Quinn and Dixie go to Mardi Gras.
The last time I'd visited the Fairgrounds in New Orleans was the spring of 1977, when I was 16 years old. A classmate of mine had a gambling debt of $8,000 that he couldn't pay off—$8,000 being the equivalent today of roughly 27 grand, real money for a high-school junior back then. In what seemed at the time like a sensible strategy, he hocked the coin collection given to him at birth by his grandparents and came up with $2,000 cash. This he handed to me, along with instructions to go to the Fairgrounds and lay it all on Albo Berry to show in the sixth. His nerves couldn't take it, he said, and besides, he had math class. Albo Berry was racing on a school day, during seventh and eighth period, when all I had was film history—which could be skipped safely. And so I grabbed another friend and drove to the Fairgrounds to lay two grand on Albo Berry to show.
Probably there was some law forbidding minors from betting on horses, but it wasn't taken any more seriously than the other laws in New Orleans that separated children from the grown-up world. So long as you didn't make the enablers feel as if you were going to attract the wrong sort of attention, they let you do pretty much what you wanted. Two grand was attention-getting, however, and we decided the only safe way to get it down on Albo Berry was in small, childish chunks. The moment Albo Berry's race was announced we each took $1,000 and dashed around madly, placing $5 bets. We wound up with 400 tickets, but we got it all down, then took a seat in the grandstand to watch the race.
They were already off; a bunch of horses had broken from the pack, Albo Berry not among them. Indeed, for the longest time Albo Berry went unmentioned. It was as if he existed only in a dream. But then, as if he knew what was at stake, he made his move. Coming hard on the outside, he passed all but two other horses. By a nose, Albo Berry showed. We spent half an hour running around collecting what came to just shy of $8,000 in small bills. Armloads of cash made us conspicuous, and so we made quickly for the car. Only then did a grown-up—the guard in the parking lot—take notice. We were a step too fast for him. He peered into the car window as we whizzed past, and my friend heaved all the money up into the air, so that, for that moment, the inside of the car looked like a ticker-tape parade. We made it back to school just in time for baseball practice.
Now, for the first time in 30 years, I'm back at the Fairgrounds, with a 7-year-old daughter holding one hand and a 4-year-old holding the other. I hadn't planned to teach my children how to bet on the ponies on this trip. But my brother lives down the block from the racetrack, and the three of us went to visit him for lunch, and one thing led to another. Before you could say "trifecta," we had them on our shoulders and were walking over to the races. Just one race, I told them, and then we'd leave. For old time's sake. They might learn something.
"You promise we can we bet real money?" asks Quinn.
"Yeah, Daddy," says Dixie, "Can we bet real money?"
"You can each make one small bet," I say, judiciously.
"You'll have to make it for us," says Quinn, knowingly, " 'cause we're too little."
Through the turnstiles we plunge and make for the viewing area to decide which horse to back. But before we do, we bump into Al Stall, a year behind me in school, who has, it turns out, spent most of his time since then training race horses. I haven't seen him since high school, but it feels like yesterday, and he ushers the kids into the space reserved for horses. He wants them to see Winsky, a sleek, tan, 4-year-old mare *, his horse in the race. As they inspect the animal, the jockey appears, followed by Winsky's owners, and so they inspect them, too. They listen as Al talks a little bit about his horse, the favorite. Al doesn't sound worried. Al doesn't look worried. Al, truth to tell, looks as if his horse has already won.
"I want to bet on Winsky," says Quinn, firmly.
Michael Lewis' most recent book is The Blind Side.
Photograph of Dixie's sad face by Tabitha Soren.