racing has many fine attributes, but one of the greatest is the fan’s chance to
be a part of the game through handicapping. Of course most horseplayers have a
strategy of some sort. Some conventionally calculating, others a gut-type feeling
thing. Now that the calendar has turned to 2013, a part of every player’s
resolution is to win more. So what is the best strategy when looking for a pony
payoff? Here is a mostly true tale of one horseplayer’s predicament and how
things worked out.
The date was November 23, 2012 and historic
Churchill Downs was the place. The Clark Handicap is traditionally the biggest
race of the fall meet beneath the Twin Spires and this year would be no
different. One of the Thoroughbred racing’s real heroes was going to be
showcased in this grade 1 event and excitement was in the air.
spirited four-year old colt that had time and again thrilled his fans with
gutsy runs. In 19 previous starts, this son of Forestry had enjoyed five trips
to the winner’s circle, finished second five times, and third once. Included in
those wins were a thrilling gate to wire run in the 2011 Preakness and a gutsy
triumph in the 2012 Met Mile at Belmont. However, his attempt to bolt for the
breeding shed off a big win went awry as he stumbled at the start of the
Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile on November 3 at Santa Anita and finished a
disappointing eighth. Realizing his runner deserved another chance, trainer
Dale Romans pointed Shackleford toward the Clark with eyes on one more win.
The mile and an
eighth Clark is one of the most historic races in Downs history as it was first
run in 1875. The 138th edition promised to come up rather tough as
Shackleford would be facing an accomplished ensemble of runners. Take Charge
Indy was training well and had Calvin Borel in the irons, Mission Impazzible
had finished second the year before and looked primed, Bourbon Courage had won
the Super Derby, and Lunar Victory was trained by upset-minded Bill Mott. What
would be the best way to determine the winning ticket?
So here is where the
handicapping advice begins. In the humble opinion of this poor, old, part-time
handicapper, there is not a single method to picking winners. I have always
believed each trip to the track the formula can change. Figuring the philosophy
that works on that particular day is the challenge. However, one thing that
always has to factor in is the gut. It usually never lies and the Clark
Handicap once again proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
As a big fan of
Shackleford, the most important thing I had to do was not let my heart decide
my ticket. Yes I had won a coin or two on this regal runner, but was this the
time to continue riding him, or was it right to jump on another horse?
To try and make the
decision, some serious digit crunching began. The numbers said he might be in
over his head distance wise. A mile or less had seen a lot of success, but
beyond that Shack was a fading frontrunner. But in the 2011 Preakness he
stayed the distance. Had his aggressive campaigns over the past two years taken
too much out of him? And what about the peaking form of some of the other
runners? Heart said a bookie attack with Shack, numbers said a pulmonary payoff
is unlikely. What to do?
Perplexed with the
preponderance, I reverted to yet another handicapping method. With the Clark
just two races away, it was time to think like a horse. If I were Shackleford,
what would be going through my mind right now? As a rather spirited
Thoroughbred with perhaps a loose screw or two, he was someone I could relate
to. Think like Shack, then make a gut
decision, that was the plan.
Sitting at our table
on elegant Millionaire’s Row, scenarios raced through my mind like horses
beneath the Twin Spires. As I thought like a Thoroughbred, a few things came to
me. Will the other runners let me go to the lead and set the pace or will they
press me? Is that little filly sitting at the table next to me admiring my hind
quarters? Can I still run this far and
finally, why do I like peppermints?
In a serious effort
to understand the thinking of one of the heroes of horse racing, I almost went
into a state of near unconsciousness. Suddenly a funny feeling came over me. Was
this the onset of a pony premonition? Forehead started to sweat and a nervous
feeling came over me. I was getting all worked up like Shack normally does in
the paddock. Then a rumble was felt deep in the abdominal cavity. Uh-oh, my
pony prognosticating duty was about to fall. After quick-stepping to the
facilities faster than Shackleford’s opening furlong on Kentucky Derby day in
2011, it became all too clear. As I relaxed in my stall like a Thoroughbred
after his morning workout, I determined the old wives tale was true. Yes,
veteran trainer Carl Nafzger had told me all horses get nervous and drop a few
steamers before the race, but I am not just any horse. I am the mighty
Shackleford…or a facsimile there of. Besides, I was the only Clark entrant that
was lightening the load in the fourth floor facilities.
After bolting to the
betting window and playing heavily on Shackleford and then putting him over
Take Charge Indy in an exacta, it was nearly post-time for the real horse.
Perched on the track with camera in hand, I looked for signs my feelings would
come to fruition. As Shack came onto the track, he began bucking with his
normal spirit. Feisty and nervous, just like me, that was a great sign for this
speculator. I didn’t see him dropping a deuce, but he didn’t have to, that had
already been taken care of by yours truly. I had a feeling of confidence, much
like Shackleford seemed to have as he headed for the starting gates.
When the gates
opened, our hero boisterously bolted to the lead. Unpressed as he powerfully
strode around this majestic oval, Shackleford was in complete control
throughout. Fending off challenges as he headed down the home stretch, Dale
Romans’ rowdy runner completed his final race in storybook fashion. In an
emotionally charged moment both Shackleford and myself exulted in victory. And
with Take Charge Indy finishing second, my “think like a horse” handicapping
had worked to perfection. As happy as I was for the two winning tickets in my
pocket, there was even more glee for the glory this courageous colt was now
So after collecting
at the window, I offered up a thanks to Shackleford for introducing me to an
all-new horse-picking process. Will it ever work again?...If you here a whinny
from the restroom stall, you’ll know what’s up.
By Danny Brewer