It was Halloween 2016. Tony and I were in the back of a car, being driven to a radio interview in Toronto to promote our just-published Appetites: A Cookbook. We used the time in morning traffic to look over his obligations for the next few months, which included appearances at food and wine festivals in Puerto Rico and the Caymans; a voice-over session for a televised UFC special; dozens of print, television, radio, and podcast interviews; and near-daily jiujitsu training sessions; in addition to Parts Unknown shoots in Oman, Trinidad, Antarctica, and Queens, the New York City borough that I’ve called home for a decade.
“You like horse racing?” Tony asked. I did.
“You wanna shoot with me at Aqueduct?” I did.
“I wanna win some money. You know what you’re doing?” I did not, though I may have indicated otherwise to Tony.
I had happy memories of annual family outings to the grand old Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York, but it had been decades since I’d seen a race and my wagering skills were rusty at best. I arranged for a racing-enthusiast friend to meet me at the track the day before the mid-November shoot so that I’d be comfortable reading the racing form, making informed-enough decisions, and placing bets on camera the next day.
In the third race my friend and I watched, horrified, as a jockey in the center of the pack fell from his horse midrace and was quickly trundled into a waiting ambulance.
In the fifth race I won $100.
Early the next morning I sat at my dining room table while a professional applied makeup to my normally nude face. The act of hiring a makeup artist felt vain and foolish, and I couldn’t stand the sight of myself behind the mask of powder and base. But I’d been warned not to skip it by people who knew better than I how the camera flattens beauty.
The makeup artist was just about finished when my phone rang. It was Josh Ferrell, the producer for the Queens episode, with some bad news: The day’s races were canceled due to high wind conditions. This was extremely unusual for a racecourse whose outdoor season runs from November to April, the wettest and coldest part of the year; but the wind was fierce and the horses would not run. I washed my face and went back to bed.
A month later, on an unseasonably warm December day, exactly a week before Christmas, I got another ghoulish but necessary round of makeup and made my way to the racetrack. Josh Ferrell mic-ed and prepped me for how we would move, followed by the cameras, from the entrance, up the escalators to the betting windows, and down to our seats in the sparsely populated stands, where additional cameras were positioned to catch the action. Tony arrived shortly after and reiterated that he wanted to win some money. Didn’t everyone? Josh handed us each a slim stack of cash and we were off, as it were, to the races.
Tony bet big, I was conservative, and in the course of four or five races neither one of us won a thing. We drank, in retrospect, a little too much beer, its effect only slightly blunted by two undistinguished but delicious Jamaican beef patties each. We talked about New York—how great it is to live in a city with a racetrack and beaches in addition to the vertical crunch of Manhattan and awesome food and culture thriving nearly everywhere. We talked about the unpretentious come-as-you-are comfort of Queens. I tried to remember what my friend had taught me about the morning line and track bias and handicapping, but when Tony asked me a simple question, I flubbed the answer—because, of course, without trying he already knew more than me about horse racing. Tony’s capacity for arcane knowledge on a vast array of topics was legendary.
In all it was a pleasant few hours at the track. I knew not to get my hopes up that our scene would make the cut, but in the end it did. And it was hugely gratifying to walk through JFK Airport the week before the episode aired and see and hear myself in the episode’s promo clip on CNN, saying, “That’s Queens—nobody gives a s***.”