A daze at the races

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

As the thunder of hooves approached, I tightened my grip on the racetrack rail. The horses came at breakneck speed, and as they whipped by me in a blur, I craned my head, transfixed on one in particular. I kept my eyes on him until he finally crossed the finish line, then dropped my forehead almost to the rail in a slump of resignation — a move I’d repeated several times that day.

Standing alone at the Tampa Bay Downs, I took a quick count: five races in, zero winners picked.

It had been several years since I saw my first race at that track, back when my older cousin co-owned a pair of thoroughbreds. I never was much of a gambler and have never really felt any draw to dice or cards or slots (nor exhibited any particular skill or luck in them, for that matter). But when I went along with my cousin to watch his four-legged prospects try to bring home some bacon for him, I found it exhilarating.

Horses are beautiful animals, and just to spend a day in the sunshine watching them gallop was a good time in itself. But I soon found out that it was even more fun to bet on them and win. I’d made it out to the track a handful of times in the last couple of seasons, but this April was the first time in more than a year.

After suffering my fifth straight loss, I turned from the rail and crumpled my worthless ticket. This year, I thought it’d be different. I’d studied up on what to look for and tried to put it to use.

For example, I rarely bet on a horse whose jockey was too green or who hadn’t finished in the money at least 40 percent of the time. Horses who had too long a layoff spooked me, as well. I looked at their track times, their turf times, and how they’ve fared at a specific distance.

I tended to shy away from making too many exotic bets, like exactas, superfectas and trifectas, where you must pick a series of winners. I usually played it straight — once I singled out a horse, I played it to win or even to place. If my confidence lessened during the afternoon — like it did on this day — I might cover my bases with a win-place-show bet, where you win something if your horse finishes in the top three.  This can backfire if you pick a horse with medium to low odds, however, as the winnings may be a pittance. In other words, putting down three $2 bets for a total of $6 spent to win a lousy $4.80 will hardly make anyone pump his fist in the air.

I’d come to the track two weeks before and lost every single race until the last one. Hitting the winner, I recouped all the money I lost on the day. I returned the following week, and while I didn’t hit a winner, I came closer as a pair of my picks placed third, resulting in a paltry payday. But this week, I was ice cold.

Determined to carry on, I headed to the wooden benches and tables near the paddock, where the horses in the upcoming race would soon be on display. Sporting a gray snap-brim fedora, field glasses dangling from my neck, a rolled-up program in my hand, and a ballpoint pen in my front Oxford shirt pocket for making notes, I realized I looked like an extra in a 1950’s mob film with a scene at the track. I certainly stood out alongside most attendees, who indulged in casual attire a step above beachwear.

I swung my leg over a bench, smoothed out my program, plucked out my pen, and got to work yet again, studying the numbers. The program is an essential source of information, giving the horseplayer the lowdown on everything from the jockey’s in-the-money percentage to the horse’s final position and margin in previous races to the medication administered in the last 24 hours.

It even provides the animal’s foaling date and the last sales price at an auction. It lists everything but what the jockey had for breakfast that morning. But I can attest, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by this intimidating block of tiny numbers, symbols and abbreviations. It’s like trying to absorb eight or nine complicated calculus problems in the half-hour, or so you get between races — all this before you visually take in the horses at the paddock.

“You come here a lot?” asked a voice from farther down the table. A young guy in an orange t-shirt and narrow-lensed sunglasses was grinning at me.

Strangers have asked me questions before like this. Once, an old lady sidled up next to me at the paddock and asked flatly, “So who’s it going to be this time?” I suspected they all assumed, even if they’re being friendly, that since I looked the part of a serious horseplayer, I must possess an inside scoop.

“Nah, it’s just my third time,” I said to Orange Shirt, which is a white lie, then promptly stuck my nose back in my program. I didn’t come here to make conversation, I told myself, I came to make bets. I needed to focus.

After circling and underlining the figures and making various marginal notes, I approached the rail of the paddock as the handlers led in the horses one by one. And this is what I consider the most crucial time. Before this racing season had begun, I came across a used book titled “The Compleat Horseplayer” and snatched it up, convinced I’d found a gem.

The author revealed his strategy and methodical approach in winnowing out horse after horse before settling on the contender he believed would cross the finish line first. I soaked up what I could concerning a horse’s weight, class, consistency, etc. but what struck me the most was his advice about eliminating horses by telltale signs you see in the paddock. Is the animal jumpy and skittish? Not usually a good sign.

At the paddock now, I noticed one called Extravagant Rosie had abundant kidney sweat –the whitish foam that appears between the animal’s legs and a dead giveaway of nervous tension. No bet there, I crossed her off.

