The Discrimination of a Horseplayer

Image by freepik

Remarkably, there are people in this world who dislike horseplayers and maybe even despise them. Some think of us as total and complete lowlifes, merely because we choose to wager on horses instead of playing poker, the slots, the lottery, or betting on sports.

Being discriminated against for being a horseplayer is nothing new to me. I've dealt with it since I was a kid and still do, on occasion.

Surprisingly, horse racing discrimination can come from all angles, even close friends and family.

Watching the Radio.

As a young child, I took a big interest in my grandfather's horse racing bookmaking operation, and one of the first perks I remember receiving from my inquisitiveness was a case of flash paper. This made me extremely popular with the kids in my neighborhood, and we all agreed that any job or hobby that worked with this magical stuff needed further looking into. One could say that flash paper got me (more) interested in horseracing. Our family usually visited my grandparents in Queens, NY, on the weekends. I'd usually find Granddad in the basement quietly doing his paperwork, and counting money while listening to the races and results on the radio. Once in a while, I'd visit or stay with my grandparents during the week and the basement day scene was very different. Grandpa usually had some loud, wild, and crazy friends over.

Up to a dozen horse enthusiasts would be jumping around and screaming a foot away from the radio in the cellar of his "insurance and real estate" establishment watching it like a TV while pounding the racing form against their hips. You could feel the excitement and intensity, before, during, and after the contest and you couldn't help but notice the obvious emotions of the horseplayers. You could sense the pure joy of the people who had the winner and the sadness of the losers and every reaction in between. The entire scene was beyond exciting and a lot to take in.

You had folks who thought it was a perfect ride on the winner and others who said the race was fixed and their horse got stiffed.

There were cheers, jeers, moans, groans, and the throwing of many foreign and domestic objects, especially during and after a close finish.

Paperwork and money were constantly being exchanged and odds were spoken about non-stop by cigar-smoking men with cool nicknames like Vinny the Butcher, One-Eyed Joey, (he had both eyes, so no idea why), Hot Dog, and The Chicken Man. You couldn't possibly make up characters like these fellows and although they seemed to be having fun, they also seemed very serious. This was no ordinary baseball, football, or hockey game. People were so extremely alive when a race went off and seemed sincerely happy, even if it was for only a few minutes. I'm not sure who wouldn't be impressed no matter how old you were and that was without even seeing a horse!

My grandfather lived only a block from Aqueduct Racetrack and he first brought me there in 1970, when I was ten years old. He and I were the only people in our family who even knew how many legs a racehorse had. We were frowned upon by all of the clan, and most friends and neighbors too, for simply being horseplayers.

You would automatically be classified as a degenerate gambler and you sure weren't ever getting a loan from anybody (except from another horse player) even if it was an emergency. You would surely take that money you said you needed to bring your sick kid to the hospital and run directly to the racetrack. You'd put it on a nag to win and come home with a sob story about the horse stumbling out of the gate and losing by a nose at odds of 100/1.

These non-horseplayers even had a preconceived notion of what a horseplayer looked like and how he acted.

The gambling villain would of course be unshaven and slightly smelly, wear a sleeveless stained white tee shirt, have tattoos, smoke and drink to excess, beat his wife and kids, chase married women around, and partake in drugs and prostitution.

I was stereotyped and categorized negatively by most families I knew and had no idea why. Horse racing was a dark evil shitstain to these folks, even though they lived close to several major racetracks. Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Roosevelt Raceway were all within 20 miles of my house and Yonkers and The Meadowlands were only an hour away.

I attended a strict Catholic school for 8 years of my youth and cut out one day to attend the races at Aqueduct with another schoolmate. When word of our adventure made its way through the loop of school society, one girl went directly to the nuns and turned us in.

I never made it to the principal's office but Sister Joanne did have a chat with me and I was reminded that gambling, skipping school, and lying about it were mortal sins and I might be spending some time in purgatory for my poor choices. 

Corrupted by a Terrible Sickness.

My parents never went to a racetrack, and never bet a horse, or gambled in their entire existence on this planet. It was the same story for my brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

But I caught the horse fever quite early and took first place as the family's black sheep at just ten years old.

My mother was the daughter of a long-time bookmaker, horse owner, and bettor and had seen quite enough of horse racing and gambling in her day.

She witnessed many fellows lose their businesses, houses, cars, wives, and kids due to horse racing, so she didn't want me involved.

My poor grandfather took some tremendous heat for introducing me to this new sport. Most family members viewed his tutoring like he had taken a pure innocent young soul and brought me over to the dark side and had "corrupted me with his terrible sickness," as my father once put it.

My parents weren't happy with either of us for a long time.

When introduced to my father's friends as a teenager, the meeting would go something like this:

"This is my son, Peter. He's a horseplayer."

His friends always laughed at first but usually ended the introduction by telling me what an evil place the racetrack was and that I should stop going there before I lost everything.

