There are four minutes until post times at Laurel Raceway. An aged James Sturdivant leans over the rail to get closed look at the trotters warming up a few yards away. He grips the rail with one hand and a hot dog with the other. He stands at the rail believing he helps his horse by being as close as possible. He believes you can tellsomething about a horse by staring it down from close range. He believes some races are not totally on the up and up.
Finally, the track announcer fills the air with, "It is now post time," and Sturdivant fumbles his hot dog over the rail sending globs mustard everywhere.
A bad omen. His trotter finishes so far back in the pack one wonders if it's in the same time zone as the other horses.
Sturdivant, and a slew of others who hover over the rail at Laurel, are known as "railbirds." They are the most intense and colorful congregation at the track. Their supersitions and calculations make life along the rail hard work. The rail is an assembly line, and everyone laboring along it has a job of influencing his trotter as it flies by.
The working conditions are poor. Mosquitoes, emanating from the infield pond, are everywhere. The ground along the rail is a wet, gummy slush retaining the slightest moisture for days. To avoid the swamps, the railbirds stand on a narrow incline leading up to the rail. They tolerate these conditions right through the track season, braving financial disaster and chapped lips from June through October.
During the races, they scream instructions to the horses as if dealing with "Mr. Ed." Their collective exuberations come up shy of coherence.
Between races, David Ackerman paces up and down a 20-yard stretch of the rail. He marks up his program until it looks like a stock-market graph. "I like this horse," he says, pointing at this program. "His name is the same as my wife's middle name in Hebrew." All that computation and that's how he arrives at a choice?" "Yeah, I also stand right on the rail, buy my tickets from certain people and keep them in certain places," explained Ackerman.
Ackerman loves horses and loves to stand along the rail to see them. But he associates even more with seeing the drivers up close. They fascinate him. To him they, represent reality and betting along the rail is a mild breach with the real world. "The jockeys can get killed out there. Many of them have big families, too."
All in all. Ackerman surmises, "If I had something better to do I wouldn't have come to the track. Anyhow, I'm not as bad as I used to be. I used to run alongside my horse down the rail during the stretch run." Did he outrun them?
Ackerman is not alone in his antics during a race. Martha Jackson dances faster and faster as her horse does better and better. But when it fades into an also ran, the music in Jackson's mind goes from disco to ballet.
A man not far down the rail from Jackson shouts, "Go No. 7." As the race comes down to the wire, his left leg starts kicking spasmodically, with his hands strangling the rail. When asked if he is conscious of his gyrations, he answers, with perfect pronunciation, "Me no speak English."
Body languages vary in dialect but nearly all the railbirds consider themselves close enough to make their screaming worthwhile. Driver Medford Davis says he hears the railbirds but never listens to them. "They malign you with every name in the book. You've got to figure seven or eight people don't like you."
Roland Gardner doesn't malign drivers. He's a consistent railbird but he's somewhat different. More subtle. He's not very vocal and has no superstitions. He says that a problem of being on the rail is being screened out of part of the race when the horses run behind the massive infield tote board. Gardner claims that every time his horse is doing well going into the totte-board blind spot, it come out the other side looking ahead at seven horses.
Ed and Tyla Hoffman also don't fit the railbird mold. They're a married couple who lean over Laurel's metal of honour in perfect harmony. "If we make money, that's nice. If not, we still have a good time," said Hoffman. His wife added, "We have a perfect arrangement . . . I bet exactas and he bets straight."