Courtly Kitty had bandages around her forelegs and back legs — this may have signaled support needed for weakened muscles and tendons. Next.

Another mare had “washiness,” a lather of sweat, and that didn’t bode well for her running mood, while yet another hadn’t run a race in months, which was rarely a harbinger of victory.

I went with number three, Foxglove, mainly because I couldn’t find a whole lot wrong with her. I decided to bet “across the board at the betting window,” hoping she’ll come in first, second or third. She had medium to high odds, so the payoff wouldn’t be bad, but at this point, I just wanted a confidence boost.

The starting gate flew open, and the horses shot out; a maelstrom of hooves, half-ton bodies, and bobbing bright colors made its way down the track. After they sorted themselves out, my horse was lagging back at the first turn. Nothing to worry about, I muttered to myself, it is early. I peep through my binoculars to follow them on the straightaway at the far end of the track and see ol’ Foxglove still farther back, this time almost last.

I eyed the pack all the way around the track, picking my horse from a distance and watching as they all come rumbling down the track, bearing down for the finish. The hoofbeats got louder and louder as the horses neared, and the crowd’s formless roar intensified before reaching a frenzied crescendo all around the Downs.

I dropped the binocs and watched as they all flew right by me at the rail, hellbent on speeding to the end of the earth if their jockeys wanted it. Shortly after, I dropped my head, again.

Out of a field of 10, my horse finished ninth — behind other horses who were sweaty, jumpy, bandaged and rusty, no less. As if to jam a palmful of sea salt into a fresh, gaping wound, a little kid with a clip-on bowtie a few feet away clapped and whooped before high-fiving a woman, clearly his mom.

“Global Brand won, Tyler!” she squealed as she held up a palm for the little guy to slap. “Just like you said!”

Outwardly I smiled as their cute scene played out, but my insides churned with boiling-hot envy at this little squirt. That last race made six goose eggs for me on the day.

Dazed and disheartened, I plopped down on a wooden bench and moped. I looked around the Downs and wondered at all the fortunes that must’ve been made and the hopes that must’ve been throttled since it first opened in 1926. The diminutive jockeys, dressed in vivid, bird of paradise silks, bustled around the paddock with professional calmness while their horses twitched their ears and swished their tails in anticipation. On the other side of the track, the giant trees swayed indifferently in the breeze, just as they had done for decades.

After sitting out a race, I considered cutting my losses but somehow, I mustered the nerve to take another run at it. I bet on the next two races. Both times, I followed the same ritual of scanning the program and making careful notes, then eyeing the horses and ticking off my boxes. Both times, I wound up dropping my forehead onto the rail and cursing softly at race’s end. The final straw came when little bow-tied Tyler, who happened to be a few feet away from me again, cheered victoriously after the last race.

My first week back at the track this season, I’d figured I was out of practice and probably made the wrong type of bets. The following week I allowed for an unlucky run; it can happen to anyone. But this time, I ran out of excuses. Here I stood, armed with all my science, intuition and know-how, and still came up empty while next to me, a six-year-old who should’ve been home watching PAW Patrol instead of giving racing tips to his parent was leaving me in the dust.

At this point I was almost positive, though I couldn’t prove it, that the entire lot of horses and jockeys were all in cahoots against me and secretly laughing. Or maybe there was some dark, unexplainable mojo working against me. Or maybe my continued misfortune had something to do with the fact that the horseplaying book I used for guidance had been published over 50 years ago.

In past years, I took buddies and girlfriends alike to the track and tried to impress them with my budding knowledge of the sport of kings. I won a few races, lost more, but always felt if I’d put in some study time to deconstruct the sport, I’d find myself a great new hobby at which I could excel — and perhaps hit some big paydays, besides.

But this day it all evaporated in the Florida heat. After three weeks in a row, I had very little to show for my concentrated efforts. The way things went, I might as well have consulted an astrologer or written the names of all the horses on paper slips and yanked them at random out of my fedora.

That’s that, I thought. There is no point in throwing money into a void and pursuing something that isn’t going to yield results.

I shoved my program in the trash and set out on the trek to my car, an ignominious end to a losing day. On the way out, I caught sight of the little Bow Tie one last time. He giggled and ran in a circle around his mom, just acting silly and having a ball. It was nearing the end of the day, and people all around were talking and smiling and just soaking in the fresh air and still-abundant sunlight.

Days later, I decided to go back for what was the final day of the season. I brought my mom, who had never once been to the racetrack in her life. I remember I bought her a big floppy hat; I remember that we laughed a lot that day, and I also remember she picked the winner on her first try. I think we may have wound up a few bucks at the end of the day, but I honestly don’t remember.

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