Horse running through field

Bukowski at the Races

by Roger Lyons

There’s been some talk of introducing casino-style customer service to racing. The late Charles Bukowski, an inveterate raceplayer, would have had a good laugh over that idea, but, faced with the reality of it, his soul would puke–at first. Once he’d digested it as one more weird eventuality in the unfolding of the American dream, he might welcome it as further incentive to drink. Bukowski understood that racing is not for narcissists.

In the first place, people who actually play the races are not customers, and, for that reason, customer service would be completely wasted on them. Bukowski would offer no sympathy to those who complain that playing the races should be like shopping at the mall or going to Disneyland. He didn’t go to the racetrack to have a good time or to be a consumer of “the racing product.”

In life, it was always Bukowski against the throng. There was almost certainly no particular respect in which he aspired to be different from anyone else, but he knew what drove him to drink. He just wanted to be not like that, and he certainly didn’t want to be a customer. Consumer society’s intolerance of difference is such that the racetrack is one of the few places–maybe the only place–where being Charles Bukowski can actually be rewarded. At the racetrack, being at odds with the crowd gave him a fighting chance.

He understood that you can’t beat the crowd without a system. If Hank Chinaski, his fictional counterpart (alter-ego, Bukowski himself, whatever), is to be believed in the novel Hollywood (1989), Bukowski had as many as 20 different systems–all methods of betting against the crowd. He didn’t always bet longshots, but he hardly ever bet a favorite, especially at odds-on. One other thing. No matter how much everybody else drank, Bukowski drank more.

You’d never get Bukowski to join in a boycott over the takeout. It was just part of the risk of losing, without which the whole thing would be meaningless, and, besides, he was neither a joiner nor a crybaby. He wouldn’t have placed much stock in a boycott, anyway, judging from these lines of his poem “the world’s greatest loser”:

I guess nothing ever works for us. we’re fools, of course–
bucking the inside plus a 15 percent take,
but how are you going to tell a dreamer
there’s a 15 percent take on the
dream? he’ll just laugh and say,
is that all?

Nobody would mistake Bukowski for a dreamer, but most people are, and most of them dream the same dream, more or less. Bukowski orders another drink from his favorite waitress (who, he’s convinced, is only pretending she despises him) and goes for the alcohol-induced, but quite plausible, reality in which the six, at 10-1, ends up with a nose in front, and the waitress drives him home.

“Now that,” he laughs, “is what I call customer service.”

8 comments to “Bukowski at the Races”

  • Ed writes:

    We need more Bukowskis over here in the Great British Racing Industry. Some counter-intuitive thinking over a few beers would not go amiss.

  • Greg writes:

    God help us, though, if ever the likes of Bukowski became the norm. I’d put my paper hat on my concussion and dance, but you’d have to help with the drinking. And tell the jokes.

  • Roger Lyons writes:

    Thanks, Ed, that’s interesting because over here the general view is that we need fewer of them.

  • Greg writes:

    Hey, I didn’t mean I wasn’t all for them. That warnt my point.

  • Roger Lyons writes:

    Oh, Greg, I imagine, if there were two Bukowskis, they’d both think one was enough.

  • Greg writes:

    You’re right about that. And that the world needs characters. The racetrack is the perfect place for them, too.

  • Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - “A Slap in the Face” writes:

    [...] When Bukowski was racing’s customer, the perpetual screwing of horseplayers didn’t have much power as a meta-narrative. In an era in which most of the game’s customers are online (and organized), it does. [...]

  • Roger Lyons writes:

    Jessica, I completely agree with you in the sense that for takeout percentage to affect betting decisions is something quite new. We know from Rich Thallheimer’s econometric models that there is a takeout percentage, under any given circumstances, that optimizes revenue. What those models reflect, though, is nothing more than churn. The takeout rate is just manipulation of the behavior of the crowd. They get back more, so they bet more–rats in a maze. In those models, there’s no presumption that bettors are thinking, “Hey, the takeout is higher, so I’m going to bet less.” That’s what I mean by a betting decision, and it’s what the boycott is about. That’s new. Those models also assume a certain level of demand, which is more or less taken for granted–just like in the larger world of supply-side economic analysis. And, when demand is organized for decisive action in its own interests, well, those models are blown out of the water. Just depends on how large a market share is controlled by actors that are conscious. That’s where Bukowski’s skepticism would come in.

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