To the people who got on the Gray Line Bus at 12th and K Streets NW yesterday morning for the ride out to Laurel Race Course, it mattered hardly at all that most of the horses in the eighth race had come from exotic homelands, neighed with an accent and needed conversion tables to calculate their winnings.
These were regular players, not to mention regular folks; most were down on their luck, a trifle threadbare around the pockets. To them the $200,000 Washington, D.C. International was not a social occasion. It was another race, one of nine on the card.
What made this different from all other races was that it was run over a 1 1/2-mile turf strip, by horses whose past perfomances charts were accumulated not a Bowie, but at places like Longchamps and Chantilly and Epson. Jockeys such as Angel Cordero Jr. came in from the Big Apple to ride these fancy on the wayward bus knew, used pedicurists instead of blacksmiths.
It added up only to unfamiliar factors they had to consider in evaluating the graded picks. Nothing more. Television trucks had come to Laurel, but not Seattle Slew, J. O. Tobin, Forego or The Minstrel.
The atmosphere was different, of course, in the clubhouse, and one level up in the Turf Club, and a step closer still to horse heaven in the posh Cloud Casino, track owner John Schapiro's private penthouse suite.
Through the gates lined with yellow chrysanthemums, past the attractive and immaculately turned-out hostesses in their stylish gray suits and cranberry blouses, up in the split-level of snobbery, the International was a very big deal.
There was the customary grand parade of satin and mink, velvet and gold. Crab imperial arrived, and napoleons were delicately nibbled around the edges, the better to save calories. This was the see-and-be-seen scene, terribly plush, elegant, extravagant.
It is safe to assume that no one was imagining such a strange mixture of perfume and expensive cigars, caviar and champagne, in the Gray Line station, where the decor is typical purple, green and blue Modern American Bus Depot.
No three-piece suits, silk ties or designer shoes here. No Pucci dresses or accessories by Christian Dior.
A man named Henry T. Monroe - very heavy on the T. - who lives in a rooming house in Northeast was bemoaning a bet he did not make the day before. They are the surest ones, he decided, admirably managing a smile. He gives the impression his heart is gold, even if his touch is lead, and he holds no grudges against the world.
Near him was a man in a plaid sport coat, red shirt with oversized collar, brown pants and argyle socks approximating the color of a carrot cake gone moldy. His brown shoes looked as if they had last seen polish when Man o' War was a colt.
He had a ball point pen in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a slight case of the shakes in both. He wore what looked like a wedding band on the ring finger of both hands, which may explain why he was so intent on studying the Daily Racing Form folded in his lap.
When middle-age ladies came in and took paper cups of tea from a bag, Henry T. Monroe got up and let them sit together. A familiar old man with a turned-down hat and suit rumpled enough to pass for pajamas approached: "Can you use a Racing Form?" he asked them.
They were momentarily startled, then nodded negatively. Apparently, they trusted their tea leaves more than tout sheets.
By departure time, the bus was full. The driver, a full-bodied, outgoing man who could moonlight as a Salvation Army Santa, sauntered down the aisle: "Have the right side of your tickets ready, please. Let's get going. Everybody's out there but us.
"Jimmy Carter's there, Billy Carter's there (neither was). Billy's pulling the top off beer cans and the French horse is gonna win again."
"No Frenchie this year," piped up a white-haired man who had given no prior evidence of being alive. He reached into the pocket of a green raincoat so ratty it would have embarrassed most self-respecting flashers, and took out a paper bag containing a pint of Jim Beam.
"American horse gonna win this time," he said unscrewing the cap and taking a gulp not even Joe E. Brown's mouth could have accomodated. Some he swallowed, more he spilled over his Racing Form and his coat. He closed his eyes and was not heard from again.
And so it went as the bus rumbled along Rte. 50 to Rte. 198, through the dying embers of autumn, toward the track.
It was quiet at first, but gradually the volume increased. Horseplayers get to know horseplayers quickly, easily and they always have something to talk about.
There were lots of hollow cheeks and nicotine-browned fingernails and faces full of colorful, Runyonesque stories on that bus, but they were all tinged with an undefined yet undeniable sadness, the common expression of those who watch the world through a $2 window.
Appropriately the bus pulled into Laurel the back way, past a row of similar vehicles, and stopped at the rear entrance to the grandstand, where instead of caviar and champagne there is the aroma of old pizza and a faint mushy odor thay may or may not be damp, worthless tote tickets.
The last man off the bus scrounged under the seat for a discarded newspaper. For him it was, International or no, just another day at the track.