Monday, February 14, 2011

The Finish Line

Even in the dead of winter, a day at the races can be a welcome diversion. And not because the race track is in sunny Florida or California. Because the one visited on Saturday isn't. It's Aqueduct, in South Ozone Park Queens, New York, and well described as 'nuclear winter.'

There is nothing physically appealing about the place, or the weather in February, with mountains of snow in the parking lot and whoever shows up crammed into the clubhouse area because of the construction finally getting under way in the grandstand area to provide for the video lottery terminals (VLTs), or video slots, that have been propping up racing's bottom line these days. But parking is free, and so is the admission, so you can at least start the day without spending any money.

And if you treat yourself to a table in the dining room you can secure a halfway decent place to spend the afternoon watching and betting on thoroughbred racing such as it is in New York in February. Which is what we did.

No problem being in the front set of tables, on the glass, overlooking the finish line and the paddock. There's plenty of elbow room. The place is a bit shabby, the TVs at the tables are not flat panels, and the glass is streaked with the effects of snow, wind, rain, and ice. They probably don't wash the windows until March or April. The place hasn't been painted in a while, and the baseboards are coming unglued. There is heat however, so the place does function. And the buffet format provides enough edible food that make it your own fault if you leave hungry.

Front row is the front row, and all the tables along the glass are occupied. We're in the left corner as you face the track. A prime spot. There are people in the adjacent table, two fiftyish, sixtyish guys, joined by a younger guy and eventually by a young blond haired, pony-tailed girl wearing blue jeans, a sweater and a red puff jacket, who looks like the daughter of the guy on her left. She's in her 20s.

The afternoon is proceeding nicely, if you're picking winners. We started out that way, but as happens, something evaporates, and contenders now finish second, and exactas go 1-3, with no bet on the winner. The prices are somewhat short, as favorites at meets like this seem to win at a 45-50% rate, rather than what usually holds at a 33% rate.

There are 10 races on the card. Soon after the 7th race I realize the people at the table behind us have checked out and left. Nothing unusual there. Lots of people do not stay for the whole card, and depending on how things are going, can leave early if they've lost within their budget, or have just plain seen enough. Or, are so far ahead that they don't want to jinx themselves by further tempting fate.

The 8th race is typical for what's on the card at Aqueduct's winter meet. It's a race for cheap horses, going for a claiming price of $7,500 who are four years old and up who have never won three races. The total purse is $17,000. A winning stable gets 60% of the total purse. There's not a huge amount of money that's going to be tossed around after this one. And whoever wins is not going to make it to even a lead story in the Daily Racing Form, never mind the 'Today' show.

But what racing accomplishes through the eligibility and the conditions of the race is that a competitive field is assembled. There usually are no absolute standouts. They may run slow, but they'll run slow together, and leave the outcome generally in doubt until late in the race.

There were 10 such horses in this 8th race. My own selection went to two horses in an exacta, one of whom looked like they were going to cruise to a victory in this 6 furlong race. My other exacta horse was somewhere else, not in contention, so I was headed for perhaps once again being half right, which does not pay off in an exacta.

The leader down the mid-stretch was the #8 horse, Auditorium, a second choice favorite, who was looking good approaching the finish line. But, horse racing not being over till it's over, saw the #7 horse, Dakota Roadhouse wiggle free, take charge down the middle of the track, giving every look like he was now at least giving someone a run for their money.

Auditorium is running, still in the lead, but Dakota is Swallowing. Up. Ground with Every. Stride. Still, Auditorium looks like he will prevail. But Dakota is Coming. Coming. Coming. The wire is where it always is and They. Get. There. Together.

Dead heats are rare in racing. An examination of the photo can usually lead the placing judge to declare an undistbutable winner. And Dakota is it. By a nose. A flared nostril, really.

At 4-1 Dakota is not a long shot, and pays $10.80 to win. If this were a nationally televised stake race and a horse came from behind like that to take the race it would be seen by perhaps millions, written about by several, and entered as a racing highlight. It would rank up there with the great ones. T-shirts might even evolve.

In fact, the margin of ground that Dakota Roadhouse made up was so huge my own joke was that I didn't think he could do it again on the replay. He did, of course. It's official.

Our dining table vantage point gave us a good view of the finish line as well the paddock. And who is leading the horse down the ramp, holding the halter, headed toward what passes as the winners' circle at Aqueduct but the blond, pony-tailed girl in the red puff jacket.

A very quick feed from the paddock TV camera sees her joining the others who were at the table next to us, now all dressed in puff jackets with one of the guys wearing a wide brimmed felt hat. A country squire look.

No one ever has to be asked to smile in the winners' circle, even in the winter, even at Aqueduct, and even after winning only 60% of a $17,000 purse.

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