Sunday, April 22, 2007

A day at the races

Going to the track. Playing the ponies. Call it what you will.

It's a tradition (for at least a couple years now) that, at some point in the late winter or early spring, the family treks out to Santa Anita. (This year's trek actually took place back in late February. I never claimed to be timely.)

My tradition is to place bets, watch the horses run around the oval-shaped track, generally seeing the one on which I bet not win. Typically, I get to cash one ticket during a day at the races—on a really good day, two tickets—and my winnings don't come close to recouping what I lost on all the other bets placed during the day.

It's a pattern to which I am accustomed.


My father and step-mother go many times a year. They study the racing papers intently, analyzing the data carefully before heading to the window to place their bets. As for us kids (I say about people in their 30s), we have a more capricious system for choosing which steeds get our support. We are not above putting $2 down on a 90-to-1 longshot just because it is a 90-to-1 longshot; even at Show money (third place), that could be lucrative. It rarely happens, of course, but for the casual fan of the sport it makes for a fanciful (read: delusional) moment when placing the bet.

As is probably apparent by this point, the parents tend to fare better than the kids.

This year started strangely auspicious for me; the bet I placed in the first race of the day came through, with my horse (somehow wagering $2 on it makes it "mine" for references purposes) coming in third, and me having the sufficient lack of confidence in it to only have placed a Show bet.

How did I pick this pseudo-winner? Before the race I wandered around the infield, taking mediocre photos of the fountain and of the grandstand*, then came back and walked in to the betting area (the mutuels), without having looked at the horses nor having even looked at their names in the program. I glanced at the big board overhead showing the current odds on each horse by their position number, found one that had what I considered mid-level odds (not one of the favorites, not a ridiculous longshot) that seemed to give me "a good feeling," then walked to the window and placed my bet accordingly.

As noted above, it usually only succeeds once or twice, but that doesn't stop me from relying on it.

My sister had bet on the same horse (named, it turned out, "Melinda's Fuse"), but she'd gone for Place, so she had just a little too much faith in it. I quipped that this would probably be the only ticket I'd cash all day, not so much to be pessimistic but as some roundabout attempt at trying to make her feel not so bad about just missing out. And history dictated that such a statement was not merely pessimistic but likely to be true.

For the next two races I proved prophetic in my estimation of my luck; my picks weren't coming "in the money" but they were jumping out to the lead at the beginning of the race (before being swallowed by the pack on the home stretch), so that seemed like something, to have at least tasted first place, even if only during the period that doesn't count. If there was some way to bet on who would lead initially, I would have cleaned up.

In the third race, as a matter of fact, I got my bet in just seconds before the bell sounded (indicating the gates had been opened, starting the race). That early-leading horse, on which I'd put $2, ended up coming in dead last at the finish line. If only the guy in line in front of me at the window had taken longer placing his bet I could have been too late to suffer that indignity.

With the fourth race I returned to winning ways, getting a small return on my investment (winning $3 from a $2 bet—woo-hoo, that almost paid for a soda), but this seemed nothing more than being thrown a tiny bone to disprove my earlier projection.


I wandered over to the paddocks and the circle where the jockeys mount the horses before riding out to the track to see if there were any good pictures to be taken. (There weren't. See the one on the right.) However, as I snapped away in futile hope of getting one of the riders on the equine racers as they passed, one of the horses made a very pronounced snort while nodding its head when it was right next to me, which I couldn't help but take as some kind of sign. (And for the record: I got no shots of this horse.)

However, when I made my way to the betting area, I saw that horse was one of the favorites, with low-paying odds. I knew enough about the wagering to know the only way to get a worthwhile return on such odds one has to bet larger amounts, and bet to Win. Filled with undue confidence, I put down $5 on that horse, with the only way I could get anything being if he came in first. To make myself feel better, I also put a tepid $2 Show bet on a semi-longshot (which had not displayed any sign to me).

Interestingly, during the race I found myself focusing on that other horse, and hardly noticed when my feisty (one on which I'd placed the $5 bet) crossing the finish line before the rest. I didn't exclaim with excitement but calmly noted to my father, seated next to me, how the horse essentially "told" me he would win. That netted me $16, and made the day the best I'd ever had at any track. And the day was only half over as far as the races went.

There was plenty of time left for me to squander the winnings.


