Betting Big on the Box Trifecta

Football in grass

“Football in Grass” by Jayel Aheram / licensed under Creative Commons

They say my grandpa used to bet on the ponies. They say he swaggered to the harness racetrack several nights a week when the weather was warm enough to draw the crowds, smoking a White Owl cigar and leaning over the chain link fence, talking with friends.

They say he had a penchant for picking the winners. Some say his success was due to his ability to break down the stats in the pamphlet, to have a gut impression of how a quarter turn split during the winter in Florida would translate up in the rust belt. Others say his success was a result of going to the stables during his lunch break every day and befriending the jockeys and trainers, smoking cigars and telling stories until they dropped clues about which horse was feeling poorly that day, which horses were just fillers to round out the card. Using that information, he could take a field and narrow it down to two or three who were actually competitive.

They say he was a hell of a football coach and a better man. In the season before he died, his team won another Michigan state championship and gave up 13 points total. His players were tough boys from grind-it-out families who didn’t listen to anyone in the world except him. They say that he carried confidence in his every act and word, and that the confidence rubbed off on those around him. They say he was a dangerous man who never backed down from a fight, and that his nose had been broken so many times it was crooked against his face.

He claimed to have had eleven concussions and seven broken noses, results of boxing in the Army, playing football in college and the service, and countless fistfights growing up on the east side of Jackson. When he was stationed in Germany, his commanding officer said that he didn’t think anyone was tough enough to join the local football team. My grandpa responded by doing just that.  Eventually, he was named captain. They say he filled up a room without uttering a word, and that it was a shame he’d gone when he did, the way he did. They say. They say.

Out of the hundreds of saints in the Catholic Church’s directory, I don’t know why he picked St. Jude as the guy he would pray to every day.  Jude was the patron saint of hopeless cases, so maybe grandpa figured they were a good match. My grandpa had a prayer card that he carried in his wallet since he was young, and on the back for some reason three numbers were printed: 6, 1, and 4.

Whether my grandpa took those numbers on the back of the card as some sort of secret message from ol’ Jude, or whether he was just hurting for new number arrangements, 6,1, and 4 became his go-to picks for the box trifecta at the track.

A trifecta pick is when you select who will finish first, second, and third in the race. It’s a difficult pick to make, so they offer the box-trifecta option, which means you pick which three horses will finish in the top three, in any order. The pay-out, when you hit, is good. So when the jockey’s advice lined up with his St. Jude numbers, he bet big. I don’t know if he truly believed the numbers were sent to him by St. Jude or if he just liked the idea of it. As with every story I hear about him, all I can do is sift through anecdotes and superficial descriptions, never sure if they were bringing me closer to or further from my grandpa.

*

The racetrack where my grandpa gambled is set on the fairgrounds, behind the old walled prison and just a short piece from the downtown district of my hometown. Concrete bleachers stretch along the west side of the track, with the top half covered for protection from the rain. Beneath the bleachers are the betting booths and the beer and hot dog stands.

It has been a couple years since the last horses ran here. The competition from the casinos a couple hours away cut into their foot traffic and the only day of the week that was getting a crowd was Saturday. Saturday nights offered dollar beers, dollar dogs, and dollar bets, so they operated in the red for a couple years until they had to shut down.

I’ve been wondering what they’ll do with it. If Jackson was much of a town, it would be prime property.  As it is, I’d imagine it’ll be like many of the old warehouses and shops that slowly fade until most long-time residents look at them but no longer see them. The dirt track will cover with weeds. The white rails will dinge and crack. Spray paint will decorate the concrete steps, and trash and used condoms will litter the ground.

I’ve been told this was the oldest harness raceway in Michigan. Part of me wishes I could still go and place bets like my grandpa did.  But I was never much good at gambling anyway.

*

My grandpa died when my dad was in high school, several months after leading his team to their most recent state championship. His son, my dad, had been a starting lineman on the championship team. My dad was away from home that night, and in an age without cell phones, he did not realize what had happened until he returned hours later.

