“If you wait until 4:08, you can get in for free,” the blatantly disinterested clerk at the entrance to Hollywood Park Racetrack and Casino informed me as I desperately tried to give her the $10 entry fee. It was 3:55 and I had already started to feel the effects of the weed chocolate I had eaten earlier, so I happily accepted her terms. I avoided making small talk with the clerk by feigning interest in my phone for 13 minutes. It’s surprising how little you can accomplish on a cell phone in 13 minutes. Finally, as the clock struck the “magic hour,” I sauntered through the gate with an extra $10 in my pocket, just ready to gamble it all away forever. There’s no such thing as a free ride, unless you’re high… or talking about the moribund sport of horse racing.
Much like the United States itself, horse racing culture can be divided into the camps of “have” and “have not.” The disparity between the gilded excesses of the Kentucky Derby and the barren wasteland of Hollywood Park is stark. Step-repeat lines, funny hats, and copious amounts of rich people materialize at Churchill Downs every year to see and be seen at what is an absurdly anachronistic, passé sport. The everyday reality of horse racing is that the stands are not even a third full, and instead of expensive suits and strange headgear, people wear varsity jackets with cougars embroidered on the back. Horse racing was and still is a pastime of our grandparents.
This is my good friend Caitlin (whose name isn’t really Caitlin). That is a hit of acid on her tongue. She did acid once, four years ago, and she’s doing it again now, just before we head out to the Kentucky Derby, because the only way to attend the most famous horse race in the world—an event that features thousands of drunken gamblers, straight-up drunks, and a roiling, seersuckered mess of Southern gentry—is to trip your head off for the whole thing.
An hour later, we arrived at Churchill Downs, which was pretty miserable in the rain. As with every major public gathering in America, tons of cops and security guards were on hand at the entrance to direct foot traffic and remind us all that we live in a post-9/11 security state. I knew the acid was starting to kick in when she compared this routine checkpoint to being a Jew in Hitler’s Germany: “I swear we are in a concentration camp. Look at how they are herding everyone.” Is this how Alex Jones fans are made?
Our tickets were for the infield, the area surrounded by the racetrack that turns into a big muddy party for the duration—sort of like a music festival without music but worse, if you can picture that. This area is designated for those who don’t want to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a ticket, belligerent drunks, and 40-something divorcees trying to get freaky. It’s cheap because you can’t really tell what’s going on, horse-racing wise.
…But in order to reach the infield, we first had to fight our way through a tunnel that smelled like a rotting asshole—the air was filled with cigar and cigarette smoke, vomit, and bourbon. Caitlin asked me if we were in hell.
To those who aren’t horse racing fans—a category that includes nearly every person on Earth who isn’t incredibly wealthy or an aging alcoholic gambling addict with a permanent hacking cough—the Kentucky Derby, known to insiders as “the horse race that is happening this weekend in Kentucky,” is a mysterious, somewhat stupid tradition. The horseletes (like athletes, but they’re horses) have names like “Orb,” “Vyjack,” and “Palace Malice” and are owned by characters who could be James Bond movie villains. The people who are really into the Derby wear awful hats and get day-drunk on minty cocktails that taste like your grandfather. Not only that, the race is ten “furlongs” long, which means no one knows how long it actually is. So why care about it? Because it gives you a chance to root for—and gamble on—a horselete of your choosing, and distract you from your mostly miserable, horse-free life for two minutes, or however long it takes to run ten furlongs.
But what horselete should you bet on for? Presumably you don’t have a personal connection with one of the animals, and unless you are a huge fan of orbs or whatever a vyjack is, a name alone won’t determine your rooting interest. Which is why I’ve compiled this handy guide for you that matches up your personality with a corresponding horselete.
You Hate Hippies If you get into heated arguments with Greenpeace canvassers and routinely go on rants about the evils of PETA, why not throw your support to Frac Daddy? This horse is, of course, named after thecontroversial natural gas extraction technique—primary owners Carter Stewart and Ken Schlenkermade their money in the oil and gas business. They decided not to name him “Frack Daddy,” I guess, because spelling, like environmentalism, is for loosers.
You Love Diversity Horse racing is one of the few sports where men and women compete on the same playing field. There have been a number of jockettes (“lady jockeys”) who have ridden in the Derby, but none of them have won, yet. Rosie Napravnik’s ninth-place finish in the 2011 race is the best to date from a female rider, and she’ll be atop Mylute for this year’s edition.
Meanwhile, Kevin Krigger, who will be riding Goldencents, is the third African American jockey to ride in the Derby since 1921. Krigger is relatively unknown, but had arguably one of the best prep races leading up to the Derby, proving he deserves a spot this Saturday. A win by either Napravnik of Krigger would make history at an event that, um, has not always been known for its embrace of progressive politics.
Horse Racing Is Totally Depressing When You’re Blind
“Do you like sodomy? Do you like artificiality and cars? If so, stay in LA. Why would you decide to come to LA? If there’s wisdom I can give you, it’s leave LA. Do you fight?”
