Monday, October 1, 2018

The Long Shot

All horseplayers have amnesia—except when it comes to the memory of the long shot they hit. When that happens, there is no detail too small to remember to bend the ear of listeners, years, decades, from the hit.

The definition of a long shot is subjective. But all horseplayers will agree a boxcar payoff is a long shot. And what is a boxcar payoff? A payoff so large that high numbers, and perhaps three or more numbers to the left of the decimal are needed to state the payout. If anyone has looked at numbers on a railroad's boxcar, they will see a string of numbers that identify the ownership. Hence, boxcar number.

I wasn't at Saturday's Belmont card. Despite the quality of the card I didn't even download the Form and bet from home. I might have gone—there was a baseball cap giveaway,and anything free at the track is worth showing up for— but there was a granddaughter's birthday party to attend. She's seven now, by the way.

I did manage to get the TV turned on in the kitchen with the sound low, while the large screen family room TV was in use by the other male guests who are not horseplayers—college football, Yankees, and even, if you can believe it, Ryder Cup results! Jesus, they would even watch golf!  I got to see the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and the upset of Robert Bruce by Channel Maker, a horse I feel I might have had if I was applying myself to the card.

Eventually, the family room cleared because it was a nice day, and I had control of the remote myself. There are no buttons more pleasing to control than the buttons on the remote.

The much talked about Jockey Club Gold Cup was coming on and I had the place to myself. I already knew the field, and barely would have needed a Racing Form to form an opinion on possibilities. Nevertheless, the talking heads can be interesting to listen to, even if one of the mouthpieces is Andy Serling.

The racing tactics of Diversify, who was going off at 3-5 in an eight horse field, and Mendelssohn a three-year-old, were no secret. Mendelssohn was a Derby horse who fell out of the gate at Churchill, and who set off in front in the Travers, only to be caught and buried by Catholic Boy. The Jockey Club Gold Cup was at the same 1¼ mile distance as the Derby and the Travers, and was seen as a great race to be in before the Breeders' Cup Classic in early November at Churchill.

The other decent possibility in the field as Gronkowski, another three-year-old who was second to Justify in the Belmont. There is an observation I've come to after 50 years of watching horse racing that looking good in the Belmont, or even winning, usually doesn't mean anything in racing afterwards. Those horses usually go on to do nothing. And Gronkowski it turns so far is no different.

Mendelssohn is trained by Aidan O'Brien, the legendary Irish trainer. Mendelssohn is owned by connections that race on both sides of the Atlantic, and Mendelssohn flies back and forth across the pond after a race in the United States. His breeding rights should come with frequent flyer miles.

The talking heads talked. Diversify was seen almost as a slam dunk to win the thing. And at 3-5, the money was certainly saying the same thing.

But you have to understand that money on the board can come from only a fraction of the people making bets. It is almost the 20/80 rule—80% of the pool is made up by 20% of those betting. You don't have to follow the leaders. There are plenty of other choices that can be made.

The more hard-bitten the horse player the more they will tell you they "don't play favorites." At least not straight out. They might even quote the doggerel, "there isn't a man alive who can stay alive at 3-5." Of course these days, a 3-5 shot makes for a convenient "single" in the multi-leg wagers that are so popular. Multiple by 1 and you still have 1. The singles throw a blanket over the permutation count, helping to keep the overall cost of the wager within some boundaries.

Not having the Racing Form in front of me, I don't really have a clear picture of the reasonable possibilities of all the entrants. With two established front-runners like Diversify and Mendelssohn you can guarantee they both will be out there, and that when that happens, one, or both usually grinds themselves out, and something else comes out of the trailing pack and scores. In simpler terms, "they're going to bury each other."

I forget who joined Paul Lo Duca and Andy Serling on the talking head platform at Belmont, but through all the noise of people yakking it up in the kitchen and coming in and out, I could faintly hear what I thought was Lo Duca making a case for Discreet Lover, a horse trained by Uriah St. Lewis, who has been in races with this competition, but has done nothing to seal the deal.

Apparently Discreet Lover's last race was a cropper. But Paulie is making a case that the horse throws in a clunker and then runs well, throws in a clunker, then runs well.. They could certainly run well today since the sequence says so.

This is what a decent horseplayer who studies the Form does: sees a patterns, there or otherwise. An alternating performance cycle might not be as predictable as a Fibonacci progression, but it can be the magic that produces a long shot payoff and a story to tell the grandkids, or anyone else you can make listen to you.

And at 45-1 I was almost tempted to yank my phone out, call Xpressbets, and gets down for a deuce on Discreet Lover. It didn't happen. Horseplayers, aside from amnesia also suffer from inertia. I didn't feel sufficiently prepared to play the race. So I didn't. Even for a deuce.

As expected, the gates pop open and Mendelssohn and Diversify put on a front-running show. They go at each other hammer and tong. Diversify races out of the gate to catch Mendelssohn's great start, collars him just before the mile pole, opens up a 1½ length lead and causes the first quarter split to be  :22 2/5, a suicidal pace for a 1¼ mile race. Somebody better slow down.

They don't. Diversify continues the hard-charging front running tactics and records a :45 3/5 half, two lengths in front of Mendelssohn. That's not much slower than the first quarter, In horse racing, the intervals between quarters generally reflect slower times than the quarters before them. They all, in effect, start running a bit slower. Not here.

The three-quarter split? 1:09, with Diversify now two in front of Mendelssohn by a solid two lengths.  Is it now over? Are we watching Secretariat bury Sham? The mile split: 1:33 4/5, with Diversify now in front by only a length over Mendelssohn. Shrinking leads are never good.