I was well on my way to squandering those winnings. I got a bit more cavalier with my bets in the next few races, putting money on multiple horses, none of which were coming in. After seeing a 60-to-1 longshot come in third in the seventh race and pay out handsomely (although none of us in our group had anything riding on it, of course), in the eighth race I got really brave (which is to say, I got really stupid) and put $2 Show bets on not one, not two, but three ridiculous longshots (two of them had something like 80-to-1 odds, the other 50-to-1). Back at the seats, I discovered my girlfriend had done the same thing (we are so compatible). The folly of this move, however, is obvious: the odds of one longshot coming through were slim, but the odds of it happening in back-to-back races were astronomical.

Suffice it to say, none of them came anywhere close to coming in. That level of hubris could not possibly be rewarded by Fate.


Going in to the ninth race, the last one for which we were staying, I was up $8 (comparing how much I'd bet to how much I'd won). This was the first time ever I was likely to leave the track with more than I started out with. To mix it up, I was going to place an Exacta bet on horses 1 and 9, in that order, because they'd seemed feisty heading out to the starting gate. (Don't question my methods.) They were favorites, but if they came in the payout should still be reasonable. However, my sister, brother-in-law, and girlfriend all were giddy with making boxed Trifecta bets on various combinations of horses, and they beseeched me to join them in this venture.

Having no convictions, I jumped on the bandwagon.

So, fine, I thought, and as I waited in line for the betting window I selected #7 (for no logical reason) to join the previously chosen #1 and #9, and placed a $6 bet on those three to come in (in any order; as long as they comprise the top three finishers).

And just after I finished placing that bet, before I'd even been handed the ticket, my girlfriend chimed in with, "Put two dollars on number 2." So I placed another Show bet on the longshot at #2.

For those of you keeping track, you'll know that between the two bets I'd spent the $8 I had been up. So, at worst, I would leave having broken even, which would still prove my finest showing for a day at the races, but I had the chance to leave actually up, walking out with more than what I walked in with.

I'm not generally that good when it comes to gambling; it's not such that I've never made money but it is rare, and when it comes to betting on the ponies, this seemed like it might be the only chance I'd ever have to say I came out ahead (even if it was only two dollars ahead). And I risked all that on a bet I'd never placed before (the boxed trifecta) and a longshot I wasn't even planning to bet on.

The horses reach the starting gate. The bell rings and the gates open. The horses hurtle along the track, and both #1 and #9 are in the top four from the beginning. Then after the turn, into the home stretch, #9 just leaves the pack in his dust, cruising to a victory by something like 10 lengths. (See photo at left.) #1 holds on for a clear second place finish. And for third it looked like #7 somehow moved up and nosed out another horse at the wire.

I whooped in excitement at my apparent win, but then on the board the message read "Photo Finish for Third."

I knew I'd blown it, jinxing myself with my premature celebration. That was how these things always worked out for me in the past. If only I'd held my calm until the official results were announced then I had a chance of what I thought happened of being what actually happened, but my hubris would undoubtedly be my undoing.

Oh well. It still would be a good day of wagering for me, one without precedent.


That's all good and well, you're thinking. However, we weren't born yesterday; we know you're trying to misdirect us, so just tell us #7 came in third and you won so we can finish this tale. We have things to do.

Fair enough. Yes, the official results were 9-1-7. I had one more ticket to cash out.

And had I stuck with my original thought (a non-boxed exacta of #1 then #9) I would have lost out, having picked the top two but in the wrong order.

So, through nothing more than lucky guessing and lacking the will to resist peer pressure, I was being rewarded.


When I went back to the window and redeemed my ticket, the cashier casually pulled out eight dimes, three singles, three fives. And a one-hundred dollar bill. He was clearly unfazed by the amount. I'm sure for those who frequent the track that amount barely covers the amount they spend on beer for the day, but for me it seemed the resounding exclamation point on what would become the story of the day I not only came out ahead but won big.

This story.

I guess it's possible that the old adage could be true: Every Doug has his day. (Ba-dump-chink!)


Fine. Go do those things you need to do. Thanks for reading all the way to the end.

I'm still convinced that will be the last time that happens (me winning a big bet on a horse race). I'm not suggesting this incident somehow altered my entire outlook on the universe or anything…

* Some of those shots can be viewed by going to my photo site here.

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