“On the TV the announcer is predicting how the race
will be run and famous people are asked their opinions.
I wait for a twinkle in my brain but nothing happens. Still
it’s all so exciting I want to talk to someone about it–
say how making a bet is like falling in love or that
the horses and jockeys look like centaurs before the rape
of whoever–but the bartender is learning to make a Pink Lady,
while the five chicken processors are deep in their sadness.”
–Kentucky Derby Day, Belfast, Maine
I never made it to the Ak-Sar-Ben race track. That was before my time, both in Omaha and at racetracks, but that hasn’t stopped me from romanticizing the hell out of it. I do that with a lot of places I’ve never been which, on its own, isn’t that unusual but in the case of a horsetrack it might be.
If you’ve never been, the track, any track, is one of the least romantic places on earth. The stench of housing livestock is nothing compared to the odor of reality. Money is gained and money is lost. Creatures live and creatures die. People age and fade away. Nobody new shows up to replace them.
That’s the track. That’s the appeal. There’s no room for fantasy along the rail.
And there’s no room for fantasy at the Trackside Lounge either. It’s one of the few reminders that there used to be a functioning racetrack — a racetrack that used to draw more than 10,000 people a day back in the 1980s — in the heart of Omaha. There’s the memorial to Omaha, the 1930 Triple Crown winner, in Stinson Park. There’s the little snippet of a race call that they play before movies at Aksarben Cinema. And there’s the Trackside Lounge separated by a few blocks on 60th Street from Club Turf. Two old horseplayer bars that, like the sport of horse racing itself, continue to live on in an era that has little need for them.
I chose to spend last Saturday’s 138th running of the Kentucky Derby at the Trackside for this very reason. On racing’s biggest day, the day where all of us racing fans get dressed up and pretend it all still matters, I needed the Trackside. In my mind, the dingy little bar was full of old Ak-Sar-Ben memorabilia. The walls were papered with old photos from the winner’s circle and some jockey’s silks hung in a cheap gold frame. I knew it was a dive bar but I hoped it was still a punter’s dive bar.
It is not. The only nods to horse racing at the Trackside are a pair of gold colored horseshoes hanging behind the bar and a print of Norman Rockwell’s “Jockey Weighing In.” The Trackside isn’t that sort of place anymore. But it is the sort of place where they edited the “Kill Osama” sticker to read “Killed” with the date of his death. It’s the sort of place where the no smoking signs come courtesty of the “Nazi, low life, no life, control freak, socialist, so-called leaders.” It’s like the track that used to supply it with down-on-their-luck drinkers in this one regard: It’s very aware of what it is and, regardless of your politics or the bar’s, that’s still admirable.
The drinks come two ways — cheap and strong, usually both. A group of four young revelers stopped in and transitioned from betting at Horsemen’s Park to their ensuing Cinco de Mayo celebration with an $8 pitcher of margaritas that was finished in less than eight minutes. The beers ran about $3.
Not surprisingly, the Old Fashioned at the Trackside isn’t very good but I’m partly to blame. I had to show the bartender how to make it. My instructions to start with some sugar got me about a tablespoon’s worth so we dumped that and started over. I got two of the last five drops of bitters in the place and the ice was added without issue. After that came a lot of Knob Creek because, to a bartender who is not used to mixing Old Fashioneds but is used to serving drinkers on a budget, a drink should look full when it leaves the bar.
That’s what I drank as I watched I’ll Have Another win the race. I did not have another. Instead, I listened to the man at the end of the bar explain how he picked the winner. He had already downed two pitchers of beer by himself, inserting a plastic cup of ice into the pitcher between pours. The explanation wasn’t necessary. A horse named I’ll Have Another, a 15-1 shot in real life, was always going to be the favorite in a bar like this.
It reminded me of this line from Stepehn Dobyn’s “Kentucky Derby Day in Belfast, Maine:”
…the number two horse, Woodchopper,
pays over twenty dollars and I’ll bet they never announced
his name, because I spent half the damn winter chopping wood
and if I’d put a thousand on Woodchopper or even a hundred,
then right now I’d be winging my way south to better times.
The big winner at the Trackside wasn’t winging his way anywhere. He ordered another drink, went back to chopping wood, and, after a while, began to discuss that creepy viral video where a lion yearns to devour a child at the zoo. According to him it was because the baby, dressed in black and white stripes, looked like a zebra.
At the really honest bars, there’s always an explanation for everything.
The Trackside Lounge is at 1506 S. 60th St. It doesn’t have a website but I think it’s probably always open.