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The International Writers Magazine - Our 25th Year: Horses for Courses - From our Archives

Being There: Sunland Racetrack and Casino
Lizette Espinosa

EL PASO- Waiting impatiently in a seemingly endless line for the buffet at Sunland Racetrack and Casino lead me to start people watching. I stared unashamedly at the people in front of us. A middle aged couple comfortable in their silence. The family behind us with the 3 little kids. All clearly uncomfortable with silence.

The guard just to the right of the line standing guard at the entrance to the casino. A woman in her 50s walking nonchalantly, with who I presume is her son behind her, into the casino. She breezes by the guard while her son tries to strut his way in, but is stopped to provide proof of identification. This is where I learn that the young man is underage. After many more of these riveting revelations, my party is finally seated.

We give our drink order to the woman who doesn’t speak much English. We glutton ourselves with too much of food that looks amazing and tastes kinda bland. And in retrospect I realize that the best thing I ate was pizza. And Papa John’s is better. And cheaper.

After we leave the restaurant named Ventanas, we walk through the casino. And yes, I was carded. Something I never know why women adore. We walk by what looks like the AARP meeting of El Paso. Except this is technically Santa Teresa, New Mexico, but still. This never ceases to baffle me. I always believed the image of casinos portrayed by the movies. A place where rich men in suits drink Scotch on the rocks and women stand over their shoulder daintily drinking cosmopolitans. Just when I don’t think that I could take anymore of the binging and sirens of the slot machines, we make it out of the casino.

Now we arrive to the place that brought us here. The racetrack. Right away, you can tell it’s a different atmosphere. The Sunday church clothes from the restaurant have been replaced with creased wranglers paired with pointy cowboy boots, a big round belt buckle, and a matching cowboy hat. The crowd is younger than the one in the casino, but I can still see little, old ladies sitting at the tables with binoculars trying to read the T.V.s with racing numbers. This crowd certainly doesn’t resemble the one at the Kentucky Derby. There isn’t a big, floppy hat to be seen.

As we make our way downstairs, past the food vendors selling beer, nachos, hot dogs, and other sport viewing foods, I start to smell a certain odor that has my lungs taking extra air for stock. Smoke. Here in the patio just before the track, smoking is allowed indoors. It makes me and my asthmatic lungs grateful I was born in the 80s and raised in the 90s so I never really had to endure times like these: wishing the guy two seats down from you would blow his smoke in the other direction.

My parents and brother get a race day brochure outlining the races they have lined up. I sit and watch as they start selecting the horse for the first bet. I don’t participate. I like my money. We go outside and stand before the gate as the jockeys bring the next race’s horses out to be paraded by the public. My mother always likes the feistiest ones. Probably because they remind her of herself. I keep this comment to myself.

It always amazes me when I see the horses. They are so much more intimidating in real life. Their muscle tone alone has me in awe. Their movements always seem precise. I have a moment of pity for them that they are wearing a costume with a little man on their backs.

So after selecting their horses. They go to the automated betting machine, or rather an ABM, to place "5 on 4 to show." Which to my ignorant ears sounded a little like my French class always did. Later I found out that it meant my brother betted $5 on horse four to place either first, second, or third.

I learned a lot that day. For instance, a Trifecta means that you have to guess which horses will show in precise order. The racing horses are escorted by another horse to keep them calm. Practically all jockeys are under 120 lbs. Which means they are probably malnourished, or as my dad says: bulimic. Nobody looks at a racetrack when a woman keeps swatting flies with her race day brochure. There are posters warning about the dangers of gambling addiction while they urge you to place your bet since there’s only 2 minutes to post. That a horse will finish the race even without his jockey.

We learned that one the hard way when my brother’s horse #4, Memas Sweet Run, came in last after loosing his rider within the first 20 seconds. Too bad they don’t have a bet for that one. He probably could’ve made a lot of money.

So we make our way outside once again to see the winner as he stands in the winner’s circle. The jockey disembarks and I am officially shocked. It looks like an open casting call for the next Santa Claus movie’s elves. As I stare at the jockeys in close proximity, I noticed how odd it looks to see men with a 5 o’clock shadow and thighs small enough that women are envious. We leave the winners circle to go back into the smoke infested patio.

As I sit waiting for the next race to begin, I start people watching once again. A grandfather is teaching his grandson, a boy who looks 7, the basics of racetrack betting. Men walking around with children on their shoulders. A woman who looks like she is in her 90s, is snoozing in a chair in the corner.

The next time the horses are shown off, I pick the one I think has the most interesting walk and I place my own bet of $10 just to see if I would win. I never do. This goes on for a while. By the time we leave, I have saved $40 of my own money. There is only one race left for the day, the 12th. I wonder if the woman in the row ahead of us will say what she always said as the horses rounded the last stretch of the race, "Hay vienen ya los caballos" (Here come the horses).

© Lizette Espinosa June 2009

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