Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Palace Malice, Hyman Roth and Why I Love Horse Racing

Sports. Beer. Gambling.

3 things we love. 3 things I love about horse racing.

More so than any other sport, horse racing has an image problem. To be fair, most of it has been of the sport’s own doing. But horse racing should not be a “dead” sport in this country. It’s just too much fun.

I am a biased observer because I love the sport. I’ve been to Hollywood Park, before it gets torn down. I’ve been to Aqueduct, before it got fancy. I’ve been to every Belmont Stakes since 1999. Saratoga, Laurel, Churchill Downs – I love going to the track.

What I can’t understand is why the sport cannot get its collective head out of its collective posterior and create a new generation of fans. My love of the sport – like many my age – came from my family. My father grew up on Long Island and the Belmont Stakes was a part of every June for them. That’s how horse racing fans exist in today’s day and age, as a handed-down heirloom.

But even as someone who loves horse racing, it is almost impossible to follow the sport on a national – forget international – level without serious dedication. On the last weekend of June, the reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, ran in a race at Churchill Downs. It was run at 10pm on a Saturday night in a downpour with no television coverage, outside of HRTV. Even on HRTV’s guide, there was no mention of the race, or Wise Dan, or why you should watch. It just said, “Horse Racing.”

And still some wonder why people only tune in for the Triple Crown races?

Palace Malice Belmont Stakes
Outside of the NBC Sports Network’s dedication to the Kentucky Derby prep races in March and April as well as its “Summer at Saratoga” series, horse racing is non-existent in the television landscape. There is no way to build up equine stars like Cigar in the late 90’s, when it seemed like all of his races were on ESPN, ABC, NBC or CBS. Notice the networks I just mentioned – it’s just not the same.

While depressing, I still love the sport. And I have hope. It seems like they are finally ridding the sport of the Rick Dutrow’s of the world that were cheating. It seems like we are finally returning to an age when owners ran their horses for sport instead of trying to make a quick buck.

Nothing is perfect though. The Breeder’s Cup has proven to be the best and worst thing that has ever happened to horse racing. On the plus side, especially with NBC replacing ESPN as the broadcaster, the event is a true season-ending “championship” event. Of course, since horse racing is horse racing, they bloated the event to 2 days. They have put such an emphasis on the event that it has ruined the summer racing because if you have a top horse, why would you challenge it against other top horses when you have one race at the end of the year to settle everything?

The future of horse racing is similar to the future of sports in America – we are an event-driven culture. We like big events. We don’t like Wednesday at Belmont. We like Saturday at Belmont. We don’t like college basketball. We like the NCAA Tournament. We don’t watch Indy Car racing. We love the Indy 500.

That’s why the sport needs more spectacle days like the Belmont Stakes. And while the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has done just about everything wrong since I’ve been alive, they did figure out something when it came to Belmont Stakes Day.

When I first went in 1999, it was just the Belmont Stakes. This year, there were 6 stakes races – 5 Grade I and Grade II races. It has evolved into more than just a one-race affair. It has become a spectacle. No, it’s not the Breeders Cup but there are very few, if any, days on the racing calendar when you can show up and bet on 6 consecutive stakes with the nation’s best horses, jockeys and trainers. It has the famous “Big Fight” feel about it.

As I walked around a fairly empty Belmont Park on midway through this year’s Belmont Stakes Day – it struck me how much I truly enjoyed being there and how I wished more people would experience it. The attendance this year was driven down by a Tropical Storm the day before and morning of, along with the lack of a Triple Crown contender. But I couldn’t be happier. I had a few beers. I was watching high quality racing. Alas, I wasn’t winning money.

In the end, the allure of horse racing is the gambling. I love watching a horse racing. I love it a bit more when I can win money. All day at this year’s Belmont, I flip-flopped on Palace Malice. I knew the horse had talent. But he ran off in the Derby with blinkers on. Would taking the blinkers off make the difference it usually does? Could he get the 1.5 mile distance? Would I risk it?

After spending all day talking myself in and out of the horse – I finally went in, lukewarmly, with a $10 bet. At the top of the stretch, I knew I had won. There are few feelings that compare with winning a horse racing bet before the race is even over. Like you were so right, your horse “won for fun,” as my grandfather likes to say.

And even in the victory, there was despair – my exacta bet of Palace Malice over Orb came within a few lengths of coming home. If that had happened, the title of this blog would have just been “I LOVE HORSE RACING” and pictures of me throwing money around.

The real beauty of horse racing at the track comes from the people you meet and the strangers you talk with. I stood by the paddock after the Belmont, getting ready to watch a replay of the race, when a guy came up to me and shook his head.

“No one had that,” he said.

“I did,” I shot back, smiling.

“No shit! How?”

“Blinkers off.”

The man shook my hand, told me congratulations and wished me luck on the next race. Yes, there is a race after the Belmont – two actually. Just allowance races to finish off the day, make some extra money for the track and prevent the whole crowd from leaving at the same time. Without much time to do any real handicapping, I took a quick look at the horse’s names.

Hyman Roth.

The name leapt off the Daily Racing Form. Who doesn’t love the Godfather? I put $10 on the horse and returned to my seat, where my despondent Dad had not moved since the Belmont ended. You see, Oxbow was the last piece to a winning Pick 4 ticket – he finished second. Dad hasn’t let me forget.
So as the meaningless post-Belmont race took off, I yelled, “C’mon Hyman!!” My Dad laughed and asked me why I picked the 11-1 shot. “The name,” I said.

He won. I won. Dad did not.

For the record, I left Belmont Park with the same amount of money in my wallet as I did when I walked in, beer included. That, my friends, is a successful day.

In 2012, I left the track with no money in my wallet.

I loved each day the same. And you would too. So go to the track. Have a beer. Make a bet. Enjoy the horses. Have a great day.

If the sport won’t promote itself, I guess I will.

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