An artifact of some twisted bizarro strip stood in front of me in the bearing, smoggy heat, with foppish yellow pants, army jacket, scrunched up face, and a thick mane of dreads. He had a sociopath’s smirk and stood too close. On home turf this kind of thing is easy to ignore, but my friend and I were stuck in front of Sunshine Liquors just south of the 210 in Pasadena, duffel bags on the curb, waiting for a ride to the racetrack.
“Do you gamble?”
In whatever dazed alternate reality he lived in, the guy somehow still smelled it on us. When we said yes, he pushed, “Can I come to Santa Anita with you and gamble?” I managed to fend off the question. Then in normal derelict-gadfly fashion, he got bored and turned: “Well, I’m going inside to get some liquor.” He got about 20 feet away and then spun around, and offered, his voice raised the way your grandma would offer tea sandwiches, “Do you want to fight?”
Contrast this with the three homies we found spliffed up and and drinking tall cans at the bus stop ten minutes before. Nelson was just a truck driver, but his friends revered him, because last year he won the Super High Five at the Preakness Stakes. That’s in Baltimore, the second leg of the Triple Crown competition (which starts with the Kentucky Derby this weekend) and one of the biggest and oldest horse races in America.
Searching for Illicit Animal-Fighting Rings in Kabul
VICE correspondent Gelareh Kiazand travels to Kabul in search of illicit gambling rings where men bet on quail fights, buzkashi (it’s like polo, but with a headless goat), and dog fights. But first she has to find Dardar, the only figure in Kabul’s gambling world who can get our crew into the betting circle.
A sawdust joint is an end-of-the line kind of gambling parlor. It’s a place without frills and pretension.This column will be about gambling and gamblers; about regular people who play games for money. Most won’t be geniuses or savants. Some will win a little money. Many will lose a lot. But all of them will have a good sawdust story to tell.
It was well past midnight when we pulled into the parking lot of a Greek diner on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. We had been driving around most of the night in search of a gin game that Josh heard about from a guy he played backgammon with in Bryant Park. It was supposed to be a modest game, a bunch of MaBSTOA guys who got together at this underground poker room once a week to play gin for a nickel a point. That sounds like chump change, but in gin it can add up to hundreds of dollars a hand.
It had been years since either of us had done anything like this. I figured our days of chasing action around the city were behind us—spending the night in strange industrial spaces playing cards with even stranger people, asking guys to vouch for us, yelling into intercom boxes that we know so-and-so and we’ve shot pool with so-and-so, late-night phone calls telling us that the game is really wild right now and get down here fast. We were adults now. We gambled like squares—out in the open in a smoke-filled racino, or huddled over a computer late at night like creepy perverts. This outing had proved that we had lost the ability to sniff out underground games, and this diner would be the site of our surrender. We corralled a booth, ordered eggs and coffee, stuck the knock card in an empty glass, and dealt the cards.
“Penny a point?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“You ever been to this place before?”
As a matter of fact, I had.
The Gambler’s Book Shop in Las Vegas is a modest little store, but it is filled with every kind of media on every gambling-related topic you could imagine. You can buy a DVD that teaches you how to control the roll of a die. You can buy a photocopied booklet that teaches you how to master Chinese Poker. Josh and I have taken many cab rides from the Strip out to the Gambler’s Book Shop over the years and have built up a couple of decent-sized gambling libraries of our own. On one such trip in 2009 we came for one book and one book only—a tome they kept behind the counter, safely locked away. When Josh asked for it, Howard Schwartz, the shop’s owner, looked skeptical.
“Do you know how much that book costs?” Schwartz asked.
“I know how much it is.” Josh replied. Schwartz knelt down, unlocked the display case, and carefully laid the book down on the counter in front of us. It was a deep hunter green square with leather binding and gold inlaid lettering on the cover. It looked like a bible, perhaps intentionally. Josh fingered the cover’s gold lettering. “Gin Rummy – A Predator’s Guide.” And there below the title, in smaller letters: “Michael Sall.”
Historically speaking, a casino is a place to lose money and time and wear a bad shirt (ortake acid and go to a Lauryn Hill concert). What it isn’t is a place for a priest. So when I heard that Melbourne’s Crown Casino employs a full-time priest I said fuck off. But they do. They really do. That man is Friar James Grant, a plain-spoken dude of the cloth who spends his days chatting to lost souls in what must be one of the least spiritual places on Earth. I met him in the food court—where he knew everyone—to talk God, gambling, and whether or not he wanted to play craps with me.
VICE: So what are you doing here? Friar James Grant: I offer counseling services. A lot of the people come to the casino because they’re lonely or they’re depressed. I always tell people to look at the bigger picture. OK, so you might have a gambling problem, but what else is going on in your life? What’s the bigger picture?
