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April 15, 2024

Pumpkins, Palms, and Ponies

By Lydia Manx

I grumble about traffic. I see it as a sign I am old now. Come on, can't folks just plan their day better? Or perhaps not use their cell phone while driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic until they 'tap' the bumper in front of them and stall the freeway for another hour? Silly notion, but it's something that really creates havoc in my world. Which is another sign of my aging process: that I think I am the center of a world. But then it does make for fun at times. The kingdom of Manx -- has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Part of my issue is that in the morning it takes me a mere fourteen to sixteen minutes to drive the fourteen miles to work. There aren't many lights and most of it is freeway. During the normal part of the year, I drive to work at or before dawn to correspond with my clinics and the directors. This year I had to adjust forward an hour to two hours later in my day. All because of traffic. No longer was it a lovely, calm drive home at two but instead a chaotic evil clash of road rage and bad driving. Not calming in the least, so I adjusted to miss what I could, so I'd thought.

Living one off ramp south from the Racetrack has proven to be this year's downfall. It seems that folks are really attending the races at record numbers. Add in the various road construction projects and my travel time is now half hour to hour and a half every day on my return from working. I began to take alternate routes. Then the Tennis Open happened, shutting off the inland corridor. I began to travel along the Pacific Coast Highway.

There is something delightful about being so close to the ocean on a good day. I tried to appreciate the surf while going from stop sign to stop light with random acts of stupidity in between. See not everyone was sticking to the freeway; some angry drivers were bringing their tag team mentality to the two-lane spectacular old highway. I consulted my map and found another way that I hadn't gone in decades. Between the freeway and the old highway just over from the train tracks is another avenue. This avenue is one lane each direction and has a few stop signs and nearly no people!

I still wasn't relaxing properly when driving home. I was too focused on hitting the lights and stop signs just so. Then, on a Friday afternoon in the middle of August, I looked up to my left. I nearly drove off the road. Once home, I asked around if anyone knew there was a huge pumpkin patch above the avenue. Nobody had a clue. I wasn't sure if it was real or something set up for a movie. (We do have that happen around here with little to no notice.) Shaking my head in bemusement, I figured I would check it out the following week.

Happily, it hadn't been a heat-induced mirage or a set up for a photo shoot. There really was a huge plot of land covered in large pumpkins and sunflowers. I turned up a street and parked above the garden. To my delight there was also a man working the area. I asked if I could take pictures. He smiled and nodded and continued his work. Alejandro and I spoke a bit and he told me in Spanish that he'd been tending the pumpkins for three months. Only he and another person worked the area. I asked if I could take his picture after complimenting him on his lovely pumpkins and asking his name. He told me the pronunciation for pumpkin in Spanish (calabaza), which I hadn't recalled. I took some pictures while Alejandro continued his work of moving pumpkins and what looked like digging in the sand.

Later I found out that the pumpkins were possibly being used in Encinitas during their Halloween celebration. Alejandro didn't tell me where they were headed but my sister-in-law was pretty sure that's where they were carved annually. Come October I will go look to see if I can find any of the pumpkins skillfully crafted into works of art.

I was delighted when I got home and checked out the pictures I had taken on my cell phone. The surf spot Swami's is below the large pumpkins growing and the palm trees lining the street above created a vision I liked. In another shot Alejandro is next to one of the pumpkins and probably could tightly fit inside once hollowed out.

Still stuck with the drive along the road, at least I could smile knowing I have those pictures to look at later when the pumpkins and sunflowers were long gone and it was just another pricey sandy and weedy field. The heat wave rolled back into Southern California, causing tempers to spike with the growing humidity and basic lack of air conditioning at most folks' homes and some businesses. I was beginning to think I would have to move into a hotel to escape the traffic when I found out that the races were only going for another week. That was the same day I was given a free pass to the races, free parking and one of the Daily Racing Forms -- again for free.

Normally I go with my dad to the races, but this year he'd gone with co-workers. He came home down a few dollars. He bets a bit more than I do but like me, considers it a good time when you come home with nearly the same amount you had when you started gambling. He asked me if I was going to go and see how the new Polytrack looked after watching the ponies run for years on turf and dirt. The inside track is still grass, but I didn't see any races on the 'turf'. Later I found out the next race after I'd left was run on the inside track. Oh well, I wasn't there to see a grass track.

