The first Saturday in May. What does this date mean to you? Probably nothing, except that Spring has finally arrived, unless you live in California where it's been Spring already for two months or more — real Spring, not calendar Spring.
But ask any horse racing buff and they will tell you without hesitation the first Saturday in May is the day of the Kentucky Derby! Well, this story isn't about the Kentucky Derby or the first Saturday in May.
This is about the Breeder's Cup and the first Saturday in November.
It was on this day that I ventured north from Nashville to Louisville, Kentucky, and Churchill Downs; about an hour and half drive. I had never been to Churchill Downs, so I followed the map — always a good idea — and found the place, no problem.
You know, the site of the Kentucky Derby since 1875? Twin spires? The first race of the Triple Crown? The Mecca of Horse Racing?
Enough of the melodrama. Fact is, it was just plain cool to be there.
I prowled the neighborhood, looking for a parking lot, but there didn't seem to be one. So, I ended up paying $10 to park on some guy's front lawn. The price was high, but it seemed to be the going rate. At least it was just a few yards from the track entrance.
At the gate, they wanted $15. Fifteen dollars just to get in! I said to the gatekeeper, “I just want into the infield, not the Clubhouse!” He shrugged and said it was $15 no matter which entrance I took. So I forked over the $15.
As I started downward into the tunnel that takes you under the track and into the infield, a female voice from behind said, “A little steep isn't it?”
I turned and looked at her as if she was an idiot. It was a slight downgrade, not steep at all. “Huh?” I said.
“Fifteen bucks just to get in,” she said. “It's a little steep.” And she smiled.
She looked to be somewhere in her mid to late twenties. Thick, long light-brown hair. A little overweight, though it was hard to tell with the raincoat and baggy pants she wore. She was fairly pretty, and seemed to be alone.
“Oh, yeah,” I agreed. “Let's just hope we can win it back at the windows.”
“Got any hot tips?” she asked.
“Not really. You?”
“'Fraid not,” she pouted.
If I had any hot tips, I wouldn't have shared them with her, anyway. What good is a hot tip if you go around telling everyone about it? Her boyfriend then came trotting up from behind and, with a quick glower in my direction, whisked her away from me.
“Good luck,” she said over her shoulder as her boyfriend tugged at her to hurry up.
I stopped at the first booth in the infield and bought a program. It cost $2.50, and I was already down $27.50 and hadn't even placed a bet! Oh well, that's the price of entertainment. That's what I told myself, anyway.
In case you don't know, the Breeder's Cup consists of seven races. It's basically the end-of-the-year championship day of thoroughbred horse racing, and it attracts the best horses from all over the world. They offer gobs of money, and that tends to entice the best horses that racing has to offer.
Each race has a minimum “purse” of $1 million. The Breeder's Cup Turf race offers $2 million, and the Classic offers $3 million. The winner doesn't get all that. They “only” get 60%, with the rest divvied up amongst the next four finishers.
Anyway, on the first race, the Sprint, I put a few bucks down on some horse whose name doesn't really matter. Ten minutes later, I was tearing up my losing ticket. I skipped the next race, the Juvenile Fillies race, since I'd never heard of any of the horses entered.
The third race was The Mile, and since I had skipped the previous race, I put a little extra on this one. By the end of the race, I was tearing up a couple more losing tickets. It was not a good beginning. And it's important to get off to a good start in gambling, otherwise you quickly degenerate into desperation. And, as any degenerate, desperate bettor can tell you, desperation is not a good thing.
Following The Mile, came the Distaff, a race strictly for fillies and mares. Again, I lost. [This is getting repetitive, isn't it?] After the Distaff was the Juvenile (for 2-year-old colts and geldings). The crowd's betting favorite, the only horse I'd ever heard of—but whose name escapes me now—had odds of 3-5 or something. I figured he'd win, but at 3-5 odds it wasn't worth it. So I bet on some other horse based on his name and the jockey. I lost again.
By this time, I had lost $60 of my personally-allotted $100 for the day—not counting the above-mentioned initial expenses—and I was getting annoyed. I was paying $4 per beer—Miller Lite, which I generally can't stand—and $4 for a crappy little cheeseburger that even McDonald's would be ashamed of. It was time to get down to business.
