Author’s note: With far too many handicapping situations in the book to serialize extensively, what I can do in this series of excerpts is extract certain sequences of the theory-practice process. This intro is the first of the series. Mark Cramer
info on Handicapping on the Road:
The only exercise I get is walking to the betting office.
Peter O’Sullevan, Daily Telegraph
Nowadays you only have to get up from the couch to make a wager at the computer. It’s a good time to revive the endangered pleasure of “getting there”.
On July 3, 2010, fellow horseplayer Alan Kennedy and I embarked on a Tour de France Hippodrome. As the Tour de France peloton rolls through the French countryside, birds-eye cameras zoom in on castles surrounded by splendid gardens. Our living castles were magnificent French racecourses, landscape architecture at its finest.
Tour cyclers spin past cathedrals, while we go into the temples of turf. Some Tour cyclers take performance enhancing substances. In village bars, we consume performance dis-enhancing substances, red in color, poured from dark bottles into glasses with stems delicate like the legs of Thoroughbreds.
Otherwise, there’s not much difference between our Tour de France and the real one, except maybe the comparative Beyer figs. Yes, those guys pedal faster, but we win the hours-on-the-road competition.
Alan and I had done bike-racecourse trips of 200 kilometers (2008) and 300 kms (2009). We’d discovered the ingredient missing in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It is Playing the Horses On the Road.
In 2010, Alan, a former horse owner who’d once changed trainers for ethical reasons, contacted Sue Finley, of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF). His proposal: raising funds for Thoroughbred retirement.
Sue loved it: using long-distance bicycling to raise funds, not only to help discarded race horses but discarded human beings. The TRF provides vocational training in stable management for prison inmates.
“Fine”, I said. I’ve been meandering through life with a claiming price on my head. With my own retirement approaching, I identified with saving old claimers from death-trucks to Canada or Mexico (horse slaughter is now illegal in the USA).
Horse racing is my refuge from the insane world and offers me a challenging next day of my life, thanks to the infinite past-performance puzzle. Without the splendid racehorse, my daily adventure could not exist. Yet I had ignored the fate of lesser-known gallopers, like Astate, my first winner, at Aqueduct (my old man had to place the bet because I was underage), and decades later, the 45-1 Woodcote, at Hollywood Park, who won me several months of child support payments.
I figured I owed something to these shiny heroes with sleek legs lifting above the surface in fluid rhythm!
This tour would also be my medium to prove that well-crafted American handicapping methods can be applied to horse betting throughout the world, no matter how foreign the races, and as a clincher, identify the prototypes of longshot European shippers that win in the USA.
In moments of age-related vulnerability, the project seemed daunting. Alan reminded me that for years I had been doing daily bicycle commuting through Paris traffic anarchy. Surely, he said, riding 50 miles over country roads would be healthier than doing 5 miles through gridlock.
As planning began, neither of us imagined the magnitude of Sue Finley’s project. When considering expenses (hotels, restaurants, train tickets linking non-contiguous stages), I also confronted the possibility of losing money at the races. My good wife Martha warned me that with on-the-road time constraints, I would be forced to apply precarious handicapping shortcuts. She quoted me:
“If you cut corners to save time, you risk converting a huge superfecta score into a first-second-third-fifth” (an inventive paraphrase from the only philosopher I had ever read: Andrew Beyer).
In fact, a large chunk of my handicapping time had been dedicated to researching for the automatic bet; this was my chance to test, under fire, various methods, including my “Short Form”, which automated 80% of the process.
My wife was impressed TRF’s vocational training for prisoners, having read about the regenerative therapy that comes from horse-human partnerships. She now envisioned the possibility of my “stretching out” to maybe 400 kilometers for a good cause, and possibly paying for a week’s expenses with my betting.
But Sue Finley, an experienced fundraiser and bicycler, harbored loftier ambitions. For maximum impact, she felt we should go up against the real Tour de France by doing the same number of stages, 21, over the same three weeks in July.