When I first heard about the Polytrack being installed I was naturally hesitant. I knew it wasn't cheap given the millions they were quoting locally. I don't actually know the final cost. I do know that I haven't heard about high number of injured horses, so for that alone I think it was worth the exploration. The track is synthetic and supposedly has a high shock absorption rate, which would keep the horse leg injuries down, and the risk of catastrophic snaps and breaks down, thus saving horses' lives. The one thing I noticed from the handicappers' pick pages at the track was their predictions were stronger since the horses had been running for nearly a month.

One of the handicappers pointed out that a horse who ran poorly once was more than likely to continue throughout the season and one that ran well could, in theory, continue. The color was different and in the extreme heat I could have sworn it was a tad oily smelling, but quite honestly it could've been some of the more fragrant bettors. I was surprised to find out that they mixed sand into the mixture and it was the top six inches of the racing surface that was considered the Polytrack. Drainage was critical and given how the track looked I understood that. I watched tractor-drawn plows rake the surface and later found out that was critical to keep the surface in shape. All in all folks at the track seem to be thrilled with the new environment, and according to a few things I read the surface was to be considered 'fast' for all races regardless of the weather.

It is going to take the locals a few years I think before they get the dynamics of the new surface figured out with the horses and jockeys. Naturally I didn't know any of that before I went to the betting windows. What fun would that be? I resisted researching and guessing until I got in the park.

I wasn't able to get to the park for the first race. See above about the traffic and stupidity factor. I was given access to hunt for a parking place since the races had already begun. I parked in what looked to be a reasonable place -- meaning I knew how to find it when I got out. And began the hike. The heat wave discussed for the past few weeks in Southern California is real. What nobody explains to locals is that this is August. We don't all have A/C out on the coast and rarely worry about temperatures much above the mid-seventies. So when the humidity is tapping at seventy and the temperatures are in the high eighties to nineties, we all whine and then the power company shuts down power grids arbitrarily. (I have noticed that none of the really wealthy neighborhoods ever get shut down.)

On my way inside, I saw many well dressed people heading out. Yep, nobody stays the whole eight or nine races from what I know. Leastways nobody I've ever gone with in the past twenty or so years. Some folks are owners while others just bet one or two races then head home. Since I did the same thing I couldn't greatly complain.

Every year I see something new. This year I rather enjoyed the beauty of the fountain sparkling in the front of the grandstands and the clouds that chased across the palm-strewn skies. Whenever I see a racetrack in the movies I can tell if it is mine by the palms. The paddock area was as colorful and busy as ever. Horses line up there before the race for the handicappers and common folks to admire and judge. Afterwards the winning horse has its glory and jockeys and owners shake hands and smile. I've never been actually inside the winners' circle but from a distance watched the dramas unfold. Nobody seems to take his or her moment in the sun for granted during the race season.

Once I had admired a few bits of horseflesh and jockeys in their silks aloft on the horses' backs I went in to place a wager. I don't have any tried and true method for picking winning horses. I read a bit here and there and then guess. Yep, that's my great strategy. Well that, and don't bet outrageously. The first thing I noticed was there were many horses scratched in races during the day. I didn't know why various horses were pulled from their races. It was rather hot and the new track were the two things that popped immediately to mind. The winning horse makes some serious money. So owners don't readily pull their horses. It's nothing for a purse for a run to be worth over fifty thousand dollars in the middle of the season.

The first race I could wager on was the third. I picked two horses, one to win and another to show. A somewhat cautious pattern of betting but it proved to be good. I picked the horse to show that came in second. I then bet on the next race even more carefully. I didn't pick one to win but to place and show. I won again. We aren't talking ten or twenty dollar bets here I am the two to four dollar wager kind. The fifth race I went with a long shot to win and a medium rated horse to place. That horse ran her hooves off and I stopped betting. I walked away with a full sixty cents more than I'd started with three hours or so earlier.

Suntanned and more than a bit warm, I walked the long hike back to the car. I am not sure how much I like the new track. It's not like I bet enough to have noticed had I not been watching the local news. But if it keeps horses from being injured it's a great improvement. Maybe next year I will wager a whole five dollars on a race.

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-09-17
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