Revisiting old writing is a very humbling experience. I was sorting through old grad school papers a few weeks ago and had to toss most of them out of sheer embarassment. That said, this piece has its moments so I’m reposting it out of some archivist’s impulse. Also, due to unforeseen circumstances, I’m woefully under-prepared for this year’s Derby, so this is my contribution. Here’s how the Kentucky Derby was in Boston in 2006.
It’s racing biggest day and everything smells like vomit. I stepped off the Blue Line at the Sufflok Downs T stop and almost directly into a pile of someone’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. Before I even feel the juice of my first wager of the season, I’m already a bit depressed. We couldn’t be further from the big hats and bigger cigars of Louisville, but that’s the Derby via simulcast: some of the excitement, none of the decadence.
I shared the five minute walk to the track with a guy wearing a personalized New York Giants away jersey. There was no greeting, no pleasantries, he simply asked the question Kid Rock had been asking me all week in those NTRA commercials, “Who do you like?” It’s racing’s version of “how you doing” and I’m relieved to be back at the track.
“A.P. Warrior,” I told him. Turned out his initials were A.P., and for a moment I thought this a bad omen, but he seemed like a nice enough kid. He knew the field, had a self-proclaimed east coast track bias (so much for my California horse), and his only complaint about Suffolk was that there aren’t any ATMs on the premises. (I heard the exact same complaint voiced by two veteran punters in my first five minutes at the track. No wonder Suffolk is struggling to stay open, it may be the only betting parlor in the world that doesn’t give its patrons easy access to additional funds.)
As recently as a few weeks ago, I wasn’t even sure if I’d have a place to wager on the Derby. For a week in April, Suffolk shuttered its betting windows as they worked to renew their expired simulcasting license. Complicating matters was the measure before the state legislature that would allow slot machines at the track. When it was finally shot down, Suffolk’s future looked dim, but they eventually worked a deal to resume simulcast racing and there was a glimmer of hope on opening day with the announcement that the Mass Cap would be returning after a one-year hiatus, this time in the fall in hopes of luring some big name horses prepping for November’s Breeders Cup.
Still, it is impossible to escape the feeling that Sufflok is struggling home in the stretch of a lengthy decline into obscurity. It’s a shame when you look up and see the banners for past champions like Seabiscuit, Whirlaway and Cigar. New England racing used to be a major player on the thoroughbred circuit, but now only the New York tracks seem to be keeping east coast racing above water. Even Pimlico, the home of the “second jewel” of the Triple Crown, is struggling of late.
While I keep catching shots of Louisville’s nouveau-riche playing dress-up in Gatsby suits and designer hats, it’s hard not to notice the difference in class here at Suffolk. Judging by Saturday’s crowd, the uniform of a modern-day race fan consists of a throwback jersey and track pants. It feels a bit like NBA All-Star weekend, every where I turn it’s a flurry of mesh and nylon in primary colors. There’s John Riggins, Walt Frazier, Larry Bird and every player on the Patriots roster in the past three years, all here to play the ponies.
I also saw two fashion accessories for the first time yesterday: spray-on hair and an actual grill. I knew these things existed, but I didn’t know you could find them on every day, average people.
I have to get some money down before I become too dismayed and just make the hour trek back to my apartment.
Back in my Fonner Park days, I stumbled upon a certainly questionable betting strategy that turned a mild profit. Early in the season, if I saw a six or seven horse field with one entry who had a bulleted workout in the past week, I bet him outright. “Believe in the Bullet,” I called it and I was excited to try it out here under the seagulls. That exact scenario presented itself in the Suffolk fourth, so I put $10 to win on Reality Quest. I was surprisingly calm as he ran a distant fourth. It was a bit of a whim and I chastised myself for being so foolhardy. As my Giants-fan friend A.P. had stated earlier, “I’m not here to waste my dollars on these nags.” I vow to wait for a better opportunity or the Derby, whichever comes first.
No more than 10 minutes later, I notice that a horse named Curse Reversed is running in a maiden claiming race at Belmont. You have to bet a horse with such a fortuitous name in Boston, right? Additionally, he’s running in New York and I can’t see any self-respecting Yankee fan putting any money on a horse with such a name so in my mind he’s guranteed to be an underlay. I bet him to win and as part of an exacta. He falters late to finish third and I’m down $20 on the day. I impose a two race moratorium before trying to get my money back.
