Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Every year when the Kentucky Derby approaches I think about the weather. On a nice day in Louisville it’s a glorious affair, full of prettily dressed women and the smells of horse, flowering trees, bourbon and risk that makes it unique in sports. When it rains it’s a soggy mess that’s best avoided.

 When I think of horses and rain I think of my old friend and race-track mentor, Sam “The Genius” Lewin. Sam had few peers as a handicapper but he couldn’t beat the mud, and knew it. He had an ego as big as all outdoors, and that admission was as close as he ever came to acknowledging fallibility.

 I met Sam on purpose through several references in the winter of 1968, pursuing my interest in writing stories about people who lived off their wits. His “office” that day was a table in the clubhouse dining room of the old Tropical Park Race Track in Miami. There he sipped iced tea and chatted with his cronies (who included Saul Silberman, the track’s owner), rising occasionally to place a bet or two on the equine contestants.

 His afternoons were leisurely because he did his serious work in the mornings, rising before dawn to spend a couple of hours hobnobbing around the stables, then poring over the past performances of the day’s entries in The Morning Telegraph, a precursor of The Daily Racing Form. He pretty much knew how he was going to bet before he got to the track but attended to watch the races and make mental notes for future reference. He agreed with Yogi that you could see a lot just by looking.

 Sam was a big, hulking man with a voice to match. If he liked you, you were a prince, and if he didn’t, you were a bum. If he really didn’t like you, you were a “pure bum,” and he let you know it. People put up with him because of the benefits: he’d mark the programs of just about any nonbum who asked. They asked because his nickname wasn’t ironic. While he had a “square” job as manager of a rich friend’s racing stable, it was mainly a way of getting the credentials that admitted him to the horsemen’s parking lots and the tracks’ working areas. He made his living by betting, and quite a good one. Then as now, that was very, very rare.

 I wrote a front-page story about Sam for The Wall Street Journal that year. A publisher saw it and asked if we’d like to do a book together. We agreed, and “The Education of a Horseplayer” came out in 1969. It’s still around on the internet, and while the human actors we wrote about are long gone, and some of the tracks Sam frequented no longer exist (Tropical Park, Hialeah, Garden State, Atlantic City), it’s still a good primer on weighing the many variables that go into a race-track bet. Add the reminiscences of a guy who knew gangsters by their first names and was on J. Edgar Hoover’s Christmas-card list, and you had a pretty good read besides.

 The book was fine as far as it went, but it didn’t contain all the reasons for Sam’s success; indeed, it couldn’t. In his four decades of daily attendance at the tracks he came to know everyone and anyone, and what they were up to. He knew which horses were sound and which sore, which trainers were running their nags for real on a particular day and which for exercise, which jockeys were showing up hung over. It all went into his calculations stew.

 His main analytical tool was his application of the dictum “Pace Makes the Race.” That means that the manner in which a race is run determines its outcome. In every race one or more horses will try to lead, some will lurk just off the pace and some will lag, hoping to prevail with a late charge. With that model as a guide, Sam would mentally preview every race. When he could see the winner clearly, and the odds were right (he almost never took a horse that went off at less than 2-to-1), he’d bet. When he couldn’t he wouldn’t.

 I summon up Sam’s example every time I’m at the races, as best I can. Like most recreational bettors I lack his patience and discipline; while he could pass race after race waiting for an optimal situation, I’m there once a week for fun and take more than an occasional flier. I do play the “race-in-the- mind” game, though, and it mostly determines where my money will go.

 Let’s look at the current Derby field through this lens. It’s always a tougher-than- usual race to handicap because its distance of 1 ¼ miles is 1/8-mile longer than any of the contestants will have run, and because its big field of 20 or so makes inevitable the kind of banging around that can sidetrack worthy contenders. On the other hand—and definitely this year, when every major Derby prep race had a different winner—there’s usually no clear favorite, meaning than you can get good odds on some very good horses. That as much as anything else makes it the sport’s biggest betting race.

 When the gate opens on Saturday I expect three horses to burst out ahead—Bodemeister, Hansen and Trinniberg. Of the three, Bodemeister seems to have the best chance to also finish in front. His 9 ½-length victory in the Arkansas Derby—all on the lead-- was an eyepopper and will attract a lot of betting support, so expect him to go off at about 5 to 1. The early fractions should determine how far he or any other leader can go. If the first quarter-mile is run in less than 23 seconds, chances are he’ll be too pooped to last. Anything over 24 seconds and he’ll have a chance. Remember that the simplest way to win any race is from the front.

 Right behind the leaders should come a group of five or six, including Union Rags, Gemologist, El Padrino, Mark Valeski and Creative Cause. Union Rags should go off as the favorite at around 4-to-1. He would have been a stronger choice if he’d won the Florida Derby, but he ran almost the entire race in a box, never breaking free until it was too late but still showing enough to justify his likely favored status on Saturday. Gemologist must be considered because, as Sam would have said, he does nothing but win (he’s 5 for 5), but he doesn’t seem to have quite the speed of some other contenders.

 Among the closers should be Dullahan, Alpha and Went The Day Well. Dullahan, the Bluegrass Stakes winner, looks to be the best of these, but Alpha also might be attractive at good odds. While I won’t make my final betting choices until just before race time, I’ll probably take one each from my Columns A, B and C—Bodemeister, Union Rags and Dullahan—and throw in a longshot to make a four-horse exacta box costing $24. At the least, that should give me something to root for at every stage of the race.

 I’ll also be rooting for sunshine. According to the Weather Bureau, there’s about a 20% chance of rain at Derby time, meaning it’s 80% against. That’s about as good odds as you ever get at the track.

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