Book Review: Horseplayers, Life at the Track
By Kevin Martin, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
If you are among the many who will be sad to see the end of HBO’s Luck, you will have a hard time finding any piece of entertainment that comes close to its view of life at the track. Luck covered many perspectives of racing life, but one that carried a unique element of truth was the life of the horseplayer, represented by a group of gamblers led by the irascible wheelchair-bound Marcus played by Kevin Dunn.
Rarely in popular culture have we seen the lives of racetrack gamblers captured with all their nuance, complexity, and spirit. Of the many books, movies and TV shows that have depicted racing over the years, there is only one other work that comes to mind that truthfully depicts the life of the racetrack gambler in a meaningful way, and that is Ted McClelland’s Horseplayers, Life at the Track. Horseplayers takes the effective but cursory depiction of the gambling culture of the racetrack seen in Luck to another level. If you found the gambling gang in Luck compelling, you will love McClelland’s book.
Horseplayers is a down-in-the-trenches view of the cast of characters that dedicate their lives to handicapping and betting on horse races. The author, a Chicago-based journalist who wrote the book in 2004, doesn’t avoid the seediness of the gambling scene at the many tracks and betting facilities he inhabits. However, he avoids the typical pitfalls of depicting “railbirds” as shallow caricatures. Instead, he emphasizes the intellectual nature of gambling on horses and the dedication it requires to find even a modicum of long-term success.
The book is full of wisdom gathered during the young author’s transformation from a bright-eyed track “newbie” to a cynical veteran. One could compile a list of “maxims” about gambling from the author’s own observations and those he compiled from an eccentric group of railbird compatriots.
Many of his insights are brutally honest and cut to the core of life at the track. About mid-way through the book, as McClelland is suffering through one of his many cold streaks, he is driven to make this harsh observation:
“Nobody likes a winner at the track. A winner has your money. A racetrack is like a jail or a bar: you make friends by being a loser.”
Of course, McClelland’s outlook changes when his handicapping pays dividends. Amidst the throes of his despair over being “a loser,” he still finds moments at the track where he admits to being “…completely, ravingly out of my head with excitement.” Horseplayer perfectly encapsulates the emotional toil of gambling on horses at McClelland’s hometown Chicago’s racetracks and OTBs. The books also includes descriptions of gambling at small tracks throughout the Midwest in a chapter chronicling a road trip the author takes with a fellow player.
Horseplayer is entertaining for those familiar with the racing scene as well as instructive if you are new to the game. McClelland cleverly weaves in lessons about playing the races, but not so much as to distract from his narrative. The book can be enjoyed by seasoned pros, but the author was definitely mindful of a potential audience outside the horse racing universe. If you will miss the gambling gang from Luck, Ted McClelland’s Horseplayer would be an effective way to fill that void.