Smile Politely

The Trick is Not to Bet

I’m going to level with you on something. There’s a secret about horse racing, a very dirty little secret. Most people in the industry would like you not to realize it. The trick to enjoying the sport is to forgo the betting.

The public perception of the sport came to my attention this year as I witnessed for the first time an off-track betting establishment. I have been a fan of horse racing since my wee brain could conjure memories, and since I don’t remember the exact time I recall falling in love with the sport, I’ll tell you the first time I picked a Kentucky Derby winner was when I was 13. There was no special rhyme or reason to me guessing the horse that eventually won the race, except I remember calling my pick right as Grindstone went into the gate, and I fancied his long, voluptuous tail. That’s a winning tail, I thought.

Well, the tail trick hasn’t always worked, I’ll tell you that. But there are plenty of old betters out there who probably do go by such nonsense to pick their winners every day. This is the problem with horse racing. Although the idea, as I understand it, is to bet on who might win, this isn’t how you enjoy the sport. Sure, it’s fun to win money, but if you want to really have fun watching the horses run, you’ve got to let that go. The ones that make you money one day will disappoint the next time around. And good horses never make you rich, unless you happen to own that horse.

The difference between those bettors and me is that when the horses come thundering around the final turn, they’re saying, “C’mon number four!” and I’m saying, “C’mon, Curlin!” The difference is being a fan.

I follow race horses like baseball fans follow the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Yankees. Horses. Individual ones. The special ones. Every man can’t hit a homerun like Mickey Mantle, like every horse can’t sweep a stretch like Secretariat. But there are those who stand out, the ones you follow race to race, because they’ve got that something. It’s tenacity, it’s heart, it’s a flashy kick, it’s promise for greatness.

There’s no question that this column is based on being a fan of not only the sport, but for certain horses. Without stars like Curlin, Zenyatta, and Big Brown, where would the sport be? In this day and age, horse racing has become a neglected sport, one that some people may even consider taboo. For those who know better, these notions are ridiculous. The proof in how much an individual horse means to a person is perceivable in a morning workout, or watching the grooms give their horses a pat after losing a race. Yes, the industry needs money to thrive, but it cannot survive without something greater. There would be no point to going to the tracks if not for the brilliant stars that inspire us and leave us talking about them years and years later. That is the thing people have forgotten about horse racing.

It’s true; you have to be a devoted fan in this day and age to stick around. I don’t know a person who was more upset than I was when Barbaro broke down in the Preakness in 2006. It’s a personal blow to me when people make an off-handed comment like, “Why all the fuss? It’s just a horse.” These are the people who don’t make an effort to understand what these horses mean to us. They carry more than just jockeys on their backs. These noble creatures are living symbols of what’s pure in this world; they are friendship, they are heroes, they are brushes with a romantic past. They have minds all their own, and their wills to run, to lead the rest of the herd, is a honed, unbridled instinct. And of course, they are beautiful. Winston Churchill once said, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” This “something” Churchill refers to is the unspeakable something that keeps me coming back, the respect for these animals that give us their best in each and every race.

The world that surrounds these stars is something you will not find in any other sport. Nowhere else will you find the same kind of romance, pageantry, and tradition. It has been called the Sport of Kings, yet it caters to the poorest pauper. It often doesn’t cost a penny to watch a race on a regular day. Sure, betting is the lifeblood. And there’s nothing wrong with putting a few dollars on a horse that’s getting unrightfully ignored at the windows. But it’s the experience that’s worth coming back for.

I have a soft spot for late-runners. If you’re looking for drama in your life, fall in love with a late-runner. There’s nothing like watching your horse go from last in a field of 15 to first in the final seconds of a race, the tension mounting as you see that horse start to unravel that long stride, and the rush you feel when he comes flying around that final turn, blowing past the others like they were standing still. And then there’s always that little final strangle in your throat if it’s a close one, a neck-and-neck battle to the wire, where a nose or a lip can make all the difference.

And there’s the racing calls. When you hear a good one, you’ll never forget it. There’s poetry in Chic Anderson’s classic call of Secretariat’s Belmont win to cinch the Triple Crown; the urgency and awe in his voice speaks as much as his famous words, “Secretariat is lightning now, he is moving like a tremendous machine!” I won’t lie to you, I cry every time I watch that race. I cry.

Different people watch horse racing for different reasons. As the industry is feeling the pinch of the nation’s lack of interest, I will say at least this much: if you’re not going to the races because you assume it’s all about betting, take a longer look. Look at the jockey giving the kid in the front row a thumbs-up. Look at the horse dancing on his toes because he thinks all the people in the grandstands are there to see him. Look at the $2 ticket the girl is holding on a favorite that’s got 1-5 odds. That ticket will never be cashed.

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