Traveling all the way to the race tracks in Carmona, Cavite, I dragged my family to watch the horse races play out before our eyes. Upon entering the leisure park where the races were held, my senses immediately got overwhelmed. It was a Sunday when we went, so a plethora of visitors is naturally expected. The place was teeming with avid horse race enthusiasts—kareristas, as they were often referred to—coming from all social classes. The entire place was bustling with all sorts of sounds—music playing over the sound system, a hubbub of people’s chattering, the announcer talking as heard through the televisions lined above the betting stations, a marching band playing beautiful tunes by the race track. The weather that day was cool, and you can feel a little flurry of wind as it drifts through the open arena of seats where the spectators can witness the races play out. We finally settled in our seats, and I began my observation.
It was surprising to me that many of the people who went to the leisure park for horse racing events were actually families—fathers and mothers with little children running about. Most of the bettors, however, were men, and a lot of them were middle-aged and older. How was I able to identify the bettors? It was fairly easy, actually. One need only identify two things a bettor is holding: a race program and a pen. I was amazed to see bettors scattered around the seats, all sitting crossed-legged and completely engrossed in reviewing the race program, possibly in the process of coming to a decision regarding which horses to bet on.
My informant for the event was my own dad, who had previous experience in betting at such racing events. Prior to the commencement of the races, he explained to me how the betting works and gave me tips on how to choose which horses to bet on. At this moment, I came to realize that betting entailed a much more elaborate process than I had initially imagined. My dad had explained how the forecast pays can be analyzed to determine which horses were the liyamado (the one most favored in winning) or the dehado (the one seen at a disadvantage). He also advised us to look at the part of the race program which mentions the time it took for the horse to finish the last race it participated in. The lesser the time, the better the horse. Knowing which jockeys are good was also vastly detrimental to betting. Most often than not, certain jockeys stand out as the good ones because they often win in races and derbies. At the same time, anonymous tipsters put their predictions on the race programs to help the bettors decide which horses to pick. I asked my dad if the tipsters were accurate, and he said that sometimes they were, but other times, they are not. Putting all these factors into consideration, I now understand why the bettors were so deeply buried into their race programs. If you want to have the best chances at winning, you have to be good at analyzing all the factors. But at the same time, anything can happen out in the tracks, as my dad said. So you’d have to take that into consideration as well. Horse racing, to me, seemed like an amalgamation of logic and luck, and I ponder at the irony of it.
For the first race, I decided not to bet so as to be able to observe how the race would transpire. Moments later, the race announcer began his usual script with “And they’re off!” as the horses fly past their gates. At the beginning of the race, the crowd was relatively quiet. Nothing at this point is set in stone, whoever was leading at this point in time may still change; the horses trailing behind might still catch up. Once the horses have neared the homestretch, the crowd began to burst in animated babble; everyone was cheering for the horses they bet on. People were vehemently shouting, “Layo pa, layo!” in hopes that their bet would put as much distance as possible from the rest of the contenders. Other people were shouting, “Balik, balik!”, cheering on their bets to regain their lead. At this point in time, the horses have entered the homestretch, and one can see that a great number of spectators have jumped out of their seats in uncontrolled excitement. Once the horses have gone past the finish line and a clear winner has been distinguished, the zeal slowly dies down back to a steady hum. Those who won in the bets are seen with smiles on their faces, while those who failed to win emanate a slightly disappointed expression, looking to turn the tables around come the next race.
I finally decided to try out betting by the second race (The betting is completely legal, and I am of legal age to bet) to get an idea of how it feels like. I went to consult a copy of the race program and tried my best to intelligently decide which horses to bet on. My dad mentioned that there are several ways to bet: forecasts, daily doubles, trifectas, winner-takes-all, among others. I only settled on betting with a forecast—that is, a combination of two horses—because it seemed the most basic and least complicated. I then proceeded to line up with my dad at the betting stations. It is not surprising to see that most, if not all, of the bettors lining up were men. Some stared a good couple of seconds when they saw me lining up with them, possibly half-amused and half-wondering why on earth a twenty-year-old girl is betting at a horse racing event. When my turn came at the counters, I simply handed the piece of paper that contained the necessary information for my bet (i.e. the corresponding numbers of the horses I am betting on in successive order, as well as the amount I am betting) and consequently handed in money. The man behind the betting booth handed me back my ticket containing the same information I handed him. The wait to race two begins.
The announcer begins his script with the same introductory phrase “And they’re off!” (I found the way the announcer talks very amusing—he was talking nonstop and in a monotonous, unchanging tone as he narrates the race). The horses zoom past one another through the oval race track as people patiently await their return to the homestretch. The same exact thing that transpired during race one happened in race two—people started getting up from their chairs to cheer on the horses and the jockeys alike. Adrenaline rushed through me; the horses I bet on were putting up a good fighting chance at the homestretch. The energy of the people around me immensely helped with the excitement I felt. But unfortunately, the horses I bet on did not win. I am overwhelmed with dismay that I lost during the first ever time I got to bet. I can only imagine the disappointment of the bettors who have experienced losing a million times. The frustration is incredibly upsetting, what more when you have put in big money to bet. The thought of losing just did not sit with me well, so I opted to try another round of betting for the next race. I went with the usual bettor’s routine of referring to the race program, went to the betting stations after, and patiently waited for race three to begin (which did not take long, as the duration between races were usually just a couple of minutes). Fast forward to horses reaching the finish line, and I find myself winning my bet for the very first time. I actually won. My analysis was correct, my “intelligent guessing” was precise. The horses I bet on were actually dehado, meaning that they weren’t the favorites to win, which also means that the payoff is actually high. I only bet 20 pesos, which is a pretty small amount, so my winnings aren’t as big. Nonetheless, it was a fun experience for me; winning boosts the ego, and a little monetary prize did not hurt as well.
