TUESDAY: The Right Horse?


Copyright is held by the author.

CORRALLED IN this section of the slots by the promise of another round of watered-down — yet complimentary — drinks, which the casino cocktail waitress was always about to return with, the six of us charged from machine to machine.

We were all about 22, so when her fish-netted legs finally shuffled her high-heeled feet back across the almost-threadbare carpet, her tray contained nothing more sophisticated than a couple vodka cranberries, a couple whiskey sours, and a couple amaretto sours. Someone – Nathanael, I think – noticed the perfect pairings and declared each of us should toast the person who had ordered the same drink.

That’s how I wound up clinking glasses with my girl friend Carolina instead of my girlfriend Heidi, our glances lingering a little too long after we had exchanged my “prost” for her “salud.”

“Hey,” Heidi protested, “don’t forget about me.”

“How could I?” I turned, stumbling a bit as I tried to think of a different toast. “Let’s see . . . How about, ‘Here’s mud in your eye?’”

Mud?” Heidi asked. “In my eye?”

“You have to have heard that in your parents’ tavern,” I said. “It’s a traditional toast.”

“A traditional toast?” she asked. “Sounds more like a traditional insult to me.”

“Actually,” Nathanael interjected, “it is an insult.”

“It is?” I asked.

“Well, it was,” Nathanael allowed. “A taunt, at least. In the old days, it was the toast that someone who had bet on the winning horse would offer to everyone else. The frontrunner in the race, after all, was the one that had kicked mud into the eyes of those that had trailed behind. So, someone who said ‘Here’s mud in your eye’ was actually congratulating —”

“— himself,” I finished. Sighed. Started to issue a peremptory apology. “Baby, I am so sorry —”

At that point, however, she was more interested than insulted. “How did you know something that Charlie didn’t? He’s, like, the master of useless trivia.”

“I wrote my senior honors thesis on depictions of horse racing in 19th-century British literature,” Nathanael explained, “which is, I suppose, the definition of ‘useless trivia.’”

“Maybe you guys should team up for trivia night at a bar,” she suggested.

“You guys!” Carolina shouted.

Bored by our disconcertingly scholarly discussion of the origins of the toast “here’s mud in your eye,” she had wandered away with Johnny and Johnny’s new girlfriend, who had insisted — with a straight face — that we call her “Jiggles.”

“It’s my Las Vegas persona,” she had declared, then twirled around in the fringed dress that did, indeed, make her look like a flapper from the Roaring Twenties. “I’m a moll — a gangster’s girlfriend.”

“Oh!” Carolina, Nathanael, Heidi, and I had said simultaneously, suddenly understanding why Johnny was wearing a thrift-shop pinstripe suit.

Anyhow, now the three of them were returning to herd us past the end of our row of slot machines.

“Speaking of horses, come check this out!”


“What is this?” I couldn’t conceive of anything else as analog as this, of another antique that could’ve looked more out of place surrounded by the digital slot machines of a modern casino on the Strip. The silver silhouettes of a jockey and a racehorse were bolted to the polished side panel of the glass-topped mahogany cabinet. Under the glass, seven miniature jockeys — even more miniature than usual — perched atop seven miniature racehorses, ready to ride their colour-coded mounts down a straightaway comprised of seven parallel slots. Farthest to the left was Number 1 in yellow silks, flanked to the right by first Number 2 in green, then Number 3 in red, then Number 4 in blue, then Number 5 in orange, then Number 6 in black, and then Number 7 in white. At the end of the straightaway was a board listing the names and odds of the racehorses.

Without thinking, we all started rifling our respective pockets for quarters. This ancient amusement was so Art Deco cool that we couldn’t resist the urge to play the ponies; we were as drawn to it as that pipsqueak kid in Big was to that mesmerizing Zoltar Speaks fortunetelling machine.

Before any of the six of us could ask aloud how it worked, we were educated by a seventh perspective player. A grizzled old dude in a white cowboy hat and a white western shirt– it must have been his Las Vegas persona — stopped short at the sight of the machine. “Well, I’ll be: Pace’s Races!” he hollered. “Daddy had one of these in his saloon when I was a little buckaroo.”

