Thursday August 9, 2012

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.

While Michael Phelps dolphins through the water and Gab by Douglas flies like a swallow through the air, Danny, my brother Kent and I head to the track at Saratoga to watch the athletic prowess of the best of the country's thoroughbreds and jockeys. And, of course, to study the form and to place a winning wager or two.

This is a Thursday, the day set aside by NYRA (New York Racing Association) to include steeplechasing, one of the oldest forms of horse racing. These days, the galloping herd of contenders heads towards no distant steeple, but they do hurdle gracefully over those 52" high, artificial hedge jumps. Since handicapping steeplechasing is a mystery to many, NYRA schedules an overwhelming 11 races at the Spa, two extra on the flats to replace the hurdles as the betting entries preferred by the American public.

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We arrive well before the first race, find our seats in the clubhouse and then meander over to the saddling paddock just as the steeplechase horses are led in. How beautiful they are, these older thoroughbreds, brushed to gleaming, muscles rippling, eyes and ears alert. Soon the jockeys in their colorful silks follow, talking to trainers and owners before joining their horses and saddling up for the post parade.

Back we go to the stands but not before deciding on our bets.


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Now I think of betting as just one step up from dart throwing or pinning the tail on the donkey. Who will win is anyone's guess. Every one has his or her own system honed after years of winning and losing.

Some brave bettors study the form and think they can discern the winner from statistics -- from past performances of the horse or of the jockey or of the trainer. Others read their favorite handicappers and trust in their decisions. Or maybe a sire is filling the stables with winning colts and fillies. This year look at Malibu Moon's babies. Or pick a theme by name -- danc ers (descendants of Nijin sky), birds (de scendants of Cormorant) or cats (de scendants of Storm Cat).

Over the years, I found that betting a horse to win is not the most profitable especially if that horse is the favorite. I tend towards long shots and exotic bets, like three-horse exacta boxes. I like grays -- dappled grays, dark roans, ghostly white grays -- so I usually roll the gray in with a fave and maybe a medium to long shot. I'll throw a little support and a dollar or two to women jockeys, tough cookies in a tough game.

The first race goes off without a hitch and without a winner among the three of us. The next race is the AP Smithwick Memorial Steeple chase, another 21 16 mile race with nine jumps. Danny and I decide on a three-horse exacta (for $1 this costs $6) and I toss in a win bet on Danielle Hodson, the only female steeplechase jockey at this meet. They hurdle and run, and run and hurdle and, right after the last jump, make a mad dash for the finish line. And there she is on Spy in the Sky, catching up to the leader and winning by a nose. No exacta this time, but a nice $52 on the win. Yes! Now we are playing with their money.

Then come the nine flat races. We try various strategies and we actually win some. As the day progresses, we keep accumulating exacta wins -- never big, mind you, but winning a little is always better than losing and definitely better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

As we roll into the eighth race, I am in a quandary -- there are 5 grays in this race, a 61 2 furlong sprint. It is waaay too expensive to bet them all. Hmmm -- how to narrow down the bets without ignoring the grays. A 5-horse exacta box would be a prohibitive $40. So Danny comes up with a solution. First, put a $2 win bet on each gray. Then use the gray with the lowest odds (not the favorite in the race by a long shot) as the kingpin and bet all grays above and all below for a part wheel exacta. Which is what we do.

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Clangggg -- the gates open and the horses leap forward on the far side of the track. I watch on the large screen and I see that by the first pole none of the grays are near the lead. As they thunder around the far turn, all 10 horses are all in line like a cavalry charge. Still no grays in sight. Then as they loom nearer, first one gray pulls ahead, then another, then another. The crowd is on its feet, shouting and screaming. We join them! The horses rush by, silver manes and tails flying and it is nearly impossible to see who won from where we are sitting.

The Silver Machine, the gray with the longest odds, comes in first, paying a $68.20 to win. Got it! Forever Vow, another gray comes in second. Danny checks our bets and yes! ours has come in, paying $620. We get half, $310. Excellent!

This is unprecedented -- our horses keep coming in the right order. We have the exacta in the 9th and again in the 10th. Danny decides to check out all of the tickets he has stuffed into his pocket and finds we have another $1 over-under from the 8th race -- another $320. The clerk must have entered the $1 bet twice! The 11th brings in another exacta. What a sunny day!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle
contributor.