It had been a splendid dinner, and I was in expansive mood as my manservant drove me home.
“After you’ve put the car in the garage, bring me a glass of that 1915 Armagnac, Joe,” I said. “I’ll be on the bench at the end of the pergola.”
The views of the domestic staff generally do not interest me, but Joe is different. He has been with me so long that we have developed a mutual respect. I like bouncing ideas off him, and I once overheard him say that minds like mine made New Orleans the force it is today.
I confess there have been times when I might have made an ass of myself but for Joe’s advice. This time, though, I knew I was on a winner. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty clever way of putting it, because I heard the Fair Grounds racetrack is up for sale, and I believed I was just the man to buy it.
Joe, having placed the refreshing glass on the table and taken a deferential step back, received the news impassively. When I went on to say I had a business plan, I thought for a second that the flicker of a smile played upon his lips, but quickly dismissed the idea.
I was a Fair Grounds regular in the old days, but quit going because the place has gone to the dogs, so to speak. When you walk in you have to pass a huge room full of people playing noisy slot machines and smoking cigarettes. I am not a Puritan by any means — I enjoy a good Cuban cigar as much as the next man — but the stench just about knocked me over last time I was there.
“Going to the races was a much more civilized experience before they installed those infernal machines, Joe,” I said. “I think I’ll remove them. I don’t think the people who play them have much interest in the sport of kings.”
“No, sir. Many of them are there because they need to win money, which, of course, they usually do not.”
“Poor people, eh?”
“Why, sir, the current owners, Churchill Downs, run penny slots at the Fair Grounds. They do not disdain the widow’s mite.”
“All the more reason to close them down and focus on the horseracing, right?”
“An agreeable thought, sir, but the racing would be of inferior quality without the subsidy it receives from the slot machines.”
“The machines can’t lose, right?”
“Correct, sir. They are programmed to disburse a percentage of what they take in.”
“Why, Joe, that means the poor devils in that foul room are paying for the entertainment of the swells in the paddock outside. That does have a certain appeal to my what do you call it?”
“Feudal spirit, sir?”
“Right feudal spirit. But that’s not supposed to be the American way. I’ll make the racing so popular that there’ll be no need for slots.
“You see, ripping out the slots is not the only way I intend to raise the tone. I was appalled, on my last visit to the track, to see several men in the clubhouse who were not wearing jackets. If I buy the track, a proper dress code will be strictly enforced. That way we’ll be sure to attract a good class of customer, and see attendance rise as we return to a more stylish era.” Joe nodded without obvious conviction, but agreed with me more warmly than usual when I made my next point.
“I was also horrified in the middle of the afternoon when an ostrich race was announced. It was a ridiculous spectacle. How in tarnation do they expect you to handicap an ostrich race?”
“A good point, sir. They also make dachshunds run, on the curious theory that such events will stoke an interest in thoroughbred horses.”
“Well, we’ll have none of that nonsense when I’m in charge. I know some say I can afford to buy that track only because I chose my ancestors wisely — they cashed in when cotton was king — but I think I have more business sense than the current owners.”
“Let me take your glass, sir.”
“Enough’s enough, eh? Right-o. Sweet dreams.”
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.