I opted to see whether I could achieve a two-peat. I did the same routine before I went to the betting stations. To be fair, it was truly hard to settle on which horses to choose. More than that, however, it is difficult to decide on which sequence of your chosen horses you should bet on. Being a very indecisive overthinker, I had a hard time settling on whom to bet on for the next race. The stake, for me, at this point was high; I wanted to start a winning streak. But I was eventually able to settle on which horses to bet on, and off to the betting stations we go. In my head, I was silently praying for another win. I feel as though I needed the extra bit of hold from God to win in another race. Before long, race four commences with the usual script of the announcer blaring through the sound system. The horses went on the usual drill around the tracks. At the homestretch, the people again went wild. After the finish line has been reached, the spectators settled back down, the successful bettors emerge with gratified faces. Sadly, I did not win in the current race, and I was a tad bit disappointed. My dad had warned me that horse racing can get addicting, especially for the competitive ones who cannot settle with losing, and I actually agree with him. After having experienced the glorifying moment of winning, you will want to prove that it is not just a one-time thing. But the thing is, winning is harder than it looks. Praying, and all other equivalent habits we do to get a little extra bit of luck, may or may not prove effective.
Horse racing in the Philippines, according to my dad, is a popular form of leisure for many Filipinos. Off-track betting stations were established in various areas around the metro and in other provinces so people would not need to go all the way to the race tracks to place a bet and participate. People from all social classes participate in betting, but most, if not all, are usually male. Horse racing is often done for leisure, but according to my dad, there are some who do it for the money. One would actually be able to win a good sum of money with minimum investment if you know how to place your bets right. My sister had also place bets like I did when we visited the race tracks, and she won three races in a row. Later on, she shared how she was able to choose the right horses. According to her, it’s all a matter of logic. Perhaps I was mistaken in believing that luck also had something to do with winning, but to each his own, I guess.
What I found admirable about horse racing is that it is able to bring all kinds of people together. While I have mentioned that the bettors are mostly men, it is apparent that watching the horses race could easily pass for a familial pastime. At the same time, I noticed that during the races, people who do not know one another convene to discuss the results of the races. Some just get together in the face of losing. According to my dad, people most often get together and wallow collectively in losing than they do when they win. Simply put: horse racing brings all sorts of people together in a community of horse race enthusiasts, and the Philippines—especially in Metro Manila—finds its nooks and crannies teeming with off-track betting stations and kareristas, but we just don’t notice. But as my dad had said, you only need to look for two things to find a fellow karerista: a race program, and a pen.
What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
In participating, I was able to experience firsthand what it feels like to be one of the horse race enthusiasts and bettors. I was able to feel the thrill that comes with watching the horse race, especially because I had something at stake. I knew how it felt like to win and lose. Because of this, I more or less had an idea as to why people continue to patronize and support horse racing. I would not have felt the way I did if I simply just observed.
What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Having a key informant is crucial because he/she will let you in on things that cannot know by simply observing. The key informant will guide you throughout the activity or event. In my case, my dad taught me the inner workings of betting. When he explained to me how the horse race betting went, my expectations were immediately proven wrong. I initially thought that horse race betting was a fairly simple thing to do, but in reality, it was a difficult process of crucial decision making. At the same time, my dad was able to share to me what he knew about the culture that emerged out of horse racing. He shared to me his stories of his own experiences in participating in such a culture, and I was able to confirm some of his stories form my own experience.
What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
The entire experience of horse race betting cannot be fully grasped by simply asking about it through a questionnaire or an interview. You, yourself, would have to experience being immersed in their little culture firsthand in order to formulate your own understanding about the way things work in the industry of horse racing. The emotions that you feel during the event cannot also be obtained through a simple questionnaire or interview. In a questionnaire or an interview, you will receive information based on the viewpoint of others. Seeing through the lens of others is essential as well in understanding a certain culture, but getting to your own deductions and generalizations based on your own personal encounters is ultimately as important.
For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
Questionnaires and interviews are better utilized when you wish to amass information from other people. Others’ perspectives on things are also important, because there is only so much that our own viewpoint can offer us. There are things that other people may know about a certain event or culture that we cannot know through participant observation. In my case, my dad—who was my key informant for the event—shared to me a lot of stories and experiences about horse racing and betting that I would never have figured out through a simple participant observation.
Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
In horse racing, what I have come to understand is that events and activities like it mostly entertain a certain aspect of the Filipino population—that is, the men. While I am certain that there are a number of female bettors, it is essentially the men that participate actively and habitually at such things. Despite this, I have also come to see that horse racing can still be an event for everyone—adults and children, men and women, alike. Horse racing creates its own subculture with its own set of lingo (e.g., liyamado and dehado) where people of varying ages can come together to unite in victory, and more especially, in defeat.
Submitted by: Mylene Mendoza | SA 21 – X