Mario Stories

Growing Up at the Track

THE REQUEST: Write about hanging out with your dad

Author's Note: There are a few stories on this list where you're gonna read them, and you're gonna think "No WAY is that true. You HAVE to be making that up." But I can assure you, all of these stories are indeed true. And that's especially important to point here at the start of this one.

I know you're not going to believe this story happened. But it did. This really was why my childhood was different than yours.

People think I'm exaggerating when I say this, but I had to have had the single weirdest childhood of any kid growing up in the early 80s. And the reason why I say that is because unlike most little kids from that era, I didn't grow up at school. And I didn't grow up on the playground. And I didn't grow up playing video games. And I most certainly didn't grow up hanging out with my friends. No, the childhood my dad chose for ME was much different.

I am the only seven year old I knew who spent the vast majority of my childhood at the track*.

*insider slang for the local horse race track

My childhood

So here's the deal. When I was born, in 1974, my dad, he had a dream for me. But it's not the dream that most parents have for their kids.

He wanted his son to become a dentist? Nope.
He wanted his son to study the law? Nah, screw that. That was my brother.
He wanted his firstborn son to become a great doctor? No way. Med school is just way too much work.

No, my dad wanted ME to become a handicapper. He wanted me to be able to tell him who was going to win every horse race.

People always think I'm kidding when I talk about this, but I'm not. This literally WAS my childhood for the first seven or eight years of my life. The minute my dad figured out I was good at math (I was, when I was seven, no other kid could possibly match me in math)... and the minute he figured out I had a good memory (I do, to this day I tend to remember just about everything)... I mean, the minute he figured out I had the math, the memory, the reading skills, the logic skills, and the intelligence, he was all in. He literally tried to turn me into a seven year old Rain Man.

And this is why I say, seriously, this was basically every other day of my life when I was in first grade.

My dad would pick me up from school, and we'd drive over to the track. And he'd buy me the day's racing form. And I was supposed to study it, and memorize all of the names and the numbers. And then I was supposed to compare it to the racing form from LAST week, and see if I could pick out any patterns. Oh, and I was also supposed to memorize all the little insider racing stats, like mudding time, stable victory percentage, and wins per average jockey weight. I mean, seriously, like... this was my HOMEWORK. He cared more about THIS than he cared about my homework from school! And keep in mind that this wasn't only on Saturdays. This also happened on school days!

Side note: My dad may or may not have had a gambling problem, we're not sure.

So my dad and I were at the track what felt like every. single. goddamn. day. of my life. when I was a kid. And of course it goes without saying that he had lots of friends who always hung out at the track too, the same way that he did. And naturally, because these weird old cigar-smoking guys were my dad's friends, that meant that they soon also became MY friends. And that's why, instead of having friends like Little Timmy, Or Little Bobby, my friends were sixty-year-old men named Al the Pal. Or Crazy Jimmy who lives in a van. THESE were the weird, unsavory characters I was hanging around with every day when we lived in Spokane. Oh, and also, keep in mind... I WAS SEVEN!

My first grade peer group

In any case, to make a long story short, my dad's dream to turn me into the world's youngest horse racing handicapper never really came to fruition the way that he'd wanted it to. Because even though I COULD memorize all the little stuff in the racing programs, I didn't really WANT to. I mean, I didn't give a frog's fat ass about who was the best mudder*. Or which stable tended to win the most on the weekends. And I certainly didn't give a shit if my dad hit the Trifecta**, which meant we could all go out to dinner that night and eat steak. My only priority when I was seven was I wanted to go down to the kids area of the racetrack and play video games.

* a horse who runs well in the mud
** when you successfully predict the first, second, and third place horse in the same race

My dad kept up the charade for a couple of years, of course. I really did essentially grow up at the track. But all that really came out of the experience at the end was that I eventually got really, really good at playing video games. Oh, and also, I eventually became one of the world's greatest connoisseurs of hot dogs. Take it from me, your seven year old track expert. All racetracks have really good hot dogs.

I mean, screw the races. In 1981, this was MY Trifecta.

Postscript: This wasn't the only time one of my family members tried to turn little kid me into something I had absolutely NO interest in becoming. At some point in the future I need to tell you the story of my grandfather, and how CONVINCED he was that I was going to become a pro golfer. And, uh, let's just say that after many years of efforts, my grandpa's attempts bore no fruit. I'm not sure if you have noticed this, but I am not a pro golfer.

Postscript #2: Okay now this is a pretty funny story. About seven years after this story (1988), I was in school in eighth grade. And one day during P.E. class my teacher, Mr. Dunn, made some comment in class about how, after school, he was going to go to the track. And then he sort of caught himself right afterwards, when he realized that no kid in eight grade had any clue what the hell "the track" even was. And I remember him questioning us as were getting ready to leave for the day. He was like, "Have any of you ever been to the track before?" Nope. No one ever had. Crickets. Then he was like, "Have any of you ever even HEARD of the track?" And nope. Nothing once again. Total crickets. And he just sort of laughed at himself. He was like of course you don't know that, you guys aren't old enough. And meanwhile I'm sitting there thinking, KNOW about the track? Hell, I could tell you which attendant to bribe if you want to get into Longacres for free. My dad had already taught me all the little insider tricks eight years ago! 

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