Do you tell people it’s wrong to gamble? No, I don’t think it is. There’s nothing in the bible that says it’s wrong to gamble. What’s bad, and this goes for booze and drugs and driving your car 200 miles an hour down the road, is a lack of moderation. I would consider that in moderation, gambling could be considered a normal human activity.
So drugs are OK in moderation? I don’t know about that, I’m simply saying you have the right to free will. Do you have the right to walk in here? Absolutely. Do you have the right to take drugs and fuck your life up? Yes you do. Is it a good decision? No, it’s a dickhead decision but if I try to stop you, if I say “you no longer have the right to do that,” then I’m reducing your humanity. And God wants a full life for everyone.
Wow, that doesn’t seem typical of the Catholic belief system. And you said “Fuck.” [Laughs] Yes well, I’m just speaking for myself. I don’t espouse what you might think of as the normal Catholic agenda but then I think the Church needs to change. There are too many priests who never go into the real world. They sit in their church and wait for the congregations to come to them. That’s useless. I think I serve a much more useful roll by providing counseling where people need it and speaking like a real human being.
The United States has done a terrible job of managing its vices. There’s the ongoing disaster that is the War on Drugs, there’s our undedicated take on the sex trade, our legacy of alcohol prohibition, and—our topic today—the idiotic, confused, “pretend it’s not happening” approach to most forms of gambling.
While Indian and state-run casinos have popped up, nothing much has been done to address illicit sports betting, whose volume has been conservatively estimated at a shit-ton of money. Americans bet over $12 billion on this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tourney; about $10 billion changed hands forthe Super Bowl.Las Vegas sees a $100 million jump in March for the tourney, and the rest is underground.
Compare this to the UK and Ireland, where there’s basically a betting shop on every block. It’s a highly regulated industry there, and it’s no big deal: Anyone from your grandmother to your priest to your grandmother’s priest can lay a bet on the game. I sat down with Justin Goldman of BetDash, an English social gambling site, about how it’s different over there. (Before you Americans get excited, BetDash isn’t available to US customers.)
VICE: How did you end up moving to Ireland and working in the gambling industry? Justin: Originally I developed a fantasy sports gambling program, which used a virtual bankroll to play against your online friends. We got acquired by Paddy Power in Ireland and brought it over to develop a version for the European market, using real money this time.
Have you always gambled? Don’t tell my parents, but yes. I’ve been betting on sports for a long, long time. It just makes it more interesting. I’ve got a vague memory of betting my friend’s older brother on something—can’t remember what—and not getting paid because he was a lot older and a lot bigger than me. I remember that sucking. I don’t exactly remember how I learned the basics of sports betting but it’s not a very complicated subject. I’m 30 years old and grew up in the northeast suburbs of Philly. BetDash is my current venture, it’s an online community in which you can bet real money, like if FarmVille paid cash for growing crops.
How do the betting shops in the UK and Ireland work? They are no different than how your neighborhood bookie works in the US. Every bet they offer has a bit of margin built into it. Ideally on any given bet they hope to have equal action from both sides of the market, which guarantees them a profit. For example if the Eagles are -7 vs. the Dallas Cowboys who are +7, as a bettor you have to risk $110 to earn $100 on either side of that bet. If they take two bets on the game, one on the Eagles and one on the Cowboys for $100 each, they are guaranteed a $10 profit.
How does the betting experience in the US compare to that in Europe? The online betting companies here in Europe are light years ahead of the US in terms of the product sophistication. For example, for an average NFL matchup, a US bookie might offer you only a few “markets,” or areas to bet on, such as who will win, total points, etc., but here, you’ll have over 80 markets per match. If you want to bet on who will score the first touchdown… you can pretty much bet on whatever you could think of.
Some media outlets enlist entire staffs of college basketball experts and “bracketologists” to pick NCAA tournament games, but we’ve found that not only do so-called experts always go for the chalk and predict that three one-seeds will make the Final Four, they also have terrible hygiene habits. Fun fact: The ESPN College GameDay crew doesn’t even use toilets, they piss and shit indiscriminately wherever they happen to be. Their green room is disgusting. So we decided to go with a much cleaner, and more intelligent game picker: Olive the Hairless Cat. Here’s her predictions for Thursday’s games, along with the occasional behind-the-scenes look at her deliberation process:
Wichita State (5) vs. VCU (12)
Wichita State has decent “length,” as a scout and/or a groupie would say, but VCU is the home of GWAR and went far in last year’s tourney. Both teams are pretty exciting and one will go home unhappy, unless, that is, GWAR is on the flight home. This should be one of the better draws in the round.
Olive’s pick: VCU
Indiana (4) vs. New Mexico State (13)
It’s pretty crazy to think that no one knows where the term “Hoosier” came from.
Olive’s pick: Indiana
Olive’s pick for VCU vs. Indiana on Saturday: VCU
Murray State (6) vs. Colorado State (11)
Colorado State’s offense is a bit better than Murray State’s, but its defense is much, much worse. And Murray State has a fun name. It’s like calling a school University of Steve.