I was sitting at the simulcast place wondering what I had done to deserve a losing photo -- photos aren't grandfathered, and I hadn't done much wrong in weeks -- when a man approached my table and asked if I was the person who wrote horse racing for ESPN online.
This is not an easy question to answer. The answer is "Yes" to most women, "No" to all drunks, "Maybe" to people holding pari-mutuel tickets. You can never tell who might think you somehow cost him or her a fortune, or are to blame for a bad childhood.
This man wore unfashionably distressed clothing, a corduroy sport coat that was a little ragged in the wrong place, by the elbow. He looked neither irate nor schooled in the martial arts.
"Sure," I said of the ESPN.com horse race gig.
"I want you to have this," the man said, placing an envelope in front of me.
I asked what it was.
He said it was a holiday gift. A very small gift.
I said that whereas I was paid nowhere near enough for the horse-writing work, I could get by in a pinch. I added something with holiday syrup, said that a smile from the readers was thanks enough.
The man said, "Enjoy," and went to a bar stool, as it was already 11 a.m.
Two cards were in the envelope, one with a turkey with a crinkly tail, the other with a snow man. Inside one of the cards was a ticket: two bucks across on a horse running out West later in the day.
Some people find the horse races, particularly an off-track betting facility, to be a slightly depressing place during the holidays. I find the opposite to be the case. Imagine where the guys and gals would be without the races. I love the turkey plates with gravy that would work in the crankcase of your motor vehicle; and the crooked Christmas tree with unnamed boxes below. How many times will the empty boxes be shaken between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a thousand? What says smile any better than a teller in a Santa hat.
Giving pari-mutuel tickets as a gift is a race-track thing. What could be more valuable than a person's best insight and wishes? Not to be too seasonally sappy, but when somebody gives you a ticket to a horse, he or she is sharing something more special than something off a store shelf, it's the fruit of a long-running labor.
Guess what. You guessed it. The horse won and paid a total of $25 and change.
I went to the bar and thanked the man for the holiday winner and asked how much he had on it. He said he hadn't bet. It was a gift, that's all, that simple. I tried to give him five bucks, but that attempt didn't go over too well. Acknowledging somebody's handicapping skill is thanks enough in a situation like this; so I drove directly to the first decent store and blew every penny on a Nellie McKay CD, two magazines and some rich chocolate.
Find a better start to the holidays. Go on. I'll wait right here.
Write to Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org