Monday, November 29, 2010
Famous Firsters Sometimes Left Their Backers Flush
LOS ANGELES, November 30, 2010--Kelso won five straight Horse of the Year titles, from 1960 onward, and for many of his races he must have felt like he was carrying an anvil on his back. But when he was introduced to the races, at Atlantic City in the fall of 1959, his impost was a feathery-by-comparison 120 pounds. He won over a wet track and paid a tidy $14 for a deuce. "Kelly," as he was affectionately called, never paid close to that in 62 subsequent races. He was odds-on at the windows an astounding 38 times. He couldn't read the tote board, and even if he could, the pressure would have been non-existent. He won 25 of those starts, including one with a burden of 136 pounds, but the bargain days were over. After his debut, the high-water mark for a Kelso backer was $9.80. You might win a race with Kelso, but that was hardly a reason to beat the races.
I looked up Kelso and many other favorite horses after I scanned Zenyatta's retirement package, the past performances of her body of work. The day she ran for the first time, on Thanksgiving three years ago, she was the fifth choice in the betting, behind a group of maiden fillies who had all raced before. Six and a half furlongs or a distance of ground, Zenyatta knew where the wire was. On November 22, 2007, in a sprint at Hollywood Park, she was in 10th place after four furlongs, more than eight lengths from the front, but she came on to win by three, as David Flores used his whip only for an ornament. For $2, the return was $13. Improvers of the breed would never get that rich off Zenyatta again. The most she paid in the 18 straight wins that followed was a measly $7.60.
Another champion who paid boxcars at first asking was Mom's Command. In the summer of 1984 her trainer, Ed Allard, threw Mom's Command into stakes company without delay, and she rewarded her backers with a $49.40 payoff. By 1985, Mom's Command was the best 3-year-old in the country, but alas, paying less than even money for three of her last four wins.
During his three-year career, there was the horseplayers' lament that "you can't make any money betting War Admiral." Well, yes and no. The no part had a short window, the great horse's first two starts. He paid $17 in his maiden win, and $22 for an allowance win about a month later. But after that the honeymoon was over. In the second race, he ran five furlongs in 57 4/5 seconds, under no pressure. He quickly convinced the bettors that he was not a two-race wonder.
There were no wiseguys in the house the day Azeri made her first start, at Santa Anita in November of 2001. She was a late-foal 3-year-old. At 17-1, she produced a six-length cakewalk. The next year, she won eight of nine starts, including the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and became the first female Horse of the Year in 16 years. She was odds-on in five of those wins, and paid $5.60, hardly a windfall, in the Breeders' Cup.
I was at Del Mar in 1989 when Itsallgreektome ran for the first time. A year later, he would be voted male champion on grass by Eclipse voters, but it took a while for his trainer, Wally Dollase to take him off dirt. So at Del Mar, Itsallgreektome ran on the main track, and put his nose on the wire to the tune of $58.20. He would never win another dirt race, and only run in six. For his biggest win, the Hollywood Turf Cup, he paid only $7. Deep down inside, the gray gelding may have even had a fiendish bent. Twelve times he was second or third, many of them at short prices.
Nashua, Horse of the Year in 1955, was a $17 horse the first time he ran. After he had proved his mettle, they couldn't get horses to run against him, and tracks were loathe to allow betting on him. Twice his races were run as betless exhibitions, one of them the Dwyer Stakes at Aqueduct.
It's eye-blinking now, but Affirmed, as a 2-year-old, was allowed to get away at 14-1 the first time he went to post. Such largesse disappeared overnight. For the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, two months after his Triple Crown sweep, he returned the legal minimum, five cents on the dollar.
Dr. Fager was a $23.60 horse the first time out, Ghostzapper, $25. War Emblem paid $34.80 for his maiden win, but he really doesn't belong in this study. When he won the Kentucky Derby, seven months later, the disbelievers were still rampant and let him go at 20-1. John Henry is also the antithesis of what I'm about; the horse nobody wanted, wouldn't you have thought that the day he showed up at Jefferson Downs, for his first race, nobody would have had a clue? Uh-uh. The buzz in Louisiana beat him down to 17-10 as he won a close one. There was one decent price after that, out of 82 races. You would have been better served just squirreling away his winning tickets. They would have made a nice montage after the old man was retired.