble-topped table near the racetrack, enjoying the broad sweep of its green, perfectly groomed foliage. The megascreen TV over the empty racetrack was showing some preliminary Belmont Stakes commentary; the mounting anticipation was as thick in the air as the impending precipitation.

Drinks: As it began to drizzle, my companions and I decided to head back under the roof and procure some alcohol. Bartender Steve, tall, lean, and clad in a casino polo shirt complete with nametag, was swamped and almost impossible to flag down, but eventually we ended up with five Miller Lites for $15, which resulted in our own double-fisting race to consume our cold beers before the muggy, humid air warmed them.

No sign among the Gulfstream rabble of anyone drinking the official drink of the day, the Belmont Breeze (Jack Daniel's, Harvey's Bristol, lemon juice, orange juice, cranberry juice, and sweetener, all topped off with soda). But, hey, don't Floridians prefer their booze neat and uncomplicated, preferably without a lot of fruit juice to dilute the effects?

Customers: The place was packed with regular gamblers, groups of horseracing enthusiasts, scores of Big Brown supporters, and occasional well-dressed couples. Three guys, slightly removed from the occupied bar, stood off by themselves, drinking and laughing. The shortest of the three, a dark-haired dude named Chris, wore an oversized T-shirt featuring a big red heart situated between the boldfaced words I and Big Brown.

"So, do you really love Big Brown?" I asked.

"Yeah — I'm betting on him, and if he wins, I'm gonna go hug him," Chris said.

"Are all three of you betting on him?" I asked, glancing at his two friends.

Matthew, who was tall and tan and wore a bright-green shirt, shook his head vehemently.

"No way. He's injured — he had a cracked hoof," he said, his eyes flashing as he gestured wildly with his drink. "You wouldn't run a marathon if you had a shin splint!"

"It's no big deal; it's just like having a broken nail or something," shrugged the third friend, Ben, well-built with bright-blue eyes.

"What they're doing is cruel — they're running him just because of all the hype. Look at my arm!" Matthew pointed at his forearm. "My skinny arm is like a horse's spindly leg!"

Chris laughed and held up his arms. "Yeah, our four arms are like Big Brown's legs!"

"Imagine running a race on these!" Matthew said.

"I'm not arguing," I said, recalling that I had read somewhere about how horses are being bred with big muscles and fragile bones. Matthew was no fool. "Who are you betting on?"

"Macho Again and Icabad Crane," Matthew said.

"You guys think those horses will be any competition to Big Brown?"

"Casino Drive was Big Brown's stiffest competition," Chris said. "But now that his trainers pulled him out of the race, Big Brown's sure to have the Triple Crown." Ah, yes. The Japanese horse, its fragile bones acting up, no doubt. (Well, no. A sore hoof, actually.)

The Bet: As rain poured down, it blew into the open areas, misting the crowd awaiting the big race. The prerace programming on the flat screens showed horses moving through a hot, muggy afternoon 2,000 miles away.

My father's family pronouncement weighed heavily on me. Sure, the family might be unlucky, but this was a major horserace we were about to watch. What else is there to do besides watch a distant spectacle on an oversized television monitor?

One of the two guys accompanying me turned suddenly and said: "Should I bet?" You bet.

It was five minutes before post time, and the two of us ran through the doors of the smoky betting parlor. There were dozens of TV screens, all being scrutinized by the gambling zombies at their wooden desks, some sipping soda through straws, some studying the Daily Racing Form, all waiting to win it big. We located a row of computer wagering machines. As I held my friend's beer, he fed a $20 bill into the machine; with a few precise taps on the touchscreen, we bet $2 on every horse. Everyone, that is, except Big Brown. How's that for contrarian thinking? Celebrate the uncelebrated — and a Bronx cheer for the guest of honor.

The Big Finish: All eyes were fixed on the pack of TV screens as the Belmont Stakes played out — gates flew open, horses thundered out, and the people around us jumped to their feet, cheering in eager anticipation.

But wait. A sleek, dark horse had emerged from the pack. Da' Tara. Of course; why hadn't I seen it before? This was my horse, sharing my name, defying the long odds laid down by my father.

My friend, the gamblin' man, whispered excitedly that Da' Tara was one of the longest long shots in the race. If Da' Tara won, my friend would make some good money. We stood in silence for a second.

"But Big Brown can't lose," I said to no one in particular.

Da' Tara was getting closer to the finish line, still a few lengths ahead of the competition. And Big Brown — he was bucking and skidding over at the side somewhere as his jockey reined him in. The people around us were yelling in disbelief.

"Oh my God, we're going to make money!" I squealed, feeling a twinge of guilt to be cheering for the downfall of the crowd favorite.

In a flash, I'd caught the fever of the race, the wager. I clutched my gambling friend's arm, and we both screamed at the TV. After what seemed like a breathless eon, Da' Tara thundered across the finish line first.

"Did that just happen?" I asked.

My lucky friend, in the midst of a wild victory dance, didn't respond.

Matthew, Chris, and Ben caught up with me a few minutes later. Matthew gloated over his prediction that Big Brown wouldn't be able to win, and Ben and Chris lamented their loss of money.

"Well, do you still love Big Brown?" I asked Chris.

He covered his T-shirt with his free hand and stuck out his lower lip.

"Well, I love Big Brown for losing," I said. "My friend just turned $2 into $80."

"Damn," Chris said.

I can't help but take some credit for my friend's winnings, because of the name that the dark-horse winner and I share. Luck isn't logical. It blows in on a rain cloud and drifts away on a draft from an open door. The payoff wasn't mine, of course (though I unhesitantly drank the drinks purchased with it), but I could still feel that lingering burst of adrenaline. I craved more. Look for me at Gulfstream again soon. I hear there's a horse named Nieuwesteeg out there somewhere, riding a wave, coming to break a family curse.

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Tara Nieuwesteeg