The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow (Saturday, 5/2) and I’ll be there as usual-- or, at least, my money will. I’ll be at a table in the clubhouse at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, my local track, watching the proceedings through the miracle of simulcast. The experience doesn’t beat the real thing at big, barny old Churchill Downs in Louisville, where I’ve been many times, but it’s a respectable second.
The Derby is America’s foremost horse race, which is kind of too bad because it isn’t the best contest the sport presents annually. It’s in the spring, near the beginning of the racing season, and its field is limited to three-year-olds, who are equine teenagers. The Breeders’ Cup Classic, an open-age event staged in November, is a truer championship test, but it lacks the Derby’s weight of tradition and hype and so goes off less sung.
But because the Derby is an Event with a capital “E” it has something no other horse race can match: an audience whose demographics pretty much mirror that of other mass entertainments. By that I mean it attracts people of both sexes and all ages in the adult range. Especially welcome at Churchill or the simulcast outlets are young or youngish women, often bedecked in the elaborate hats that have become part of the Derby scene. There’s nothing like a fashion show to bring out the ladies.
That’s in marked contrast to the usual racing crowd, which is overwhelmingly male and dowdy and predominantly, uh, elderly. Okay, old. I’m a regular in the TV carrels at Turf Paradise on Saturdays, when many of the better races are run, and at 71 I think I bring down the average age of the house. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee a time when the erstwhile Sport of Kings will be in even worse shape than it is now.
It’s no mystery why racing has become the preserve of the long in tooth. Picking winners is a scholarly pursuit that involves the diligent study of the Daily Racing Form, whose dense pages of numbers contain the histories of every horse running at every track in the nation on a given day. It requires an iron butt and the ability to concentrate, two things notably lacking among today’s young. Generations brought up on video games that deliver kills or their equivalent every few seconds—and with easy access to casino games that offer payoffs at a similar rate—are not about to strain their eyes and brains trying to dope out the third race at Santa Anita.
By me that’s too bad, because the reward of being right at the track goes beyond any monetary return. Most gambling games are exercises in statistical probability, with the only skill being the ability to recognize the true odds of any choice. Picking a winner at the track involves weighing such diverse factors as speed, distance, venue, age, weight, track condition, the fitness of the animals and the relative abilities of their human connections. When you’re successful you have real reason to pat yourself on the back.
I got my schooling in the handicapper’s art from the best possible source, Sam “The Genius” Lewin. Sam, a smart man and an expansive character, made a nice living living up to his nickname at the East Coast tracks in days past. In 1968 I did a feature story on him for the Wall Street Journal, and a publisher saw it and ordered up a book written by me in Sam’s voice. The product, titled “The Education of a Horseplayer,” came out the next year. Used copies—some fetching more than their original price-- are still offered on the internet. The book’s approaches remain valid even though its examples are long out of date.
Space prohibits me from relaying much of Sam’s wisdom here, but I can pass on his guiding principle. It’s the motto “Pace Makes the Race.” That means that the manner in which a race is run determines its outcome.
To elucidate, horses generally exhibit one of three distinct running styles: they like to take the lead in the early going, stay with the pack or trail the field before making their runs. A front-runner who goes unchallenged almost always wins. When two or more horses vie for the early lead, the late runners come into the picture.
Cigarette holder jutting, Sam would pore over the DRF tables, seeking to envision which horse or horses would move out smartly, which would challenge at mid-race, which would surge late. When his mental picture was clear he’d put his money down, sometimes quite a lot.
As I’ve said, it’s usually more complicated than that, but sometimes it’s less so. On some days the numbers just sit on the pages, unresponsive, but on other, rarer, days—when you aren’t diverted by the tote board, your companions’ conversation or your dinner plans-- they seem to talk to you. You become powerful, omnipotent. You float to the windows to collect. You fill out the IRS forms required of big winners.
A day like that is wonderful in a way that never gets old. It keeps you coming back far more often than it should.
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