On an already sweltering late Sunday morning during the summer of 1969, my uncle Benny, cigar in mouth, was putting the finishing touches on polishing his modest Ford Falcon. I'd just finished an hour's worth of joyous play with my prized toy, a remote controlled (well, with cord attached) green robot called "Great Garloo."As I walked barefoot into the kitchen, the strong odor from my uncle's cigar collided quite unsympathetically with the always comforting smell of my grandmother's hot apple cake. "What are you doing this afternoon?" asked my uncle. "Nothing, why?" was my reply. "Do you want to come to the races with me?" "Sure" I said, not even knowing what kind of races he was referring to.
About twenty minutes later, with an excited 12-year-old in tow, Uncle Benny was backing his shiny Ford out of our driveway on Bloomfield Avenue in the Montreal borough of Outremont. We headed east of the city, passing some smelly, ugly refineries along the way that made me roll up (remember that?) my window. Finally, we wheeled into the very unassuming, yet bustling gravel parking lot (remember those?) of Richelieu Raceway.
There was a certain excitement in the air. My uncle grabbed two fresh cigars from a sizeable, wooden box marked "Dutch Masters," putting them in the breast pocket of his freshly-ironed, short-sleeved shirt. Pushing down our door knobs (remember those?), we locked the car and walked up to the main (only) admission gate. The sun was shining. I had to almost run to keep up with the suddenly swift cadence in my uncle's step. I could clearly hear the sound of horse's hooves hitting the firm racing surface as they warmed up, still out of sight on the other side of a tall, wooden fence to our right.
$1.25 (really) got both of us safely through the turnstiles and even a program to boot! My first of many questions that day related to the strange-looking bikes attached to the rear of the horses. These were Standardbreds, not Thoroughbreds my uncle explained. The bikes looked unnatural I thought, but not nearly as strange as the big, white, bubble-topped, metal-winged Cadillac which dispatched the eight participants at the starting pole for the first race.
After a brief explanation from my uncle on win, place, show, quinella and exacta, I decided, with a full two races of experience under my new, suede leather cowboy belt, to wager $2.00 in race 3. Throwing caution to the wind--it being Benny's two bucks--I decided on a place bet on a 3-1 chance called Speedy Ed. My uncle handed me the ticket which I quickly stuffed into my pants pocket like it was a new pack of Montreal Expos baseball cards.
My heart was racing as the horses left the mobile starting gate, my eyes locked on the #5 saddle cloth of Speedy Ed. To be honest, it wouldn't have mattered a bit where Speedy Ed finished (he won), I was hooked! I was beaming as we waited to cash my ticket in the $2.00 Place line (remember those days?). Due largely to the 4-5 favorite finishing third, I cashed a fat $4.20 place ticket. Forget the Great Garloo, my new hero was a real life gelding named Speedy Ed!
I tell this story because even 40 some odd years later, it remains quite vivid in a memory (as my wife often reminds me) that has become somewhat clouded at my ripe old age of 54. Hey, how many guys can actually remember if that chick flick your wife wants to see starts at 6:50, 7:10 or 7:20?
What jogged that memory of my introduction to the glorious sport of horse racing was Mark Cramer's amusing and insightful guest blog (Apr. 13) regarding his own son's reluctance to connect to this game like his old man did. Marcus decided in the end that handicapping properly required far too much studying that resembled "homework for school." Who could blame him for pursuing other, less intensive interests?
In an age where most teens will avoid an extra mouse click at any cost, how can we reasonably expect them to invest countless hours of "fun time" pouring over past performances and race charts while their friends are playing video games (are they still called that?) or out shooting hoops. And as Mr. Cramer pointed out, it's not just the kids! The attention span of adults has been shrinking for quite some time now.
My lovely wife and I recently took a friend of ours to the races at Keeneland on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We clamored our way through a crowded paddock area and found a trio of freebie seats on the second floor of the grandstand. At my wife Jo's request, I attempted to offer up a fairly simple (so I thought) explanation of how the racing game functioned, i.e. foal crop, public auctions, racing secretary, condition books/race conditions, trainers, typical racehorse injuries, etc. I followed that with a five minute tutorial on basic handicapping...OK, so it may have been closer to 10 minutes and a hair beyond basic.
I must have failed miserably, because at the end of it, our friend wanted to bet $2.00 to win on every horse in the ten runner field. Not on my watch! Thankfully, after some coaxing, she relented and we settled on a $2.00, two horse exacta box--one horse on my recommendation, the other her own selection. As the race in question was being contested at one mile on the turf, I promised her a close, exciting finish.
