Loser Takes All

The Monkey King Dances is from a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published.

Jockey Mac Grenson. No wins. Voted "Most Enthusiastic" by his peers 10 years running.

Jockey Mac Grenson. No wins. Voted "Most Enthusiastic" by his peers 10 years running.


In the fourth of our occasional columns by Chronicle sub-editor JEFF WINKLER, our love affair with the race track is scrutinised, to the detriment of all the wallets involved.

Every kid in my hometown had to slog through the muck of “Career Day”. It was even required as a class for a semester at level 9. Twelve years of staring at aptitude surveys like a crystal ball; searching for your “dream job” and looking for that perfect career where you are happy so long as you made money. Looking back, I don’t remember once seeing anything about becoming a racehorse bookie.

I feel cheated.

In all fairness to the deprivations of my childhood, I did manage to steal a fair share of monopoly cash when it was my turn to be the bank, and all has been forgiven now that I’ve found the Mecca and the glory that is the Wanganui race track.

It was already 1pm when I decided to find the race course. No worries, though. Watson said it would go on until five, a day long pursuit of hopeless chances, much like how I imagine the upcoming mayoral election to be. I’d only seen the place once or twice since arriving. It was memorable only for the smell of horse manure and a billboard of my new employer on the outside wall.

I would like think I made the 20 minute walk without asking direction, by way of a highly-attuned mental compass. But in reality, it was my wallet, which I used like a dowser. Just as the magic water stick vibrates above a good springs, the closer I got to the track the lighter the wallet felt in my back pocket. Just as I began to feel the last coins float away, I saw the field of cars covering the grounds.

The first task was to sniff through the stadium maze to my eventual throne of fortune. I finally made it to the general seating through a process of elimination – figuring out where it was I couldn’t go. The gated jockey area was an obvious no-fly-zone and the glass walls entombing the champagne bottles, ties and dress was another place I knew at the very least, I wouldn’t be accepted with open arms.

Just as climbers are told to acclimatize to elevating heights, so too should those experiencing their first horse race. The whole structure is a deceptive lure, like a social Venus flytrap. Wanganui moves slow and the white concrete walls and poorly designed water garden suggested a similar mood inside. But in the belly of the beast, the packed crowd groped those leaning on the DB Draught graveyards – that tried to pass off as tables – and the shouts of the announcer, the hovering Tvs, and the crowd became indistinguishable; coming harmoniously together in a satanic choir of greed.

The number of people who know how to pick the winning horses is baffling.

Based on the advice and confidence of those around me, I had to be have been surrounded by at least 20 millionaires. There are, of course, many strategies to winning and my first couple of bets could be characterized as leech-like. For the first race, I was going to go on the horses looks and leeched on to the Chronicle’s photographer, Nikki, hoping her well-developed eye would catch the star.

Back inside, Watson grinned cunningly and gruffly instructed: “Go for one, two and six, mate. Those’re your winners. One, two and six, hm.” He was flushed with previous wins and gave his confident wink. I had no choice but to stick leech-like to the master.

It’s difficult for me to sustain too long an interest in watching sports where there isn’t a heavy bet and a tight point spread, which might be the appeal of horse racing. Unlike, say, gridiron where commentators can talk about the glory of the game with a straight face, horse racing’s most direct reason for existence is to bet on the outcome. Standing at the edge of the bleachers, watching the tense faces of the crowd as the horses lined up at the gate, I appreciated more and more this expedient cut-out-the-middle-man event for short-attention spans.

My ears perked when I heard the sharp sound of my horses’ names come through the loud speaker, and for the last thirty seconds of the race, I was lost, barely hearing my own vicious encouragement or feeling my arms wave as my boys raced the last 100 metres.

Then it was all over, with a two-out-of-three pick. I handed in my sub and came back with the two dollar winnings on a three-pick, one dollar each-way ticket. And that was the end of my victories. Using the same, Watson-winning method, I picked three losers, then switching tactics, and judged talent by names – “surely Russian Conquest would pillage the competition” – and  lost yet again.

In retrospect, you’re probably playing a dangerous game when judging your “victory” by how much you didn’t lose. Then again, I’m also equating the money I spent on booze and a race book.

By the end of the day, I could speak fairly fluent gamblese to the bookies behind the metal bars and I clutched the racing form and ticket with the type of natural vigilance usually reserved for overbearing mothers.

At one tender moment, a wave of euphoric satisfaction swept over me when I realized I was having a great time. I felt calm and secure. The next paycheck was only a few minutes away and if that didn’t work, the Big One was in 40 minutes.

It didn’t take long to figure out where this feeling came from. Directly in front of me was the bar. To my right, the food bin was being stuffed with the best treats. Behind me was the race and to my left, the computers whizzed and the cash registers rang. I was in the eye of the storm, an economic vortex sucking dollars from every orifice of the body.

People keep asking how my first day at the races went. I’ve run out of ways to describe it and am left with only a revealing, personal acknowledgment.

“I’m glad this track isn’t open every week.”

Wanganui Chronicle, Sept. 15, 2007