The day was gray and gloomy, the rain coming down in a steady sheet. All around Moscow, the Goodwill Games continued, seemingly unnoticed by most of the people in the city.
But the Central Moscow Hippodrome was filled to overflowing. Sunday is horse racing day here and neither rain nor snow nor Goodwill Games will stop Muscovites from their appointed bets.
The Hippodrome is a little different than the kind of race track Americans are used to. The outside consists of high yellow plaster walls with a spire over one entrance. There are statues of horses on each side of the main entrance. At the far end, there are eight columns at the top of the steps leading to the entrance and atop the building is a model of a chariot being pulled by three horses.
Inside, the grandstand is double-decked. Underneath are the betting windows. Old men stand in every corner, peering over their racing forms, cigarette smoke curling up over their heads.
There is no turf club here. This is a haven for the proletariat and the people come regardless of the weather to make their bets and watch their horses.
The betting windows are manned by women. You can wager from 50 kopecs (about 70 cents) to 10 rubles (about $13.50) on a horse to win, on an exacta or on a triple. In English, the Soviet version of the triple comes out, "triple express." The daily double can be bet on any two races and is known as, "twice-first."
The harness track is open on Sunday and Wednesday, with 18 races on each card. Every 20 minutes another race begins, and when post time is less than five minutes away, the pushing and shoving around the betting windows is almost calamitous.
But even though the Soviets clearly enjoy getting their bets down, their reaction to the races is much different than in the United States. The railbirds move down to the rail and as the horses turn for home there is some noise from the stands. But it is largely muted. For the most part, the bettors stand and watch in silence.
"The way to pick the horses is to watch the board," said Mikael, a 28-year-old furniture salesman, lighting a cigarette. "I bet on the one that the board says is best."
In other words, he bets favorites. The parimutuel board in the infield shows odds in a different way: there are a certain number of tickets available on each horse. As the tickets are sold, the percentage left drops. All horses begin at 99 on the board. The one with the lowest number at post time is the favorite. Based on one day at the track, the favorites win here a lot.
"Not too many good horses," said Vasili, a factory worker who was dressed in what could be the uniform of the day: dark overcoat, white shirt, dark pants and (of course) cigarette dangling from his mouth. "Only two or three can win each race so it is not that hard to pick."
The horses all have single names: Kazar, Pathos, Hypnosis, Telepathy, Cowboy, Sunset, Rhythm, Diamond, Masquerade. The trotters start behind a van that carries the starting gate. In addition to the fans in the stands, many people in the apartments adjacent to the track hang out their windows to watch.
Today was "The Day of the Fisherman" at the track. No one seemed quite sure what that meant except that it is an annual event. Last week was the big race of the Soviet racing season, The Soviet All Union Prize. It carried a purse of 40,000 rubles snd was won by a horse named Kipr.
The visit of eight American journalists seemed to fascinate the Soviets. They were very helpful, trying their best to explain in a little Russian and a little English what was going on. Still, there were problems. A request to bet one ruble on the No. 4 horse produced a 1-4 ticket for the daily double. Unfortunately, the purchasers of the ticket didn't realize this until after the No. 4 horse had pounded home first and they went to the window to collect. "Nyet," said the woman.
"What do you mean 'Nyet,' " cried the Americans. The argument was quickly lost. "We can pick the right horses," said Tom Callahan of Time magazine. "We just can't pick the right window."
The only American to cash a winning bet was Randy Harvey of the Los Angeles Times. He accidentally went to the "twice-first," window and requested No. 4. He was given a 4-4 ticket on the next two races. Both No. 4 horses won and Harvey collected 18 rubles. "The piba beer is on me," Harvey announced, waving his winning ticket.
Fourteen of the 18 races were harness races. The other four were steeplechases. The track -- there are actually three different courses -- is 1,600 meters around and the times were fairly slow.
Even on a cold, ugly day, people packed every corner of the dirty old place and the winners were easy to pick out at the end of each race.
"It is always crowded on Sunday no matter what the weather," said Mikael. "It is a day away from work and people come to enjoy."
Horse racing has been a part of Russian society since the days when the Czars kept their own horses. The Hippodrome was first built before the Revolution but the wooden stands burned down in 1953. It was rebuilt in its current form, with ornate paintings on the ceiling of the upper deck, in 1955. From the back row of the top deck, one can see four of the seven Stalin Spires that dot the Moscow skyline.
There is a restaurant located just past the finish line with stained glass windows depicting various horses on the outside. A special ticket is required to get into the restaurant.
Few people even attempt to venture in there. Most come to bet and as soon as one race is over, they head for the windows to bet on the next. With only 20 minutes between races, the scene is often chaotic.
No one seems to mind, though. The Soviets are used to lines. But as one race was about to begin, two men near the back of the line became frantic. They began pushing past people to get to the window.
Once there, they encountered two Americans who were struggling to make a bet. For a moment, things were tense as the impatient Russians tried to push past to get to the window. One man kept repeating the same thing over and over in Russian, "Povarit, povarit." It was not until later that the Americans learned what he had been saying.