Thanks to the Trakus colored chicklets on the crystal-clear LED infield board, she was able to follow her exacta as the race unfolded, even declaring them hopeless beaten and without a chance at the three-eighths pole. I encouraged her to keep watching as both horses were stretch-runners and still as yet uncalled upon for their best effort. Sure enough, my selection (thank you racing Gods) split a seam in upper stretch and wore down the leaders to register a neck victory at a decent 6-1 mutual. Her selection was a very creditable third, but unfortunately the #4 horse broke up the exacta. Bless her heart for remembering that I had pointed out winning trainer Roger Attfield's adeptness with turf runners at Keeneland.
No sooner were the payoffs lit up on the infield tote board then Helen again voiced her intention to bet $2.00 to win on all six runners in the upcoming race. My lone pupil was spinning her unimaginative wheels and it was all my doing. I had given her too much to digest at one time. To make matters even worse, just like Mark Cramer's guests at Santa Anita, Helen was none too pleased with the lengthy 35 minutes between races. She no doubt would be nauseated to learn that same 35 minutes was scarcely enough time for me personally!
As a youngster, I can remember soaking up invaluable amounts of knowledge from a couple of elderly gentlemen from Montreal who frequented the old Blue Bonnets Raceway. They introduced me to many of the intricacies of handicapping Thoroughbreds. When I asked them why a gelding who'd run an opening quarter in :23.3 going 1 1/16 miles at Belmont couldn't get within three lengths of the lead when they went that same fraction at Saratoga, they explained it to me. Rather than becoming discouraged by the amount of information there was to learn, I looked forward to (still do) learning new angles.
In the curious world of handicapping, some things need to be learned the hard way. Lessons learned losing your own hard-earned dollars tend to remain in the gambler's memory a whole lot longer. When these gentlemen told me on the eve of the Belmont Stakes that Coastal was a very likely winner, I simply couldn't believe it. How was Coastal going to beat Spectacular Bid I asked. They informed me that in the 5 years they'd been keeping their own speed figures for New York tracks, only a handful had ever run numbers better than Coastal did in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.
"Bid" was my favorite and I chose to stick with him. Back in the late 70's, we Canadians had to drive about 40 minutes across the New York border in order to gamble on the U.S. racing product. In the mid 70's we weren't even able to view the race at the nearest OTB site in Champlain, NY. We would place our bets and then gather around a crackly-sounding speaker to hear NYRA track announcers Chick Anderson and later Marshall Cassidy's call of the race. When they finally allowed us to view the races on two separate antiquated TV monitors, we thought we were in heaven!
Coastal won, Spectacular Bid was 3rd and valuable lessons were learned in the 1979 Belmont Stakes. Word filtered back to Blue Bonnets on Saturday evening that a couple of guys from Montreal had landed a very large win bet to the tune of $10.80 on Coastal. Call me stubborn but all that "safety pin in the foot" Buddy Delp nonsense aside, I believe the blame for Spectacular Bid's loss in the Belmont lay solely with jockey Ronnie Franklin. The ridiculous lack of good judgment the youngster showed in chasing a loose-on-the-lead 85-1 shot that day was inexcusable. In the end, the legendary grey was simply spent, struggling through a ponderous final quarter mile of :26.1 (his was slower) which saw both Coastal and Golden Act run by the champ.
Now to really test your attention span, I'll offer up my opinions on that final pair of major Derby preps this past weekend. Let me quickly send out some props to TDN handicapper Brian DiDonato, who aced both the Toyota Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby in his on-the-money analysis last Friday.
In the Toyota Blue Grass, the betting public's 2nd choice Dullahan came charging down the center of the track to collar the always-game Hansen inside the eighth pole. Going in, I, like many, had doubted Hansen's ability to stay nine furlongs. In truth, he wasn't exactly rolling over in that final furlong, but Dullahan's furious run was going to be tough to deny. If Hansen could ever just lay off the muscle in that first three furlongs, he might just stay 1 1/8 miles. Now, 10 furlongs might be asking more than is fair of this gallant warrior.
I believe Dullahan, as I blogged back on Apr. 3, will handle the Churchill dirt just fine. The half-brother to Derby conqueror Mine That Bird gets full marks for his Blue Grass win as, unlike many past runnings of this race, the winner got there without the benefit of any smoke and mirrors. Importantly, both Dullahan and Hansen looked very well physically in the saddling ring prior to the race, though surprisingly (at least to me), the former became quite animated once he was saddled.
What can you say about Bodemeister? It's tough to poke any holes in that performance as he was fast early and fast late with only the slightest breather in between. The Beyer boys bumped up his initial fig of 105 to a 108. I believe they got it right. I thought the stretch run he delivered when second to a much more seasoned Creative Cause in the San Felipe was sensational and certainly put him in a position to develop further.
No doubt this effort puts him at the head of the class, but before we throw the blanket of roses over his back, let us first consider that he will have to contend with the early speed of Hansen on Derby day, and that will be no easy task. When two classy animals bring similar early running styles to the table, sometimes others end up with the main course. The plot thickens.