There is a well-worn story in the Rukavina-Miller canon that goes like this: back when Catherine and I first moved to Prince Edward Island we were running short of money one week, and didn’t really have enough to scratch together for groceries. On a lark we went out to the Charlottetown Driving Park with our last $10 and tried our hardest to pick the horses that might win us our fortune. Following Catherine’s grandfather’s rule, or at least the rule he enforced while Catherine was around, we limited ourselves to $2 wagers. But then a certain long-odds horse caught our eye, and we went all out and wagered $4. The horse won, and we walked away $40 richer, enough to fill the cupboard and take us out to Swiss Chalet to boot.
Back in the early 1990s, the Driving Park seemed like a sort of time capsule of old Prince Edward Island. Before it got all tarted up and casinoized it was a mildly rough-and-ready kind of place full of well-worm old-timers watching the races from their Impalas. It was a good place for two new Islanders, wet behind the ears and in our late 20s, to get a sense of what Prince Edward Island’s old heart might look like. And so we went almost every week. We rarely wagered more than $10 total in a night, and we never bettered our $40 grocery win, but it was always a fun night.
Then, five years ago, things changed. Suddenly the Driving Park was the Driving Park and Entertainment Centre, with a big addition, a new grandstand, and rumours of chocolate fountains and blackjack tables. Longtime readers will recall that I did not greet this change with open arms and I’ve not been able to bring myself to go back to the track in the interim for fear of sullying myself with all the gold lamé, hookers, and free-flowing whisky.
But then last night I realized that Old Home Week was drawing to a close and in a strange triangulation managed to convince myself that a night at the track might somehow be turned into a teachable math moment for Oliver. So we hitched a ride with Jodi out Kensington Road, paid our $12 to get in the gate, and waded through the chaos of the midway toward the track.
We bought a $2 race program — still a miracle of compact information-rich design — and I spent 15 minutes trying to explain to Oliver how to make sense of it. We watched a race or two and then it was time to wager. Oliver liked the name “Play On” (name-appreciation is the only father-to-son horse-picking wisdom I could pass on), and I liked the name “E.F. Quicky” (how can you go wrong with a horse that has “quick” right in its name) and so we placed a $2 wager on each horse to show, trading maximal payout for maximal chance of the thrill of at-least-partial victory.
To our surprise and delight, the horses finished first and second (E.F. Quicky, of course, came first) and we turned our original $4.00 into $4.50 (wagering “to show” you’re betting that the chosen horse will place first, second or third, so the payouts are not great).
And so when Oliver is sprawled in a gutter in suburban Tampa at age 32 with a tattered racing form tucked in his back pocket and Johnny Walker dribbling out of his ears (yes, I cannot write hard-scrabble very well, given my limited life experience), he will be able to trace his gambling-laced lifestyle back to last night’s first taste of the life.
You know what, though: if you stay outside of the grandstand, with its “Cubano” sandwiches, club chairs and plasma screens beaming in races from Monaco, and just hang out track-side, you can still get a taste of the old heart of Prince Edward Island.
They don’t let Impalas in any more, and you have to put up with “audiotainment” over the PA. But when post time comes the crackle is still there, and you can get a sense, if only thrice-removed, of why so many Islanders are so passionate about the sport to effectively sell their souls to the devil to try to ensure its survival.