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A Day At The Races

by bill - 1998-09-13 17:00:00 ( in culture, writing, stories, horseracing) [php version] rebuild

[from 1994]

The first Saturday in May. What does this date mean to you? Probably nothing, except that Spring has arrived, unless you live in California where it's been Spring for two months at least -- real Spring, not calendar Spring.

Ask any horse racing buff, though, and they'll tell you the first Saturday in May is the day of the Kentucky Derby since 1875. The twin spires. The first race of the Triple Crown. The Mecca of Horse Racing!

This story isn't about the Kentucky Derby or the first Saturday in May. It's about the Breeder's Cup and the first Saturday in November.

It was on this day that I ventured north to Louisville, Kentucky and Churchill Downs; about an hour and half drive. I had never been there, so I followed the map -- always a good idea -- and found the place, no problem. It was cool just being 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 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 to 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 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. What good is a hot tip if you go around telling everyone? Her boyfriend then came trotting up from behind and, with a quick glower in my direction, whisked her away.

"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.

In case you don't know, the Breeder's Cup consists of seven races. It's the end-of-the-year championship day of thoroughbred horse racing, and attracts the best horses from all over the world. They offer gobs of money, which tends to entice the best 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 mill. The winner doesn't get all that. They only get 60%, with the rest divvied up amongst the next four or five finishers.

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 ticket. I skipped the next race, the Juvenile Fillies, since I'd never heard of any of the horses.

The third race was The Mile, and I put a little extra on this one since I had skipped the previous race. By the end of that one, I was tearing up a couple more losing tickets. Not a good beginning, and it's important to get off to a good start in gambling. Otherwise, you spiral into desperation.

Next came the Distaff, strictly for fillies and mares. Again, I lost. Then came the Juvenile, for 2-year-old colts and geldings. The betting favorite and only horse I'd heard of -- whose name escapes me now -- had odds of 3-5, making him not worth betting on. 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 $100 budget -- not counting the parking and program -- and was getting annoyed. I was paying $4 per beer -- Miller Lite, which I generally can't stand -- and $4 for a cheeseburger that even McDonald's would be ashamed of. It was time to get down to business.

Then I ran into that girl from the tunnel. She was standing twenty yards from one of the betting windows, watching the replay of the previous race on the big-screen TV.

"Got any hot tips?" I asked as I approached.

"Oh, hi," she said as if surprised to see me though I knew she wasn't. I had seen her glancing in my direction. "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 his chances this year, but figured I would let her boyfriend blow his money on him.

Her boyfriend showed up a few seconds later to glower at me again before pulling the girl along after him. I hadn't noticed it before, but this time I saw the words "DAIWA" stenciled on the front of his black baseball cap. Daiwa makes 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. I shrugged. Some women like cavemen.

Flattered by this girl's flirtations, I decided to do something bold. No, it didn't involve her. I decided to just blow the rest of my bankroll on the next race, the Breeder's Cup Turf, and then watch the 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 among them. These were the best in the world on grass. The betting favorite, Missionary Ridge, was at 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 bet $20 on him. At least I should get the satisfaction of betting on at least one winner for the day.

With the remaining $20 of my bankroll I played a couple of hunches. That girl's boyfriend liked Lure at least in part because he liked fishing. Well, I like hockey and also in this race was Tikkanen, a horse named after the hockey star Esse Tikkanen. His previous race was a win in a major grass stakes race, and he was now giving 16-1 odds. Never again would I get such good odds on such a good horse, so I put $10 on his nose. I put the other $10 on a foreign horse who won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, France's biggest race, earlier in the year.

And, guess what? My hunch bet Tikkanen won and paid $160! That one bet paid for all prior expenses and lost bets, and then some. I was happy but careful not to show it. There are people who hang out looking for big winners to mug. A hundred and sixty bucks is not big money, but these imaginary muggers didn't know I only bet $10. For all they knew, I'd be collecting thousands.

I hoped to run into that girl again, just to gloat and make her boyfriend look stupid, but no such luck. For the seventh and final race, the Classic, I followed the same thinking as on the previous race, putting $20 to win on what I figured was my best bet. On another hunch, I put $5 to win on a horse called Concern. I don't know what it was that told me to bet on him. His name just stuck out for some reason.

And, you guessed it, he 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, probably somewhere commiserating with her boyfriend over their losses.

Driving home to Nashville, I stopped for gas, still in Kentucky where they have Lotto and Power Ball. Feeling lucky, I spent $5 on a quick-pick Power Ball ticket. The jackpot was $10 million, which is small by Lotto standards, but I could always use $10 million.

And, guess what? I didn't win. Oh well. I was still $150 ahead, all told. Plus, I had fun, and had spent a day at Churchill Downs, the Mecca of horse racing.

I should've gotten that girl's number.

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