I was confused and didn't know what to make of my "classification." The bad things I heard about the racetrack were all from non-horseplayers and I started to wonder since they didn't play the horses and never went to the racetrack, how did they know it was so evil?

I had many wonderful days logged in at the track with my grandfather at the time and never saw any crazy or devious activity among the horse-playing crowd. Sure, there was the occasional fight and the rare scam or robbery and, you could always count on at least one person a day losing their shit over a ride, ticket mistake, or a disqualification.

But this was NY and that could happen on any given street on any given day about anything.

Horse Racing Brings People Together.

What I did see at the racetrack was the exact opposite of the bad habits of a horseplayer that were described to me.

Unlike my father, my grandfather seemed so proud to introduce me to his friends at the track and I was proud to be there. I was immediately accepted because I WAS a horse player. I also sincerely loved hanging out with these old fellows. Their experiences and stories were incredible and they were always eager to share their vast horse-racing and worldly knowledge. I realized being at the racetrack with my 70-year-old grandfather and his friends was where I wanted to be. There seemed to be respect among horseplayers and a brotherhood like no other. It was almost as if you were soldiers in a war together, sometimes tending to each other's wounds and encouraging each other through the uphill 9-race battle.

When I looked at my grandfather's crowd they were all clean-shaven, wore nice suits and ties, and even smelled good. Everyone seemed to have a great time talking and laughing together and no one was crying, getting beat up, borrowing money for their habit, getting drunk, or chasing anyone's wife.

I spent the next several years observing the masses at the racetracks, always looking for signs of the degenerate horse players I was warned about.

Surprisingly, my summation was that horse racing brought people together. People who might be enemies on the mean streets of New York and looking to stab each other could sometimes be seen sharing a smoke and a racing form under the tote board at Aqueduct. Old winning and losing horse stories were abundant and usually ended with laughter and a slap on the back, or a light punch in the shoulder. The crowd seemed almost respectable and the day pretty wholesome, with a semi-family-like atmosphere.

It was also cool that you could start a conversation with any stranger at the track by asking them who they liked in the upcoming race. This person might turn out to be a total dick and want to fight you or he might provide some valuable insight for the race and become your best friend. Even if you disagree with their assessment, you probably felt good meeting and speaking with another horseplayer and trading picks. Over the years, these social encounters at the track have led to countless new acquaintances, jobs, and even girlfriends for me and I'm 100% sure it also kept me out of a lot of trouble.

I also absorbed how much horseracing kept these older fellows alive. It gave them something to occupy their time and kept them out of the hospital and probably the graveyard, as they never wanted to miss a day of racing or even a single race.

There was no simulcasting back then at the racetracks and the Off-Track Betting parlors were few and far between. So, the Aqueduct and Belmont meetings were a major event in the area and the locals were religious at attending. Old Italian guys would stake out a quiet corner and plop down a big brown oil-stained bag containing snacks and their lunch. They'd talk about how their tomatoes were doing and trade stories of how their figs survived the winter and how bad the Mets (NY baseball team) sucked.

This was their daily life and entire social connection. They hated Mondays and Tuesdays as there was no racing and they didn't know what to do with themselves on those dark days stuck in the house. A few hours of handicapping and a day at the races while socializing filled their day with joy.

It seemed the day wasn't always about winning or losing.

These are some of my ideal memories and initial interpretations of horse racing. Things have changed a bunch since those days but some remain the same. 

Few could argue there is nothing like the thrills encountered and the pure intensity of live horse racing and there never will be anything close. I feel extremely sorry for those who have never bet on a live race. Sadly, some people will live their entire lives without ever experiencing this unique action.

But I feel even sorrier for those who look down on horseracing and horseplayers and perhaps if they spent a day at the track they might change their tune.

For we are not animals, we only bet on them.

By Peter Monaco.

Photo: Freepik 


  1. Peter,
    What a fascinating article about who I personally know to be an amazing writer and person.
    Your stories are legendary, and I still hope you'll reconsider continuing on with your writing - which gives so many people, like myself, so much joy. 🙏

  2. Thanks for your comment, Lisa. Yes, it's such an insightful piece. Sure all amblers across the globe can appreciate his words. Always great to have Peter writing and I'm hoping that can resume soon with a slight change of fortunes on my part. However, I am always appreciative of his excellent writing.

  3. Yet another excellent article. My hometown got a QH racetrack, and even as a small child i always won enough to pay for my family's parking, because I. knew horses! I knew to bet on the favorite who was alert but not burning too much energy. ... Was the flash paper to help with photography to determine who won by a nose, or was it to burn the bookie betting evidence :) ?

  4. Anothet excellent article .. are you still posting in LinkedIn? Was the flash paper to help with photography to determine who won by a nose, or was it to burn the bookie betting evidence :) ? As a child I always did well, paying for my parents' parking, at the local QH track, because I always bet on the favorite who was alert but calm when the walked past us to load into the starting gate, sending my dad to bet for me ;).


Thanks for taking the time to comment. All spam will be deleted.