If I'd stayed, I might have been rich
February 22, 2013
He was just a little man, sitting alone in a darkened corner of the Oaklawn Park clubhouse, back in the shadows where the aging spiders spun their webs, virtually ignored, overlooked, and forgotten by the mass of humanity fighting their way to the betting windows.
An occasional belly laugh.
The scraping of leather shoe soles against piles of losing tickets torn and scattered on the floor.
Mostly, it was quiet.
Blind Peaches was smiling as though he knew the answer to mysteries that others did not know and would pay dearly to learn.
He had sat ignored, overlooked, and forgotten for years, out of sight and out of the way, listening to owners and trainers and jockeys, packing their spare words into the innards of his brain. He heard their secrets. They became his own.
Outside the horses were running.
Blind Peaches could hear them.
He could not see them.
He didn’t need to.
If it were the right horse and the right race and the right conditions and the right jockey, saddling up for the right trainer, he knew who had the best chance of winning.
It hardly ever failed him.
Even when he lost, Blind Peaches didn’t lose much.
Blind Peaches didn’t have much to lose.
His smile grew broader. His black and white cane sat on the floor beside him, and he was selling the last of his overnighters, those racing entries scheduled for the following day. A dollar could get you a winner. A dollar could break you. Pay your money, and take your chances.
Blind Peaches always seated himself somewhere near a closed circuit television set, and during the calling of a race, the soft-spoken sage of Oaklawn refused to let himself be bothered with paying customers. He held the overnighters tightly against his chest, and leaned forward as tense muscles ironed the wrinkles from his face.
The horses were running.
He knew who would win.
Well, that really wasn’t true.
Blind Peaches had never been able to pick a guaranteed winner. “What I do,” he told me, “is eliminate the losers. In each race, only two or three horses can win. A long shot may be one of them. The rest have no chance. Cut out the losers, and you generally have a fifty-fifty chance to pocket a few dollars at the betting windows.”
It made sense.
“How do you eliminate the losers?” I asked.
He smiled. He winked. I was on my own.
Peaches had been around horses all of his life, had trained them until the unfortunate accident in Chicago that had left him sightless thirty-five years ago. He could have been bitter. He wasn’t. He could have had a better life.
“Selling overnighters isn’t bad,” he said. “It keeps me at the track. It keeps me near the horses. I earn enough to bet a little now and then.”
He wins a little now and then. He would win more, but a seller of overnighters doesn’t have a lot of money to bet. Blind Peaches told me, “Horse racing is the greatest and finest game of them all. It doesn’t owe me nothing. It’s given me a fine living. Life will give you anything you’ll get out and hustle for. The racetrack gave me a chance, and I can’t asking for nothing better..”
The smile grew broader.
He heard the announcer. He pulled a ticket from his shirt pocket and clutched it tightly against his chest. It was winner. Paid $3.60. Another winner, and he could eat that night.
He said, “Everybody here lives in hope. If I lose today, maybe I’ll win it all back tomorrow. Some come with fortunes and die broke. But I remember old Benny Creech. He lived on a shoestring, then he got lucky one day. He got hold of an old cheap horse that never learned how to lose. I’d like to find me one of them horses. They don’t come around often. A man’s got to be there when they do.”
Blind Peaches usually kept his personal tips to himself. He finally had mercy on me.
“Take that third horse in the seventh race,” he said. “That’s a Van Berg horse. Van Berg has been one of the country’s leading trainers for years. He doesn’t spend his time in fancy hotels. He’s out there in the stables with his horses. When Van Berg enters a horse, you can bet he’s ready to run. Third horse. Seventh race. Don’t forget it.”
“What’s his name?”
I nodded my thanks and walked outside where E. C. Barnhart was selling his green “guaranteed” tip sheets. He pulled his fading gray overcoat around his shoulders and told me, “There are four hundred and eighty tricks to a day’s race. You got to go to the right window and pick a horse with the right boy on his back. There are four hundred and eighty tricks to picking a winner, and I know most of them.”
So I bought a green tip sheet and hastily scanned down his list of predictions until I came to the seventh race. E. C. Barnhart had picked the number three horse.
He name, just as I suspected, was Ovation.
Ovation was worth two dollars. My photographer, Gerald Crawford, and I put up a dollar apiece. The odds were 3-1. We walked out with the crowd, and I heard the soft voice of Blind Peaches behind me. “You bet the right horse?” he asked.
“You be back tomorrow?”
“That’s a shame.”
“Come tomorrow, I could have made you rich.”
It was my one chance, and I left it ignored, overlooked, and mostly forgotten, sitting back in the shadows where aging spiders spun their webs. My one chance, and I blew it.
I never saw Blind Peaches again.