I made a bet …

I have the good fortune to be a trustee of The RI Historical Society and a member of the committee planning their upcoming Spring event, Horsing Around: Rhode Island’s Horse Racing Heyday. The Historical Society recently obtained thousands of negatives of photographs taken at Narragansett Race Track which opened in 1934 and closed in 1978.

I was a student at Providence College when a gang of us decided to go to Narragansett to see the races. Until then, I had only two ‘peripheral’ exposures to horse racing:  I worked as a driver for my uncle’s market when, on occasion, he asked me to go to the corner newspaper store to get him the daily racing form which I believed he called The Armstrong. The other was a carnival game where, to win, we had to get the mechanical horses to race up a slanted board to the top.

The first thing that surprised me when I walked up the ramp to the Narragansett Track was its’ size. Though it was late in the lifetime of the raceway, it had the capacity for 40,000 people. In its heyday, the track consisted of a one-mile racing oval, a huge grandstand, a row of betting and paying booths, a clubhouse, and lots of barns.

According to the Historical Society, by the late 1930s, “Gansett,” as it was popularly known, was the most profitable track in the country, attracting crowds of 40,000 or more. In the late 30s and 40s, it became a gathering place for celebrities such as Milton Berle, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Lou Gehrig. Impressive place.

I stood for a moment at the top of the ramp to admire the track and to watch a race. The bell rang and as the horses bolted out of the gate to the eruption of “They’re off,” a murmur arose in escalating decibels. As the horses rounded the near turn, I was astounded by the swell of emotion, cheering, yelling, screaming; a passion I did not understand. “What the heck is this?” I wondered. “Why is the noise rising to this pitch?”

It drifted to a muffled murmur as human feet shuffled in place or clicked along to the pay booths.  I turned to the usher, “How do you bet on a race?”

“OK, son, here’s my advice. Ya see that exit. Go to and through it, don’t turn roun ‘n nevah come back.”

“Aw, you gotta be kidding.” Forsaking his advice, I went to place a bet; not sure on what horse or with what reasoning. I returned to the stands. “They’re off!”

As they made the far turn, I stood on my toes and stretched my neck, now realizing why people roared. It was about money. Holding ticket on high, now I began to roar, jump and stomp. I wanted to win. “Go four! Go!”

By the time they hit the finish line, I was sweating from jumping and hoarse from screaming.

I tore my ticket and went for another.

** Published in GoLocalProv

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Horsing Around: Rhode Island’s Horse Racing Heyday

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