Long ago, I was a thoroughbred-betting protozoan, scraping out a tiny existence largely by blind encounters with good fortune. One of my best days at the track was when I found $150 on the ground one morning on the backstretch at Saratoga. Showing off this mysterious bone back in the pressbox, I was told by my chattering, shrieking brothers that it had been sent from a higher being, and I must bet it all. I blew $50, and spent the rest on groceries.
Even then, I had the rudimentary glimmer of what I consider the most important quality a racing fan needs: discipline. Now I stride upright to the betting window with binocular vision, a sophisticated central nervous system and opposable thumbs pinning the Daily Racing Form to my smooth palms … and I still get clobbered. Sometimes.
So the first thing I tell newcomers to the sport is: Making money betting thoroughbreds is really hard. It just is, for me, at least. Quickly on the heels of that dire warning, the second thing is: Don’t be scared. You can still have a blast. And make some money.
If you’re new to the track, find a copy of the DRF’s complimentary brochure “An Introduction to Wagering and Winning.” It’s a beautiful little resource that covers everything you need to know, and I wish I had had something like that to consult when I first started going to Saratoga in 1987.
There are so many ways to attack these intricate, thrilling puzzles that I won’t foist my personal handicapping and betting strategies on anyone, other than to list some of the practices I believe fall under the category of “betting discipline”:
1. In the pursuit of finding good value, it’s OK to skip races. These include races with a prohibitive favorite at very short odds, and really unpredictable races, like those restricted to 2-year-olds, who have little or no established form to study.
2. It’s OK to try a long shot once in awhile, but you don’t have to spend a lot to get a decent return, and don’t make a habit of stabbing at them.
3. Set a budget for the day, and stick to it. If you get way ahead early, by all means take a few home run swings, but if you brought $20 or $50 or $100 to the track to wager, whatever you’re comfortable with, stop when it’s gone. The ATM machine is your worst enemy.
That brings me to the other side of the track: It’s possible to enjoy a day at the races without betting your face off.
Please, please bring your camera.
Go to the paddock and look at these wonderful creatures.
Take a backstretch tour in the morning.
Hang out at the rail, instead of inside the clubhouse in front of a TV.
Soak it in.
Here’s some images I’ll have forever:
Easy Goer gawking at the crowd while romping down the stretch in the 1989 Travers.
Holy Bull calmly stalking the paddock with his head down before the 1994 Travers, like some predator getting his game face on before a kill.
Azeri being saddled for the 2004 Go for Wand with the seemingly matter-of-fact haughtiness of Larry Bird in the lockerroom before the 1988 All-Star Game three-point shooting contest. “Y’all are playing for second place.”
Feeding a peppermint to Evening Attire, one of my favorite horses of all-time, at Belmont Park while working on a story about geldings during Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid in 2003, and meeting Evening Attire’s stablemate, Riskaverse, an absolute sweetheart.
I love to bet on the horses, but I have a treasure chest of memories that have nothing to do with wagering. It’s possible to strike a balance between being a fan and a bettor, to whatever level you wish in either department. They reinforce each other. Just go and find out.
Sportswriter, Daily Gazette (Schenectady, N.Y.)