“I know this is asking an awful lot of volunteers,” she said, “but really, the Tour de France format is ideal.”
The Tour dates were July 3 through July 25, 2010. I examined the racing calendar, plotting routes to a maximum number of racecourses with a minimum number of kilometers. Adding two prologue stages to two major
tracks that would close in July, we could reach 13 different race tracks, covering approximately 1,000 kilometers: over 600 miles. To avoid two-day stretches without racing, we could hoist our bikes on the train. (Tour de France cyclers bus it when two stages are not geographically contiguous.)
With this escalation of our would-be tour, doubts resurfaced: doubts about physical capabilities, doubts about expenses. I feared death, either from heatstroke or tapping out at the windows. I preferred the first form of death over the second.
For American racing, I had developed a methodology called “The Short Form”, which was showing encouraging results in French and English racing, suggesting that this corner-cutting method would work worldwide. A
longer betting trip offered a real-life laboratory: could my short-cut handicapping methods pay for all three weeks on the road?
Concerning health risks, the likely enemy was a potential heat wave. In 70 degrees, I could cross the whole country. But in the 90s, I might not make it to the next town.
July temperatures in northern France average in the 70s, but in our past performances, heat waves arrived just when we hit the road, only to dissipate the day after we got home. But now, since Thoroughbred retirement was our goal, the Horse Gods might intervene with 72 degrees.
Still, “stretching out” to 1,000 km involved a leap of faith. With no empirical evidence, Alan was convinced: we can do it, don’t worry, it’ll be fun. Alan manages the uncertainties of reality by not smothering the playful child within.
In summary, we decided to try: 20 stages over 23 days, plus 2 prologue stages, 13 tracks, approximately 1,000 kilometers, the equivalent of Pennsylvania to Florida.
Before our trip, media interviewers asked us why we chose a charity for horses when humans are in need. During my volunteer life, I’ve been a champion of lost causes, making windmill chaser Don Quixote seem like a beacon of sanity. Now I had a “found cause”. Using horses for entertainment and then sending them off to slaughter seemed as much an attack on our own humanity as it was an abuse of animals.
In my crime novel Tropical Downs, two shady characters scheme to outsource American racing to South America, defying the intrinsically labor-intensive nature of racing, one of the last home-grown job-producing industries.
In the USA, live horses directly or indirectly put $141 billion into the economy; before the bail-out era, that seemed like a lot of money.
We race fans feel outrage and sorrow when an equine athlete breaks down on the track: because we see it happen. But no one sees what happens to working-class Thoroughbreds when they disappear from the past performances. If the industry would establish a tiny deduction from all handle and purses, earmarked to retiring Tbreds gracefully, then our on-the-road fundraising would become redundant.
Journalists also asked us how bicycling related to racing?
The idea for racetrack bicycle journeys emerged in 2007, as I wrote Tropical Downs. My main character bicycles to Saratoga and Laurel. I thought: If HE can do it, why can’t I? Fiction often imitates a writer’s reality. In this case, the author’s life began to imitate his fiction. Eventually I made the bicycle my primary vehicle for getting to the races. Yeah, it's presumptuous for us to compete against the world’s greatest bicycle race, but Tour de France riders are never asked to attempt to pay their way by betting on horses. Our efforts at pedaling and punting are chronicled in this book:
Could my short-cut handicapping methods pay for the expedition?
Can American handicapping factors be applied abroad?
Could we make it to all 13 racecourses cycling over 600 miles without breaking down?
Could we raise significant funds for Thoroughbred retirement?
This book has everything to satisfy my hard-core handicapping readers, but lovers of travel or cycling might also have some good fun along the way.
Handicapping on the Road consists of two parts. Part One, theory, introduces the featured handicapping methods, with racing illustrations from American, British, French, Dubai and other international venues. Part Two, practice, chronicles the bicycling and horse betting stages of our voyage, documenting the betting methods from Part One as they resurfaced along the way.