My grandpa was just pulling home after picking up his daughter at the ice rink when two men cut into the back yard. The family would later learn those man had robbed a small-time drug dealer down the street. My grandpa sent his daughter inside and told her to lock the door as they came up to him. They wanted to come into the house, where his wife and two daughters were, so he fought.

Fighting was what he did, and this time it ended with a bullet to the neck and him bleeding on the driveway.

They always said that my grandpa was such a hardcase that he just chose to fight them because he’d fight anyone. He wouldn’t let anyone rob him. One night, when I was walking alone down a Nashville side street, I deliberately antagonized three men who wanted my money. I was lucky I didn’t get my ass kicked.

My great-uncle, my grandpa’s brother, later told me that they had been robbed dozens of times growing up. “It was just part of growing up where we did. He always knew to give up the money and figured that with a little luck they’d cross paths again when the other guy didn’t have a gun.  He would have given up the money if that was all they wanted. But there was no way in hell he was going to let them in where his family was.”

*

When I was a kid, I met a guy who used to play for my grandpa. He was my supervisor at a healthcare company where I worked part time. Twenty-five years after my grandpa’s death, he still spoke of him as many former players did, with a mix of wonder and awe. That death, sudden and violent, just months after winning the second state championship in three years, froze grandpa in time. His players would never interact with him as adults and move beyond that childhood reverence.  Because he died the way he did, at the age he did, they never learned the limits of his toughness, never saw him make a wrong choice or grow stooped and weakened by age. Another former player said to me that his idea of heaven was going back and playing football for my grandpa. Not just playing football, he said. Playing football for your grandpa, having him yell at him and expect more of him than he thought he could deliver, only to rise to the occasion.  “I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that.”

One time, my supervisor told me how when he was in high school he would mimic my grandpa’s shuffling strut. “Your grandpa was always in a hurry, but never wanted to look like it, so he kept his steps short but just moved his feet really quickly.”  He then proceeded to strut around the room, giggling like a kid. He stopped and sighed. “Your grandpa was a tough sonovabitch. You know how rough this town is. It was worse back then. But nobody ever messed with him.  I don’t think anyone else could have taught the guys to work together toward something bigger than themselves.”

For the next month, I tried to imitate how I imagined he walked. Finally, my dad asked me if my hip was hurting again. “Then why are you walking like that?” he asked.

There’s a well-circulated photograph of my grandpa after a big win. He has his fist raised up and his lips pursed together in a come-and-take it sneer. For nearly a year, I practiced that sneer in the mirror until I believed it looked natural and tough. Only later did I realize that I was doing the duck face. Like him, I took up boxing. Sometimes I was pummeled, sometimes I wasn’t.  I broke a man’s cheekbone with a hook, but nobody gave me a nose to match my grandpa’s.

*

Even my mom’s family–as different as you could get from my dad’s–has stories about grandpa.  Her brother Joel, my uncle, was in the band, and good at math, and for a few days in a row the bus driver took particular glee in driving off slowly as Joel arrived.  He’d have to sprint after the bus, his instrument and backpack slapping at his side.  Grandpa was not just the coach then, but the assistant principal, transportation director, and disciplinarian.  My mom’s father–we call him Papa– decided he had to go talk to the my grandpa.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go since Joel didn’t play any sports,” Papa told me.  “Also, I had heard your Grandpa was kind of a hardass.  I met with him and he was very calm and relaxed when we first started talking. I didn’t understand why some people were afraid of him. When I told him what was going on, though, the temperature of the room seemed to change, and I know it sounds crazy to say this, but I could actually feel his anger. He leaned on his desk and looked at me and said, ‘You tell your son that I’m sorry this happened. This is not going to happen again.’ ”

My papa smiled at this part in the story. “And it didn’t. That next day the bus driver apologized over and over to Joel, and seemed to look out for him for the next three years. Whatever your grandpa said scared the hell out of him.”

There are stories about my grandpa that most people don’t know. They’re about his nerves and how he threw up before every game he played, every match he boxed, every game he coached.  They’re about his obsessive worry that something would happen to those he loved and that he wouldn’t be able to protect them.  That worry caused him to constantly challenge himself and those around him. He was always running dress rehearsals for some ultimate moment of judgment that most believed would never come. Somehow, he knew that it would. There was the intense fear of failure, of not living up to the image he had created. In the end, there was no one he trusted more than himself.  It was that feeling that led him to believe that if he did not rise to an occasion or come through when it mattered, then no one would.

