This article is part of the series ‘Best Sports Betting Scenes in Television and Movies.’ There are a lot of high-quality movies centered on gambling, including horse racing and poker. All quality gambling scenes, whether strictly sports betting or not, the focus of the film or a short aside, will be included/considered.
There’s a six-tier wedding cake wedged against the toilet in the back of his van, a nervous father of the bride sitting in the passenger seat outside the bar, and Nicky Cerone can’t place a bet on a “lock” from his system while inside the bar.
So sets the stage for a comical horse racing scene from Easy Money a 1983 release starring Rodney Dangerfield and Joe Pesci. Both were coming off big roles, with Dangerfield — still more known as a stand-up comic — following his breakout performance as Al Czervik in Caddyshack and Pesci three releases removed from playing Joey in Raging Bull opposite Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta.
The backdrop is the impending wedding of Monty Capuletti’s (Dangerfield) daughter. Monty is a wreck in every sense of the word. He drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, and his mother-in-law loathes him. After escaping his house post-confrontation with her due to Nicky’s late arrival, the two run errands all over Staten Island — with a detour to the track.
Staten Island represent!
Staten Island is essentially the picked-on sibling of the five boroughs of the New York City area. The joke used to be New Jersey won a bet that resulted in it belonging to New York, and there are nearly a half-million people squeezed onto a piece of land that is less than 60 square miles. When this movie was released, Staten Island was a way station between Brooklyn and central New Jersey on the upward mobility ladder. My family climbed said ladder and was living in the Eltingville neighborhood of Staten Island when the movie was released.
Easy Money was filmed on location throughout the borough, an immense point of pride for the locals, 10-year-old me and family included. Childhood friends still recite lines verbatim when we’re all together. Taylor Negron’s “I’m so bad I should be in detention” became a chorus lyric in Anthrax’s 1987 metal rap song I’m the Man. The wide shot of the post-wedding backyard celebration is vintage Staten Island.
The movie theater next to the iconic landmark of the borough — the Staten Island Mall — proudly declared “Filmed in SI!” on the matinee board. The stars were also natives of the geographic region — Dangerfield was born on Long Island and Pesci hails from Newark, N.J., — and both seamlessly turned up their New York accents and hilarity ensued.
“What’s the tip?” “Big Boy in the fifth.”
The scene begins with Pesci getting off the phone lamenting his inability to place his bet on a harness race with all the errands he has to do. When the Louie the bartender asks him about the tip, and Pesci tells him, Louie doubts they could even get to the track in time to place the wager.
Their common friend Paddy pipes up enthusiastically, “We going to the track?” but Louie shoots it down because he’s got a bar to run. When Nicky says “It’s a sure thing, it’s 40 to 1,” there’s a rapid change of mind and they close down the bar.
The movie cuts to the track, which is Dover Downs in Delaware, but “Hoover Downs” for the movie (an eagle eye pointed out the continuity error as both names are visible at different points in the scene). Nicky’s plumbing van gets cut off by a group of frat guys in a convertible as he’s about to pull into a parking spot five minutes from post time, causing anger among the group.
Monty calms everyone down — after all, he’s got a daughter their age about to be married — before telling Nicky to “take care of this.” Nicky obliges by rolling the van into the frat guys’ car, nudging it over a ledge and into the weeds.
“Next time just say, ‘Two… across… the… board.'”
From there it’s a nervous wait in line to place the bet as the PA bellows “Sixty seconds to post time!” Our group is stuck behind a novice bettor who doesn’t know the terminology as he’s placing bets. With each 15-second announcement, the anxiety mounts. At the last one, they forcibly throw the guy off the line and get $50 bets in on Big Boy at 40-1 just under the wire.
The various builds of the four actors — Louie the Bartender (Val Avery), Monty, diminutive Nicky, and lanky Paddy (Tom Noonan) — all side by side watching from the rail creates a comical perspective as they’re all trying to get a glimpse of Big Boy speeding around the outside.
The cutting back and forth between the race and the quartet as they go from celebration to despair drives the comedy of the scene, with the brass music and a few iconic lines serving as superb add-ons. Big Boy pulls five lengths clear on the final turn, and there’s the anticipatory celebration of a potential $2,000 payout for each of them. Monty and Nicky hug, and that’s when it all goes sideways. The fix is in, and the jockey starts slowing down the horse by pulling as hard as he can.
Not seeing this, a still-jubilant Monty exclaims, “I’m going to Hawaii! I’m going to Hawaii!” When Paddy turns to Nicky and says, “He’s falling back,” Monty says, “I’m not going to Hawaii” without missing a beat.
They look on in horror as Big Boy has indeed fallen back. To ensure a last-place finish, the jockey drops his legs out of the stirrups and onto the track, using his boots as a further drag. The trailing cloud of dust is plainly visible, leaving Monty to scream, “He thinks he’s water skiing!!”
As they cross the finish line, there’s rage in everyone’s eyes, most notably Nicky. As the jockeys and horses are returning to the paddock, Nicky jumps the rail and tackles the jockey off the mount in an attempt to pound him. Paddy barely gets Nicky off the jockey and the scene ends with Nicky, whip in hand, chasing the jockey.
The lost day at the races is one of many scenes in “Easy Money” showcasing the comedic chops of Dangerfield and Pesci, and perhaps foreshadowed some of Pesci’s temperamental New York-based characters in later movies. Forty years later, the laughs are still there. And remember, next time “just say two… across… the… board.”