And they're off

"I guess I won't bet on that one," my friend says as she watches the thoroughbred hurl its body against the paddock stall and crash to the ground, all while kicking its long legs at its trainer. It was the second time Number Six, otherwise known as Merge Right, had made such a violent protest. Maybe Merge wasn't into constant drizzle and a sloppy track.

The park's vet clomped over to stall six, took a hard look at the jumpy beast, then turned toward the racing steward and made a slicing motion across his neck. Scratch. Merge wouldn't race today. A jockey about the size of a lawn decoration threw down his crop and huffed away toward the stables.

The eight other horses seemed fine, however, and paraded past the crowd. Place your bets. For the amateur wagerer, namely me, this was a high point of a virgin trip to Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie: psychology as a betting tool. Which horse looked calm, collected, intelligent, and tightly wound all at once? Check that against its past performance, and you've got the picture. My friend and I were getting the hang of it. Ah, Number Seven, a.k.a. Don Ole. Very muscular, very watchful, and its trainer sure was affectionate. He was listed as "Returns fresh after a layoff, with a sharp three-furlong blowout recently." Odds: 3-1. I ran into the big, shiny pavilion, up to a betting window, and put down $6 on Don to win, place, or show. That's a paltry $2 for each position, but it still came with a rush. The clerk handed me my ticket and actually said "Good luck."

My friend and I were on our sixth race of the day, and my adrenaline was pumping in a way I couldn't claim for any recent Sundays past. My self-styled betting method had won me two races already, and lost me three. The gambling bug had set in and was even sharper because I was betting on living, breathing creatures instead of dead-eyed slot machines or a handful of dice. A graceful, jittery horse with a personality and a track record--now, at that I could throw some money. No wonder my grandfather had gone to his grave with a racing form in his hand.

Lone Star Park opened in 1997, and even in this sport-engorged town, its popularity is growing. The thoroughbred stakes season started mid-April and runs through the end of July, and the fever that's gripped Kentucky and Louisiana (not to mention the Old World) for ages has taken root here. On this gray and ugly Sunday, just one day after the park's sunny and highly publicized "Kentucky Derby Day," the crowd of regulars surged in the upper boxes and beside the track; compared with Saturday's races, these were gritty, small-time, small-purse stakes. Older horses, maiden horses, losing-record horses. Still, a few thousand enthusiasts were on hand to brandish wads of cash and scream while the horses made their way down home stretch. "C'mon baby! Get in there, you shit!" (Did I mention Lone Star Park is a family outing?)

For a first-timer, there's nothing particularly intimidating about the experience. Every park employee I questioned (How do you bet? Where's the cash machine? How do you collect? Where's the paddock?) were ever-smiling and patient, and the crowd itself was rather friendly, if not boisterous. As I was making my way from the

betting windows out toward the track, a guy stopped me and said "Hey, who'd you bet on? Anyone with a fishing hat on must know something I don't." I smiled knowingly and moved on. Really, it's hard to feel threatened when you're taking measly

$2 risks. Though you still yell just as loud as the guy next to you, who put $50 on Number One, a big black beast named Snappy Drive.

Clutch that ticket, lean over the track rail, and root root root for Don Ole. Aw, man. Snappy Drive won, and the big-bucks spender is jumping around and punching at the air. Don Ole ended an also-ran. So much for methods. Still, one day at the races, and I'm looking for a bookie.

--Christina Rees

Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie. Thoroughbred season runs through July. 1000 Lone Star Parkway, Grand Prairie. General admission is $2.50, parking $2. Reserved seats also are available. For more information call (972) 263-7223 or check out www.lonestarpark.com on the Internet.

 
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