As I find a table in the simulcast room and open the form trying hard to not study too intently in fear that I’ll find something worth betting, an old man sits next to me to watch a race from Calder. From the break, he’s yelling for the eight. I look up to the screen and don’t see his horse anywhere on the screen, but he keeps hollering through the back stretch. What is he seeing? The pack rounds the final turn and I still haven’t seen the eight, but the guy beside me goes into a steady 30-second mantra of “Keep whippin’ him!” The horses cross the wire in a clump and the man immediately gets up and leaves. A little perturbed, I make a point to see where his eight finished. Turns out there were only six horses entered. I’m not sure if he was simply acting to prove he belonged at the track or if he really thought he had the eight horse in that race, but this odd little observation emboldens me so I put together a big exacta in the 7th at Belmont.
I didn’t like either of the favorites in that race, so I selected five horse who I thought could get it done and boxed them all. If this comes home, I’ll be playing the Derby with track money. Never happens. I’m down $40 on the day and limping in to the Derby.
Somewhere between Friday night’s analysis and Saturday’s race, I talked myself out of Lawyer Ron. Maybe it was the outside post position, maybe it was the odd mid-week sale, but something told me he wasn’t the horse. That left me with Sweetnorthernsaint, A.P. Warrior, Barbaro, Point Determined and Steppenwolfer, so I boxed them all in my big ticket and sat down to watch the odds.
The odd thing about this year’s Derby was that the numbers didn’t move much in those final 50 minutes. I knew that I was going to take Showing Up at 24-1 and after talking with a veteran handicapper I know from work, I decided to give Cause to Believe a piece at long odds. With 10 minutes to post, I need any combination of my five favorites to finish 1-2, or a long-shot win by Showing Up or Cause to Believe. If any of those things happen, I’m up on the day.
The average sports fans started streaming in to Suffolk in that last hour. I posted myself in front of the same Amtote machine and big screen where I watched Funny Cide come home for a $100 win ticket for me three years ago. He was my last Derby score, thanks to Smarty Jones’ short odds and that damned Giacomo.
I end up sharing the space with a group of college buddies from one of the 60-odd schools in the Boston area. They’re obvious neophytes so I help them figure out the self-bet machines and watch one guy pump five twenty dollar bills in and punch out a beguiling array of $2 trifectas and a $50 win on Barbaro. “I always play the favorite,” he tells me. Nevermind that Sweetnorthernsaint will actually be the shortest price when the gates open.
It’s been a tough day, the track is not a happy place. I’ve nearly stepped in vomit, watched a guy root for a horse that didn’t exist, saw another man who looked strikingly like my grandfather kick over a trash bin and came face-to-face with a guy who thought it was okay to spray paint his head. But all that stuff washes away when the race finally starts and there is the familiar roar of fans watching horses from a thousand miles away.
During my first ever Derby at an off-track, I was amazed at how nervous I felt leading up to the race. My stomach churned and my palms left sweat stains on my rolled up form. I don’t feel like this with any other sporting event, and it was reassuring when the same queasiness arrived on Saturday.
They call the Derby the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” but it’s actually the longest. The start is always a mess with horses bumping and jostling to not be eliminated eight seconds out. The backstretch is painfully long and you can’t see what’s happening behind the typical cheap speed horses. Basically you wait for the home stretch and rely on the race call to carry you through. Problem was, Suffolk wasn’t broadcasting the call so all I knew was Barbaro was making his move and all I had to hope for was the race for place.
It took an eternity for them to make the results official, and foolishly I waited around. I had Barbaro and I had Steppenwolfer in my exacta box, so without the benefit of audio I stood and hoped that the stewards were looking for something wrong with Bluegrass Cat’s second place finish. Mercifully, magically throw him out please! Turns out it was a photo finish for fourth. They guy who showed up 20 minutes before the Derby just won $300. I was busted.
The mood walking out of Suffolk was typically somber. Any one leaving this early wasn’t cashing in and there was a trail of torn tickets to mark my path back to the train.
I wasn’t disappointed. For the most part my handicapping had been sound. I had Barbaro. Steppenwolfer and Showing Up both gave performances I could be proud of, the only total miss was A.P. Warrior who finished 18th. That’s the Derby. Anything can happen.
As I was leaving, I held the door for a cocktail waitress who had gratefully reached the end of her shift with the Derby’s completion. She nodded thanks and lit a cigarette.
“Welcome to Suffer Downs,” she said as she pocketed her lighter and headed for home.