You can’t live on the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana, having been born in Kentucky and not know about horse racing. The gene for horses, the track and the two dollar bill was in our makeup and deeply entrenched in our blood. Evansville, Indiana was only about twenty minutes from Henderson, Kentucky where Ellis Park, built in 1922 was located.
The thoroughbred-racing season began in July and ran through Labor Day during the hottest part of the year. Steam rose off the cornfields as we drove the back roads to Ellis, which were nothing more than dirt tracks normally. At any other time of the year the farmer atop his tractor was the only traveler on those dirt roads. Boarded on each side by flooded or dry riverbanks, this route was quicker than the traffic laden Hwy 41, which was the main route to the track. From the back roads, we pulled onto the temporary parking lot of green grassy areas and Daddy squeezed our car into any conceivable space available. We walked the long way to the track, through dirt consisting of river bottom sand. The dust, mingled with sand, was picked up with the wind and circled us as we stopped along the way to watch the horses coming out of the stables. The brightly colored attire of the jockeys was stunning even in this smaller racetrack venue.
As children, we didn’t know that the horses weren’t necessarily Derby bound; we just knew that other kids our age didn’t get to go to the racetrack. In fact, we didn’t have any friends who went to the racetrack, except our cousins who lived on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.
At the track, our job was to pick a horse for each race. We made our selections, not by the talent of the horse or the skill of the jockey, but by the name of the horse-the name that just might bring us luck. With our two dollar bills tucked away in small pockets or hands, we happily followed our parent toward the grandstand where we watched our picks on their way to hopeful victory. While some people may have thought taking two young children to the racetrack was inappropriate, I prefer to think of it as another form of education. The experience introduced us to ratios, returns and chance. If you bet two dollars and your horse won, and it paid 2:1, you knew you were going to win four dollars. And if your horse, didn’t win, then you had two less dollars to spend. What a better way to practice basic math!
There was also the mystery of it all. How did you really know which horse was going to win? Mother certainly didn’t, but somehow she usually came home with at least one winning ticket. She would bet on a horse if it had one of our names, or if she liked the jockey, or the most mysterious of all-the color of the horse. If Mother saw a gray horse in the field, she would always bet on that horse. Even if it had the worst odds of winning. She would bet on that horse.
As an adult, with return trips to the track with my own children in tow, I would watch her bet on a gray horse, cheer for her off-the-wall choice, and then go collect her winnings. The rest of us tore up our losing ticket stubs and silently kicked ourselves for not betting on that gray horse.
Our other pleasure in going to the racetrack was the food. Hot dogs, popcorn, sodas and ice cream. There was always a little extra money to buy at least one treat, so our eyes, our stomachs and on occasion, our wallets were full from the excitement of the day. Real or imagined, it was one of the most fun things we did as children. Appropriate or not.
And still today on that first Saturday in May, for the Running of the Roses, my sisters and I discuss the entries for the Derby, call our brother in Indiana, and make our selections. Sometimes the four Strange kids win and sometimes we lose, but we always place our bets. And sometimes we have a mint julep, or two-just because we can!