Photo: Eclipse Sportswire - Alex Evers
I find myself at a strange crossroads in my gambling/horse racing life – one that started at the tender age of 13 when I hit the first bet I made at the Northport, New York OTB.
Actually my grandfather made it for me. It was a time when I wasted away beautiful, summer vacation days with crotchety, old retirees complaining about everything from bad jockey rides to the price of gas while smoking like chimneys. Taking the lead from my grandfather, I handicapped solely on “whose turn” it was to win, a rudimentary assessment of jockeys and trainers rotating victories, usually to our dismay at not guessing correctly.
I was committed to winning all those years ago. Why else would I forego beach days and ball fields? Besides the fading poster of the well-endowed, Atlantic City Casino showgirl there wasn’t anything remotely glamorous about the Sport of Kings for me. But still, I persisted jumping from Jerry Bailey to Robbie Davis to Eddie Maple.
More than 30 years later, I have maintained the same level of commitment, with all the time necessary to be a decent handicapper. I hit my share of scores, and suffer more than my share of misses, both by an inch and a mile. I’ve had a bunch of fun betting along with friends and family members during the biggest races – Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, Saratoga – became ecstatic beyond comprehension when I discovered TVG ten years ago and have recently forged friendships with horse racing lovers across the country through my blog at Horse Racing Nation.
In fact, I’ve had the time of my life recently covering the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup with my fellow bloggers – Matt, Brian and Mark – who also happen to be outstanding handicappers. You know, not everybody gets greeted by Churchill Downs or Santa Anita as a member of the media, laughs heartily along the way and creates lasting memories.
My press credentials have gotten me time with trainers like Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Gary Contessa and Richard Mandella, the godfather of horse racing partnerships and gentlemen, Cot Campbell and of course, the ridiculously magical ride along with Edward Stanco and King of Prussia Stables as their homebred filly, Princess of Symlar, took them to racing heights from the Kentucky Oaks to the Breeders’ Cup.
The racing gods, in more than one way, have blessed me. So, I say with a heavy heart, I’m not sure if I’ll make another wager following May 3, 2014. While this is an emotional decision based upon my singular Thoroughbred horse racing journey, I feel a shared spirit with many, maybe more than the horse racing world knows.
Yes, Churchill Downs’ money grab/takeout hike may be the final straw on my small, camel’s back. But it’s so much more than that. Horse racing in North America is an industry that continues in spite of its own shortsightedness, the stories and whispers of abuses in drugs, horse care and a lack of customer service, which belies an almost conscious effort to drive us away. (Boutique meets like Keeneland, Saratoga and Del Mar exceptions.) When you add it all up, why do any of us stick around making bets? Really?
One thing industry insiders know about us, the bettors – who fund the purses the owners race for, the money the tracks profit from – is that we will bet, almost regardless of product, amenities, rake, etc. This is who we are: hopeful, confident, arrogant, clueless, thorough, wishful, exasperated, and all of these emotions can be felt in just one race, never mind a whole card, a whole meet, a whole year.
Even if you’re great at picking the ponies, you will go through losing streaks, your confidence shaken. You’ll lose bets, quite possibly not knowing the real reasons why. To comfort ourselves, we may eat a cold hot dog on a stale bun trackside or watch as tracks and/or state governments take even more of our betting dollars from us. Have I mentioned, this is a tough game in which to win? God bless the pros that carve out a living at it.
And so the horses race, and we bet. We bet horses from shady trainers, dropping one-time-stakes winners into $10,000 claimers, as well as upstanding ones with no violations. Beyond the past performances, most of us know almost nothing on each horse we bet: how it’s treated; how it’s feeling on race day both emotionally and physically; medication it’s been given beyond two listed in most programs; it’s typical aversion to or liking of a surface, jockey, equipment change, etc. etc. etc. Given all this and more tracks should not only advertise for us, they should take up arms against those trying to compete for our gambling dollars, the fool-hearty horse players. They don’t, yet we still bet.
Not me, not anymore…at least for a while. I will fully immerse myself into picking a Derby winner and building a superfecta ticket for seven friends and myself, trying to turn $400 into $40K. Then it’s a break from handicapping and betting. Who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy the game a whole lot more.
Don’t worry I’ll blog about the game (hopefully you’ll come along for the ride.) I still have a lot of love for the many who do it the right way and the equines themselves, putting their hearts and souls into every race from lowest-level maiden claimers up to the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Now onto that Derby bet…