The time was March 1972. My social life was pretty bleak because I rarely had more than $5 or $10 to my name and no wheels of my own. I’d read in the paper about a bus that ran daily between Richmond, Virginia, where I was in college, and the Bowie racetrack, just outside Baltimore, Maryland.
It sounded like the makings of an interesting photo adventure. I mean, a sport where the horses had names like Watch Your Step, North of Venus, Hi-Mimi and Princess Doubleday had to be colorful, right? I imagined Bowie as a Southern Saratoga, a festive place with fast horses, fancy drinks, and well dressed guys and dolls right out of Damon Runyon.
It didn’t exactly turn out that way.
I should have realized that my perception of the racing world didn’t jibe with reality as soon as I got downtown to catch the 6:30 a.m. “Bowie Special” and found that my fellow bus riders, far from being the swells of the social register, were instead an amiable band of blue collar stiffs—most of them workers at local cigarette factories—anxious to gamble.
The three-hour trip to the track was uneventful. It was cold, rainy and gray outside the windows of the bus as we headed north out of Virginia. Inside, most of the ladies slept. The guys chatted and ducked out of the view of the driver’s mirror from time to time to take swigs from whiskey bottles and beer cans hidden in brown paper bags. Copies of the Racing Form were passed around. I listened to the hum of conversation and watched the rain.
I had just enough money to buy the round-trip bus ticket. So there was no money left for seating at the track, nor much of anything else, save maybe a hot dog. It rained most of the day, so I ducked in and out between races, focusing my lens mostly on the bettors. In those days, some people still dressed up to go to the track. But most didn’t. And most looked like they’d lost whatever they had brought to bet. I don’t recall seeing a single happy face. I imagine a lot of rent and kids’ school shoe money was frittered away.
It was a long day. But eventually the last race was over and our little knot of played out Richmonders wandered back to the bus. The trip home was dark and quiet.
The negatives from this trip got knocked around a lot in later years. When I was finally able to scan them, they were scratched and some of the emulsion had deteriorated. But I can tell you as someone who was there that these images fairly reflect the grittiness and despair of that day.
The A Day at the Races series can be seen here.