“Yeah, I’ve never been to a horserace before,” I replied, wiping my sweaty forehead. The heat was intense, like being trapped in an oven and it made me wonder how the poor horses felt, covered in fur and racing down the tracks as though their lives depended on it.
Hideki had been studying how to bet on horseracing for several years and had invited me to watch a race with him. After finally squeezing through the entrance, I followed him obediently to the paddock, which was essentially a small track where the horses were paraded around before the race. Watching this was a very important thing to do prior to betting. By watching the way the horse walked, it was easy to see if they were nervous, confident, or agitated. The confident ones would usually place within the top three, Hideki explained to me as he watched, furiously scribbling down notes on a piece of paper, as rivulets of sweat poured down his face.
After Hideki had decided he was satisfied with his paddock notes, we entered the betting area inside. Old men wearing tracksuits crowded around big screen TVs, smoking cigarettes and trying to get information about the previous races. Others sat on the floor on spread out newspapers, eating onigiri and drinking canned beer, clearly on break time. Not a single other female was in sight.
A few old men looked at me with curiosity, taking their eyes off the big screens for a few seconds to look at me and Hideki, trying to make some sort of connection. Crumpled newspapers and worthless tickets littered the floor and a gray, depressing feeling hung heavy in the air.
Wandering upstairs to the floor above us, I immediately noticed a completely different feeling. Rich businessmen sat in comfortable, leather seats, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. A celebratory feeling hung in the smoky air here, where men patted each other on the backs if they lost and said, “better luck next time, have another expensive glass of whiskey.” On this floor, it didn’t really matter if you won or lost, it was all just a silly game. For the men on the floor below them, it was much more serious. They were gambling with their monthly salaries and losing a bet might mean not being able to pay the bills.
“I hope this is the winning ticket,” Hideki said nervously, interrupting my thoughts and returning after disappearing for a few minutes to place a bet. “I bet on an underdog, but if he wins, the reward will be big. The horse looked confident in the paddock so I’m hoping that my instinct is correct.”
Walking back outside into the sweltering Tokyo heat to watch the race, we sat down on an uninhabited piece of soggy grass and soon the race was underway, the thundering sound of the racing horses filling the air. The crowd became a sea of hushed whispers, and the pounding of hooves on dirt was the only sound that could be heard above it. As the horses rounded the last curve and raced to the finish line, Hideki pointed to our ticket excitedly.
“This is it! I think I’m going to win! The underdog I betted on is in the front!” he exclaimed, in a hushed whisper.
As the horses crossed over the finish line, I craned my neck to see. The underdog had won!
“I won! I won!” Hideki yelled out, full of joy.
People around us patted him on the back and suddenly, we were the center of attention. Escaping the crowd to go back inside to see how much he had won, I waited nervously beside him in front of a TV screen, waiting for the results. The results flashed on the screen and Hideki suddenly became silent.
“What? Didn’t you win anything?” I asked impatiently, wanting to know the results.
“Yes,” he said, clearly in shock. “1.8 million Yen.”
After quickly converting 1.8 million Yen to a number that would make sense to me, I realized that he had won 18,000 USD. And fortunately in Japan (unlike the U.S.) you don’t have to pay taxes on your winnings from gambling.