The Littlest Gambler: Learning about Horse Races in the Catskills

18 Feb

It started with a phone call. We were in the Catskills in our bungalow behind my grandparents’ home on West Shore Road. We no longer stayed in their bungalow colony, which was located down the road across from Kauneonga Lake. But my paternal grandparents and my aunt and uncle and cousins still stayed at the colony.

The phone call was either from my father’s sister, my Aunt Leona, or my Grandma Esther. But honestly, I think it was my Aunt, from the way my Dad was talking. His conversation went something like this.

“When did they show up? Did you know they were coming? Okay. Okay, as soon as I can.”

He hung up the phone and turned to my Mom. “My Aunt Hady and Uncle Lenny are at the bungalow colony. We have to go down.”

My Mom was quiet. “They are here? Now?”

Well obviously yes. They were here. But who exactly were they? And why was it a big surprise? I had never heard of an Aunt Hady and Uncle Lenny. But I would soon find out all about them.

Aunt Hady was my paternal grandfather’s sister.   It seems she is the reason that my parents met. Aunt Hady and Uncle Lenny lived across the street from my maternal grandparents in West New York, New Jersey. She often shopped in my grandparents’ bakery and she knew my Mom. She told my Dad that she had the perfect wife for him. And in this case, she was right. Aunt Hady and Uncle Lenny were responsible for my parent’s meeting.

But Aunt Hady and Uncle Lenny were sort of the family black sheep. It seems Uncle Lenny was a gambler. Not a good thing in my paternal grandmother’s eyes. She really did not want them around her grandchildren. I found that out.

You see, I loved Uncle Lenny from moment I met him. Just a few minutes later we went to the bungalow colony, and my siblings and I met our great aunt and uncle for the first time. For me it was joy!

I remember Uncle Lenny’s laughter. I remember sitting on his lap and over the next few weeks learning everything you need to know to bet on the horses at the Monticello Racetrack.

He had these special booklets printed on newsprint that listed all the horses running in each race. In the book were numbers and information about each horse and how much you would get back if you bet on whether they win, place or show (first, second and third place.)

I would sit with him and go through the book each day. He always had pencil in his hand to make marks in the booklets. We would choose the best horses for the night. There were a lot of issues to consider. Had the horse won before? How old was the horse? Had he won against the other horses in this race? Who was the driver (This was a harness racing track.)? All these statistics! I loved it.

We would sit outside at a wooden table on nice days. When it was raining we would sit at the kitchen table and go through the book for each race. Sometimes we forgot about the odds and chose a horse based on its name. Special names were important as well when selecting a winning horse! Each day he let me chose one horse for him to bet on.   If I won, he would give me a dollar.

I think it was the dollar that finally got to Grandma!

I thought it was absolutely wonderful.

My grandmother thought it was absolutely horrible.

Little did I know what was going on! I was only 9 or 10 years old. And I was have a great time. But behind the scenes a war was brewing.

One day I was happily going through the races’ guide with Uncle Lenny. The next day he would barely speak to me.   Soon they disappeared. They stopped coming to the colony.   Their visits diminished. No one would speak about them. I had no idea what happened. Only that they were gone for the summer

I did not know what was happening till years later. Uncle Lenny had passed away and Aunt Hady was living in Monticello. Dad was going to visit her. When I found out, I asked about that summer.

It seems my Grandma Esther was furious that Uncle Lenny was teaching me about gambling, about racing and the horses. It seems the horses and gambling destroyed Uncle Lenny, and there was no way Grandma was going to let him influence me. Enough was enough. Uncle Lenny and Aunt Hady were bad influences. And they would have to go. And go they did. Grandma Esther put her foot down.   And when Grandma got angry, you did what she said!

I never looked at a race schedule again. I did go to the races in Monticello one time with a friend after I turned 21. He spent a few minutes attempting to explain how the races worked to me. But I knew it all. Even 11 years later I still remembered everything that Uncle Lenny had taught me. To be honest, I can still see those listings.

My summer as a gambler ended sadly for me. I missed Uncle Lenny and my gambling lessons. As an adult, when I heard what had happened, I felt terrible. Aunt Hady and Uncle Lenny never had children. I believe Uncle Lenny really liked teaching me about the races and enjoyed our time together. I only ever felt love and joy from him.

I regret that my Grandma was so protective. Even though she demanded that my lessons end, I enjoyed being the littlest gambler for a summer. But I have never had the urge to gamble in my life, so perhaps my Grandma was right!

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2 Responses to “The Littlest Gambler: Learning about Horse Races in the Catskills”

  1. Deb Heller March 14, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

    Sorry, Grandma was wrong, especially since you did remember the formulas for betting. My Dad and I would sit with the racing forms and he taught me how to handicap and wheel bets, and I never became a gambler to excess. I still do go to the track once or twice a year, and to a casino maybe twice a year. And everytime I go, I only have good thoughts and memories of my father. My Dad was a very tough man, my only time with him were these times, I don’t know if I would have even known my Dad if it wasn’t for these times.

    • zicharon March 14, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

      And I have great memories of my great uncle as well. Glad you shared.

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