Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ecstasy and the Agony, a Personal Account of Derby 134

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 4, 2008--This game rips your guts out, even in times of triumph, celebration and self satisfaction.

Journalists are not supposed to become part of the story, even in the sometimes sleazy world of corporate media where accountants write in blue pencil.

But not in the modern world, not now, not when the unthinkable becomes commonplace. Journalists who are not part of the story these days just aren’t doing their jobs.

When people ask how it’s going, my reply is always “who’s better than me? I get to write whatever ever I want, play loose with the facts, and create my own headlines. But the new medium sometimes insists that the writer is the story.

And so Kentucky Derby day dawned cold and gray, in one of the two places in this country where the race horse not only is revered but remains very much a part of life‘s fabric.

The other place is bluegrass country, of course, where the day also dawned cold and gray. But as the horses for the first race of the day paraded postward, they began to cast shadows, not sharp ones, but enough to tell that blue skies were coming on like Forego.

Within two hours, the Churchill Downs track went from a sea of sealed slop to fast--still drying, but fast. The surface in Louisville and its superintendent, Butch Lehr, surely were a match made in heaven. And they’ve been married a long time.

The major storylines of Derby week involved two of its most high profile participants. First, the saga of Big Brown, his feet, his inexperience, his post position and his new front bandages. Was he the craziest of all 134 Derby favorites?

And should the filly Eight Belles run on Friday or Saturday? Her Derby presence could have meant that the eventual show finisher could have watched the race from his barn for lack of sufficient earnings. Stall TV.

I made the drive south from the Spa City with my wife Toni to the Albany Teletheater, the flagship of the Capital District Off-Track Betting Corporation, for which I occasionally do handicapping analysis on its cable television network.

The other 46 weeks of the year, when live racing is not conducted, almost literally, a stone’s throw from my door, the Teletheater becomes my home away from Saratoga Raceway, my second home when I‘m not sitting on the front porch.

Of course, yesterday was a high holiday, to be spent in battle with the iron men, a.k.a. parimutuel machines.

Churchill had assembled a great program, per usual, and I was having a bit of my way with the iron men. Even if I had overbet the Derby--my patriotic duty--and lost, I had won enough to guarantee a small profit. Life is good.

On Oaks day I went to Spa Harness and played a 2x2 Oaks-Derby Double; Proud Spell and Golden Doc A with Big Brown and Tale Of Ekati. Both events were wide open with an unusually high degree of uncertainty. I reasoned that either I had it right, or not. I could have spread 5x12 with no assurance of success.

I had my bases covered nicely; an acceptable $37 payout with Big Brown and a travel-agent-calling $312 with Tale Of Ekati.

With the live doubles making win wagers superfluous, I optimized my position upon arrival in Albany, keying Big Brown over Tale Of Ekati, Court Vision, Colonel John and Denis Of Cork in the superfecta.

Additionally, I made a trifecta key of Tale Of Ekati with the four superfecta horses second, those four again for third, with four more horses, also in the third position.

Eight Belles appeared on no tickets; she lacked prior experience vs. males and never faced more than seven rivals in any one race.

After the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic official, and with an hour remaining to the Derby, I decided to make a few saver wagers.

Shortly before the turf race, researcher Vin O’Connell called to remind me that never in the history of his compiling his own unique historical profiles, since the early 90s, had a Derby contender survive without a single knock.

Until Eight Belles.

I still didn’t believe she could win, but $4 could buy me piece of mind. I decided to use the filly to block, as the wiseguys say, second beneath Big Brown in trifectas, with the four superfecta horses for third.

The self service machine I was using froze. “Communicating with Data Room,” the message blinked over and over. But it wasn’t just my terminal. The entire Capital District OTB network was unable to book bets for the hour between the ninth and 10th races.

Worse, because Capital was a hub for all wagers in the western part of the state, no betting could be conducted at Finger Lakes Racetrack, Tioga Park or Vernon Downs. The large Teletheater crowd was becoming a bit restless but there were no incidents as they waited for the betting windows to reopen.

Just as the Derby horses were leaving the paddock, the local crowd readied for the playing of what the jockeys call “that song,” the video from the track was interrupted, too. The giant blue screen warned “no authorization.”

The picture was back on line just as the 20 horses approached the starting gate, a few minutes late, the delay perhaps the result of communication between the Churchill tote room and officials from the four New York simulcasters.

Kentucky Derby is Christmas for bet-takers. OTB president John Signor, who worked the phones for an hour during the delay to no avail, estimated the United Tote mishap cost OTB $1.5-million. OTB is insured against loss of this type, based on Derby handle from previous years. Bettors, like many other citizens, don’t have insurance.

The horses were finally loaded into the gate and the race was on. With less than six of the Derby’s 10 furlongs remaining, Kent Desormeaux still had Big Brown on the outside, clear, about five paths wide of the rail.

At the five furlong marker, Desormeaux still had a firm hold and in that instant my confidence in Big Brown began to waver. Either the rider was showing as much hubris as Rick Dutrow at the post draw, or he was empty.

After blowing the Kentucky Derby wide open, just like he had five weeks earlier in Hallandale Beach, the only horse running at him in the final furlong was the filly. It was a remarkably generous flurry, too. It carried her to within 4-¾ lengths of the still undefeated Derby champion and was another 3-½ lengths back to Denis Of Cork.

I collected my winnings from the Oaks-Derby Double but did not share in half the proceeds from a Derby trifecta that returned $3,445.60. But that’s OK. My opinion of Big Brown was validated. It was special watching the colt and Desormeaux return to collect the roses. I can collect a saver wager some other day. Like rust, racing never sleeps.

But the Derby is something else. It’s about America and bragging rights--the way the sport is about waiting to see the next great horse. It was a most memorable Derby performance by Big Brown and deft execution by his rider, now a thrice winning Derby jockey.

When Toni and I arrived back in Saratoga, parked in front of a pub that beckoned with the promise of cold ones and fish and chips, the cell phone rang. It was my daughter Jennifer to console us about what took place about a quarter mile from the finish of America’s greatest racing spectacle. We had no idea what she was talking about.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
Comments (6)

BallHype: hype it up!

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