*

One of my earliest memories is at the track with my dad. I remember how he pointed at the different splits, explaining how the times at different tracks varied based on the track conditions, the temperature. He introduced me to a few older men who had been friends with my grandpa.  He told me about the box trifecta and we leaned against the fence as the ponies passed, and the thunder of their passing made me draw back. Clods of dirt sprung up and coated us and my dad laughed, so I did, too.

He let me make many of the picks, but he placed a bet on the last race himself. He picked the box trifecta. “These were your grandpa’s lucky numbers,” he said, after the numbers won. My dad seemed happier than I had seen him in years, as though by mirroring his bets he was connecting to some part of my grandpa. It was a part of my grandpa that my dad never had the opportunity to know, just like there was so much I didn’t understand about my own dad until I became an adult myself.

My dad used the winnings that night to buy me my first bike, and that’s when I learned that there are lucky numbers and that my grandpa was watching over me.  In looking back, I don’t know whether I really believed that or if I just thought it was a cool thing to pretend to believe, like my grandpa with his lucky numbers.

*

I’m not my Grandpa Crowley. Nobody back home would say that I remind them of him.  My nose has never been broken. I didn’t remain in Jackson. I won’t be marrying the girl I’ve known since third grade. I never served in the Army. I have never coached football. I have never won a single dollar betting on the ponies.  I don’t walk like him; I don’t talk like him; I don’t have the respect of hundreds of men that I coached;  I don’t fill a room I enter with the force of my presence; I never received standing offers to be an assistant coach for college and professional football teams. I have not given my life to protect the most important things in the world to me.

The men who killed my grandpa weren’t convicted. One eventually was killed in a shootout with police in Detroit. When I was in college the other was brought to trial in a cold case. On the day the guilty verdict came in, my dad and I stood alone outside the courthouse. I was thinking about how the verdict didn’t change anything–I was never going to know what the man who died like that was really like. Maybe my dad was thinking the same thing. He broke the silence that day by saying,  “There are worse ways to go. You can’t really top that. All you can really do is hope that when the moment comes to you, you’re ready. As ready as you can be, anyway.”

*

When I came back to Jackson, before they shut down the track, I always tried to make it for a night of races.  I’d call up one of my old friends from high school and we’d lean on the fence and watch the ponies go by and the clods of dirt would pelt me just like they did when I was young. Though my bets were a mess, I still enjoyed the smell of the track, spitting my chewing tobacco on the ground and sipping a beer, sharing stories with my friends. Those nights at the track give me a glimpse into the life I would have had if I hadn’t left town. It’s easy to start laughing at a joke my friend tells and feel like I lived just up the street and came here every week during the summer. It’s easy to feel as though that alternate life is more natural and real than the one I’m living now.

By now, people have stopped asking when I’m going to move back home. I’ve lived in Scotland, Mississippi, Kentucky, Texas, and Maryland, and folks in town are no longer surprised at the things I’ve done, the places I’ve gone.  They’ve come to accept that I’m going to do what I want, and that I may listen to their objections or concerns, but that I don’t care too much what they think because I trust myself more than I trust them. I’m going to go my own way and keep running through my own dress rehearsals so that when my moment of judgment comes, I’ll deliver.

I think my grandpa would like that.  I think the only thing he’d like more is if I could actually win once when I placed a bet.

*

I used to imagine him as a hawk that never flew far. Though I never knew him, I used to tell myself that when things were tough he was up there keeping an eye on me and providing me with that dose of confidence I needed to handle whatever was happening.  I looked for him in the sky during baseball games when I pitched, over rest stops in Louisiana after leaving home for the first time, and slicing the mountains in Kentucky when I sat alone, night after night, wondering why I’d moved out there. More often than not, I would see a bird flying up there. Even now, I find myself searching the skies. I couldn’t tell you if I really believe that it is him looking out for me or if I just like the idea of it. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Regardless of what I believe, the bird is still up there. That’s how this story goes.

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