A Day at the Races, Bangkok Style

By Justin Catanoso

BANGKOK, Thailand — The Thai lady with lofty cheekbones and crooked smile has a tip for us. Here at The Royal Turf Club, a fabled horse racing track in Bangkok, we stand out amid the thousands of locals as perhaps the only Americans.

She no doubt marks us as high rollers in the crowded concourse. She is a bookie, sassy, insistent, and man, what a character. As she offers advice on her favorites in the next race, she pops a fried beetle into her mouth and chases it with whiskey and soda water from a plastic cup.

Bangkok, baby, on a Sunday afternoon. This is the real deal.

I’m not much of a gambler, even though I grew up near the casinos of Atlantic City. I’d rather spend my money on travel and bet that such experiences will change my life more than any lucky streak at a craps table. So here I am with my wife in Bangkok. First time in Asia for both of us. We have expert guides: Emilia, our 24-year-old daughter who is teaching English north of Bangkok; and Ian, her friend and fellow teacher, a young guy with a bottomless desire for adventure. He speaks Thai, too, which was totally cool.

Naturally, we do Wat Pho with its endless array of golden Buddhas. We do Khaosan Road with its scruffy appeal to Western backpackers. We tuk-tuk. We eat fiery Thai cuisine. We are, for most of the weekend, typical tourists.

But on Sunday, Emilia and Ian promise, we won’t be. And we aren’t.

“I love reading Bukowski,” says Ian, explaining his affinity for the track by way of the besotted American novelist. “He always writes about going to the horse races and drinking a lot of whiskey and chain smoking. It’s bad ass.”

The locals must think so, too. Gambling is taboo across Thailand. But horse racing, introduced by the Brits a century ago, gets a pass. Every other Sunday in the Dusit district, the grandstand of the Royal Turf Club fills up with Thai men. They bury their heads in their racing guides and peer through binoculars to confirm their hunches. They smoke and drink.

At the track, Thai women have their place. They don’t lose money, they make it — selling tickets, making shrimp cakes, dispensing advice, taking bets.

Ian goes to the rail to study the horses. He’s channeling Bukowski with a smoke in one hand, a whiskey in the other. I hang behind him, taking in the scene. The lush grass track is bordered by a row of blooming rose bushes. The infield has ponds, palm trees and a par-3 golf course. The jockeys in their colorful silks look young enough to be my daughter’s middle school students. And as if to emphasize that we’re a long way from Churchill Downs, the peaked rooflines of a lavish temple called the Marble Palace shimmer in red just beyond the first turn.

Ian waves Emilia over. She fans herself against the steamy heat. He’s been going over the pre-race odds on the lighted scoreboard. He likes what he sees. How about a Trifecta? Emilia’s in. They pool their baht. I don’t gamble, remember, but this looks like fun.

At the betting window, a sweet Thai lady happily greets Emilia and Ian. They need to nail the first three finishers in the right order. Laughing, they bet every combination of their top three picks and hand over their baht. The lady’s small daughter makes change, counting out in English.

Back in the grandstand, the race starts. The horses and riders look like distant blurs until they hit the home stretch. The grandstand swells with a roar as the horses rumble toward us. The Thai men come to their feet, their racing guides rolled tightly in their fists. Emilia is jumping up and down. Ian calmly drags on his smoke. His widening grin belies his Bukowski cool. As the horses cross the finish line, he raises his arms over his head.

First. Second. Third. Trifecta, baby. Emilia and Ian disappear to collect their winnings.

My wife pours me a whiskey and soda water as my heart rate starts to ebb. Maybe I need to rethink this gambling thing.

Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University and the author of My Cousin the Saint, A Story of Love, Miracles, and an Italian Family Reunited (Harper Perennial). His journalism is collected at www.justincatanoso.com