It was then that I ran into that girl from the tunnel. She was standing about twenty yards from one of the betting windows, watching the replay of the previous race on the big-screen t.v.
“Got any hot tips?” I asked as I approached her.
“Oh, hi,” she said as if surprised to see me, though I knew she wasn't. I had seen her glancing in my direction, and that's why I felt comfortable in approaching her. “Well, my boyfriend says Lure is a sure thing,” she offered.
“Lure, huh?” I said. “Yeah, he's won it the past two years.” I didn't think much of Lure's chances this year, but I figured I would let her boyfriend blow his money on him.
Her boyfriend showed up a few seconds later. And, again, he glowered at me before pulling the girl along after him. I hadn't noticed it the first time I saw him, but this time I saw the words “DAIWA” stenciled into the front of his black baseball cap. Daiwa is a major manufacturer of fishing reels, which explained why he was so “hot” on Lure.
The girl smiled at me over her shoulder, but said nothing as her boyfriend dragged her off. Like a caveman, it seemed to me. I shrugged my shoulders. Some women like cavemen.
Flattered and inspired by this girl's flirtations, I decided to do something bold. No, it didn't involve her. What I decided was to just blow the rest of my bankroll on the next race, the Breeder's Cup Turf, and then simply watch the following and final race as a pure, non-betting fan of the Sport of Kings, i.e., a destitute bum hanging out at the track. Women do tend to inspire me to do stupid things.
There were several quality horses in this race; the above-mentioned Lure amongst them. But they were all quality horses. These were the best horses in the world on grass. The betting favorite, a horse named Missionary Ridge, was giving odds of even money. I didn't like his name or his odds, but he seemed like a pretty sure bet, and I was sick of losing. So, I figured, why not bet on him? At least I'll get my money back and have the satisfaction of betting on at least one winner for the day. I put $20 to win on him.
With the remaining $20 of my “bankroll” I played a couple of hunches. That girl's boyfriend was betting on Lure at least in part because he liked fishing. Well, I like hockey. And also entered in this race was a horse named Tikkanen, presumably named after the hockey star, Esse Tikkanen. He appeared to be a good horse, on paper anyway. His last race was a win in a major grass stakes race. And he was giving 16-1 odds. Never again would I get such good odds on such a good horse, so I put $10 on his nose. The other $10, I put on some foreign horse who had won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, France's biggest race, earlier in the year.
Well, guess what? My hunch bet, Tikkanen, won and I collected $160! With one bet, I had just paid for all prior expenses and lost bets, and then some. I was jazzed, but I was careful not to show it. There are people who hang out at racetracks looking for big winners to mug in the bathroom or parking lot. A hundred and sixty bucks is not exactly “big money,” but they (these imaginary muggers) didn't know I had only bet $10. For all they knew, I'd bet $1,000 and would be collecting $16,000. You can never be too careful when they are watching. I sort of hoped I would run into that girl again, just so I could gloat and make her boyfriend look stupid. But I didn't see her.
For the seventh and final race, the Breeder's Cup Classic, I decided to follow the same thinking I had followed on the previous race. I put $20 to win on my “intellectually-calculated best bet.” And then, on another hunch, I put $5 to win on a horse called Concern. I don't know what it was about this horse Concern that told me to bet on him. His name just sort of stuck out in my mind for some reason.
And yes, you guessed it. Concern won and paid $40! I was a happy camper all of a sudden. Again, I looked around for that girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. She was probably huddled with her boyfriend somewhere commiserating over their losses.
As I drove home to Nashville, I stopped for gas at a Chevron station somewhere in Kentucky. In Kentucky they have Lotto and Power Ball. Feeling lucky, I spent $5 on a “quick-pick” Power Ball ticket. The jackpot at the time was $10 million. Small by Lotto standards, but still, I could always use $10 million.
And, guess what? I didn't win. Oh well. At least I was still $150 ahead of the game, all told. Plus, I had fun, and had spent a day at Churchill Downs, the Mecca of horse racing.
I wonder whatever happened to that girl.