We watched the cowboy fish a quarter out of the front pocket of his jeans. Immediately to the left of the glass, we now noticed, was a corresponding set of colour-coded coin slots. He slipped the quarter into the slot crowned with a white 7 inside a white horseshoe.

“C’mon, Man-O-War!” the cowboy crowed as a modest imitation trumpet fanfare — almost downed out by the perpetual bleeping and blooping of the surrounding slots — announced the start of the race. Although Man-O-War looked like a long shot at 12-to-1, as the mechanical mounts rocked down the straightaway, Number 7 managed to distance himself from the rest of the herd. As his horse crossed the finish line first, the cowboy threw his hat in the air.

“Yeehaw!” he shouted, then raised his plastic cup. “Here’s mud in your eye!”

“See?” Nathanael whispered.

Heidi and I nodded.

Meanwhile, the cowboy stooped to collect the 12 quarters the machine had paid out. Standing up to pocket them, he noticed the six of us for the first time. “Y’all going to bet, too?”

“What’s the secret?” Carolina asked.

“The secret?” the cowboy asked. “It isn’t a secret, miss. All there is to it is picking the right horse, at the right time.”

“What do you mean at the right time?” Carolina asked.

“I mean,” he tapped the mahogany cabinet, “that there ain’t a computer in here. The results of the races are punched into a piece of paper — a roll, with holes in it, like the one in an old player piano. Saw it plenty of times, whenever the repairman from Pace came to service the machine in my daddy’s saloon.

“Now, this is a longroll of paper we’re talking about, so it’s impossible to know where it’s at tonight. So, I honestly couldn’t tell you which horse will win the next race. But if you could see the whole roll, you’d see that — in the long run — every horse is sometimes a winner. That time, it was Man-O-War’s turn.”

“So, it’s all about timing?” I asked.

“That’s right, young feller.”

As we weren’t able to read the pattern, let alone interpret it, any attempt to pick the right horse was arbitrary. Because we couldn’t see what a horse had done in the past or what it would do in the future, all we had to go on were their names, numbers, and colours.

Heidi, for example, went with Number 1; her distaste for its name, Regret, was outweighed by her taste for its colour, yellow. And, despite the fact that its right foreleg dangled at a strange angle, Carolina put her money on Number 3, feeling like a Plucky Girl herself for the choice of the red horse.

Standing between the two of them, I was indecisive. Both looked like winners.

At the last second, I copped out and went with the green horse, Number 2.

Equipoise?” Heidi asked.

“Either a champion chestnut in the Thirties, probably about the time this machine was made,” I started to answer, “or—”

“— a controversial anabolic steroid meant for thoroughbred racehorses that human bodybuilders are often fond of,” Nathanael finished.

“Bar trivia team,” Heidi muttered, shaking her head. “I’m telling you guys.”

“Speaking of bars,” I said, “your mom and stepdad should try to find one of these for theirs . . .”

In that last instant before our race started, I remembered the first time Heidi brought me home to visit their backwoods bar — in part, I eventually realized, to be evaluated by her mom and stepdad. During the drive back to our college the next day, she shared the latter’s review with me: “He drinks, but not too much. He smokes, but not too much. And he doesn’t try to bum his drinks or smokes off of me, so . . . he looks like a winner to me.”

True, that was a better reaction than her father’s when we went to dinner with him for the first time a few weeks later — “You don’t hunt? You don’t fish? Well, what good are you?” — but both of their criteria were equally random, really.

No different than making a bet based on a name, a number, or a colour.  

As the imitation trumpets summoned me back to casino, I looked down at the top of the Pace’s Races machine. I noticed that both Heidi and Carolina’s hands were resting on the edge. Both were within my reach.

But, although both looked like winners to me, I had to hold hands with Heidi. It was all about timing, and I had met her first.


Image of Chad Greene

A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, Chad Greene is a professor of English at Cerritos College. Whenever he isn’t planning lessons or grading papers, he is attempting to put together a novella-in-flash-fictions tentatively titled Trips and Falls. Find him on Twitter @TheShortCourse