A Shave and a Haircut

by Ed Meyer

posted on March 17, 2014 in General Discussion, Handicapping, Horse Racing, WinningPonies.com | 2 Comments >>

Everyday at Marcum’s barber shop there was plenty to talk about. Get a trim, a shave, or just sit around and talk. It would have fit on any street in America, except there was a  bookie operation in the back.

It was the type of operation that flew under the radar. Upstairs, there were two men taking wagers by phone, and downstairs was a small bar. It was actually a bar for 50 years before two brothers bought the building and opened a barber shop in the front. The place was a hometown betting parlor. The problems were few as long as they stayed small and made no waves. – Times were good.

The Marcum’s hailed from Baltimore, and gambling was in their blood. Their father worked for a book making operation, and specialized in past-posting to beat other bookmakers. They would have a kid stationed at the half way mark, and he would hand signal to others who were watching him with binoculars. A call would be made from the backstretch vet’s office. – It was always open, and you could wait for the doctor who spent the entire day medicating horses on the grounds. Phones were not allowed in public areas at the track, and this was as good as it could get. – When he was finally caught, he was barred from the track forever. But the bookmaking game was still in full swing, and the closest he could get was hearing the races on the radio.

The times were changing, and the simulcast wave was about to put many of the books out of order. The last customers would be the ones who needed to bet on the “cuff” or on credit to play later. The shop was doing less and less business over the years, and it became a phone betting operation only. You could still get a shave, haircut, or call up and make a bet. It wasn’t like it was all over, but now players could bet any race at the track. Older players who didn’t like the fast-paced world still enjoyed making calls to get their wagers. It was fair to say that things were slowing down.

Upstairs was now a one person operation taking some horse bets, and mostly small sports wagers. Times were changing, and it didn’t look good for the future. Younger players who tailed along with their father’s were the voices that called in to bet now. The brothers felt it was time to close and sell the building. The young Turks didn’t pay on time, and it wasn’t much fun working for free. Kids would lose $100, and the next bet would be $200. Eventually they would hit, and it bring it to even. When they won they wanted to be paid, and when they lost you could not find them with a search warrant. Times were a changing.

If you looked in the fourth row from the betting windows, you would see the two brothers sitting with about 5-6 others. They were still taking bets from their crew as it was too much of a hassle to walk to the windows. They had returned to where they started long ago. Small to medium bets, and talking the day away. A grandson of one of the older players made a trek to the races. He asked why they went out of business? “Father Time catches up with all of us, and it was time to get out while things were still good.” He shook his head and understood what the man was feeling. Times had changed, and the younger generation wanted to bet sports and play fast paced casino gaming.

Track management had no idea this was taking place, or they would have stamped this out with the presence of a sheriff.  One of the few that knew this was going on was me. I didn’t bother the older gents, as I have an appreciation of what the old days must have been. I would ask that they go up and make some bets from time to time, and stop bringing in their coffee and hit the concession stand. – “Just hit the windows when you were going to make a bigger bet, and everything will be OK.” I eventually had the concessions put out large coffee urns for the early bird players, and I used to give them free coupons for racing programs and Daily Racing Forms. I would have loved to have a place like Marcum’s to make a wager. For me this would have been a good time to be a horse player. I would have enjoyed this, and I always kept an eye on the guys. They didn’t bother anyone, and I thought the track could use a little nostalgia to balance out the ever-changing world.

I left Turfway Park in 20o3. I come out to make a bet here and there, and stopped by to see the guys who were aging quickly. There were three less in the group, and time was exacting every horse player’s fate. One day, I was in and out to make a bet. I ran into one of the guys. We had known each other for years, and he was now sitting in the front row to be closer to the windows. “Hey, are you coming out this Saturday, Ed?” “Yes, I’ll stop out and make a bet or two and hit the road. Be sure to stop by and see me, I have something for you.” I’ll be back in few days, and I’ll see my old friend for a bit. I thought he may have had some old clippings as he knew I enjoyed reading about the past.

Saturday came around, and I made my bets for the day. I didn’t see Mr. Marcum at first, but then saw him rounding the corner with a coffee in hand. “Ed, good to see you my friend. I have something for you, and a little story to go along. Here is a WWII Zippo lighter. It belonged to by brother Edwin, and he always enjoyed when you would bring him a cigar. He wanted you to have this, and said keep it as a good luck charm.” It had his initials of EM engraved, and it was so old that you barely make them out. It had the shine of a new penny, and Mr. Marcum thanked me for all I have done for them over the years. He said I would have loved the old days. “You could bet all day, and drink for free. We never had to raise hell with anyone, as everybody paid and got paid on time. I know you have loved our stories over the years, and he wanted you to have this.” I kept looking at the lighter and thought about the good days, the bad days, and all of the big winners this lighter must have seen. Now it was mine, and my initials were the same as Edwin’s. “You could offer me a thousand dollars and I wouldn’t sell this keepsake. It rests on my bar, and is surrounded by racing history. I think it’s in a perfect place, and sometimes I take it with me to the track. If you see me light up a stogie, come up and ask for a light, or just to see my lucky charm.” I guess I’m a throwback. Back to simpler times when making a wager in barber shop was the height of the day. Talking with friends was done in person without computers, texting, or emails. I think I was born about 30-years to late. But when you see me smoking a cigar at the track, come up and ask me for light. I may have a story you might enjoy.