July 12, 2006
He can spot a winner a mile away. They have this warm and fuzzy aura about them. In fact, from that distance, most everything he contemplates appears warm and fuzzy. It’s when they’re not that far away that he has problems. Down at the paddock, for instance.
Prior to leaving for the starting gate, ponies send out mostly mixed messages. They trot, they prance, they contrive to confuse. Actually, the term "ponies" is used in the vernacular. What we got is a collection of relative equine splendor in the grand tradition of colts, fillies, geldings, horses, and mares — collectively, racehorses, champin’ at the bit to cross the finish line first.
And, as long as one keeps the proper perspective, wagering upon the order of finish in each of these scrambles can be a most fulfilling way to wile away a summer afternoon. A somewhat realistic goal for the occasional railbird is to ride an early winner and, by refreshing those winnings every so often, use the track’s loot to pay for a day at the races.
You do your homework, of course, but at this level, you never take it all that seriously. A racing form, a writing utensil, and one of those hand-poured Wyoming refreshments is more than enough to get the novice in the saddle. And, heaven help you if, as happened this past weekend, you bring home a 16-to-one long shot in the first race.
All of a sudden any humility you rode in with turns up missing. You become awash in misguided epiphanies. You think you have a clue about quarter horse psychology. Your swagger is less than subtle as you mosey to and from the betting window. You’ve developed a hitch in your giddy-up. The smirk on your mug looks like it’s going to be there for a spell.
And it doesn’t get any better after you boot home a five-to-one two year old from way off the pace in the next race. So what if the victory stumbled down the stretch on the heels of a six-way photo finish. You knew you had it all along. The rest of them nags never had a chance. You instantly added "recognizing class" to your handicapping résumé.
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Quarter horses, by definition, are bred to sprint a quarter-mile, and, they flat-out get after it. Adrenaline courses through bloodstreams and hooves pound – no doubt about it. They are marketed as America’s fastest athlete. On the track, muscle tone, believe it or not, comes into play a bit more than it does up in the grandstand. Go figure!
And that’s kinda what you’re checkin’ out down at the paddock between races. As if you could tell which nag hit the hay early with a good book and a cup of warm milk and which one rolled in only a few hours previous after an all-night session at Pete’s Roc N Rye saloon out at the edge of town.
Not to worry, however. Seldom does the normal time frame between races allow for this kind of casual perusal of the available horseflesh. If you have any kind of winning ticket in the last race, and you are not a seasoned enthusiast with sufficient experience concerning collection window line behavior, well, forget about it!
For whatever reason, you remain frozen in your seat until the tote board displays your winnings, however meager. This is important stuff — and the only thing between you maintaining your racetrack scholarship or spending your own cash for burger and beverage and such. Even the thought of such a circumstance is humiliating.
Well, it’s funny how quickly a problem with time management can turn into a non-issue. When a scenario whereby winning tickets of any stripe are added to the endangered species list, all of a sudden there is time, as that old railbird T. S. Eliot once observed, "for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions."
Never has a system for successfully playing the ponies been so succinctly expressed. Who cares about finishes in the money or race frequency or whether or not "bute" or "salix" is the snort of choice? What really matters is how many changes of heart are visited upon the bettor between the grandstand and the "pari-mutuel" wagering window.
If this "waffling" really gets out of hand, if your synapses and neurotransmitters can’t agree on which gap to bridge, well, then, you are "high-centered." And, if you want to get a bet laid down before sunset, another quick swing by the chemical-imbalance concession might well be in order.
Now, lest one gets the idea that variety never leaves the gate at these affairs, it should be mentioned that a couple of thoroughbred races of four to six furlongs usually wrap up the daily racing card at Wyoming Downs. This, of course, means that the folly of your handicapping isn’t apparent for over a minute, whereas, in quarter horse racing, your chagrin is manifest in 15 seconds or so.
Where quarter horses are all "speed horses" and, seemingly, shot out of a cannon, there are strategies aplenty for jockeys and trainers of both disciplines. But that, of course, is all sidebar to the recreational handicapper trying to balance a cup or two while negotiating a row of laughing, cheering and screaming fellow horse racing fans.
Try, if you will, remaining in your seat while your horse closes in a rush, and along with it, your goal of operating totally on the track’s dime. Even if you come away with only a little more than you showed-up with, as long as they didn’t get into your back pocket, it’s a winning day at the races.