Having run a mile into a 1¼ mile race there is now a ¼ mile left. That is 440 yards. That is at least further than they're hitting golf balls these days. In racing, it is a significant distance.

To no one's surprise, Mendelssohn is now is front at the stretch call by a head, with Diversify having slipped to third, about 2½ lengths back, with Thunder Snow now making a bid in second.

One thing charts do not show you is the running positions in between the stretch and the finish. And in this interval, a lot can happen. And on Saturday it did.

"In the shadow of the wire" Discreet Lover pulls ahead of Thunder Snow, who looked like the sure winner, and wins by a neck at 45-1! A neck is enough of a margin of victory that you can tell from the stands, or TV who the winner is. They always take photos, but Manny Franco on Discreet lover knew where the wire was and celebrated as soon as he was over it. He won.

At the track, unless you're with a group of friends, you are anonymous. People might talk to you, and you might talk to them, even hold lengthy conversations about a horse's possibilities, but you're never going to learn their name, shake hands, introduce yourself and be best buds afterward. It is always a fleeting encounter.

But when one of your number bets $100 across the board (that is $100 to win; $100 to place; $100 to show, a $300 bet) and their horse wins in deep stretch at 45-1, they're going to fly down the stairs to the winner's circle.

Huh? Long shot winners go to the winner's circle? Not usually, but when the holder of the $100 combo bet is Uriah St. Lewis who owns and trains Discreet Lover and this is your first Grade I victory, you tend to leave earth.

Even with baseball cap giveaway I can picture the "crowd" at Belmont. Bigger than usual, but not big by any standards. But one nice thing about the telecast, they've got A LOT of hand-held cameras covering the races and the interviews. There are backstretch shots from the turf courses and starting gate shots that I've never seen before.

So, when it was obvious Discreet Lover won, a woman connected to the owners (turns out to be a Godmother) came racing through the aisle of the box seats, and the trainer, his assistant trainer (son), wife and daughter were making their way to the winner's circle as if Bob Barker told them all "to come on down." Their joy was infectious. If you ever need to be reminded that there can be happy people on this earth you only have to replay the image they provided when their 45-1 shot wins a $750,000 Win And You're In Breeders Cup race and you hear from a barely contained Uriah St. Lewis that he had a $100 across the board on the horse. If you yourself don't have the long shot the next best thing is to watch those that do.

The payout math of such a bet is large when the horse pays $93, $25.40 and $10.20. For those who might be in need of help, this translates to a $6,130 profit. Certainly not bad. Add to that the 55% of the $750,000 purse and the fact that since the owner is the trainer there is no cut that has to go to anyone other than Manny Franco, you have a very pleasing afternoon.

Uriah admitted to the bet quite on his own, such was his glee. But there is even more good news for those bettors who might have followed Paul Lo Duca's thinking and played a winning exacta. The Disceet Lover/Thunder Snow exacta paid $598 for $2, just $2 under the $600 threshold that would require IRS reporting and window withholding. You win twice.

Anyone who knows Uriah St. Lewis knows he's black. He's from Trinidad. He's not big on the NYRA circuit, but does most of his business out of Parx. He bought Discreet Lover, a pedestrian Florida-bred for a bottom price of $10,000 at a Fasig-Tipton sale. The horse has now earned $1.3 million in purse money. His wife says not too many people give them horses to train, so they buy and race their own.

The result of the Jockey Club Gold Cup reminded me of my $50 win bet on Forego in the 1974 Metropolitan Mile. I never $50 on a horse before, and have never bet $50 on one since.

It was probably a good thing for me to lose my bet. I started as a $2 bettor, and I've only since ramped up all they way to $2 to $8 in 50 years. But in 1974 I was so in love with Forego that I made up my mind that I was going to bet $50 to win if the odds were above even money. And they were.

In that era, you had separate seller lines for different denominations. There were $2, $5, $10, $50 and $100 and up. Tickets were color coded to match the denominations. Two dollar seller lines were always the longest, but $5 and $10 also attracted a crowd. Not so much the highest denomination windows. I wanted to go there and get a cream-colored $50 ticket. Forego's odds were settling in at 6-5 and 7-5, so my $50 bet was a go. He went off right in the middle: $1.30-$1.

Forego was carrying the now unheard-of 134 pounds. My heart was in my throat, but when he took the lead I thought it was all over. Well, it was all over. All over for Forego.

Heliodoro Gustines, his now regular jockey, and who remained his jockey for quite a while after, took the big guy through a 1:09 for six furlongs. Now six furlongs is a ¼ mile from the finish of a mile race, but the weight was taking its toll. More races in that era were true handicap races, no watered down allowance conditions shifting two-four pounds here and there.

Arbees Boy ranged up alongside and took the lead, finishing the mile in a not-so-spectacular time of 1:34 2/5. He would pay something like $109 to win. A boxcar if ever there was a boxcar. 

Goodbye $50 ticket. When the prices for place and show were flashed I was even sicker. A smarter bet that was hedged and not all "on the nose" across the board, or even just win and place,  would have softened the blow. Because of the long shot, place and show bets were decent, with place above even money, the same payout I risked $50 to win on. Lesson learned on many fronts.

So, even though I didn't have any money on Discreet Lover, I have a feeling I'm going to remember where I was when he won the 2018 Jockey Club Gold Cup and what he paid.

Olivia was seven.

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