Steve ruined my Derby bets — and saved the day

Steve at Emerald Downs.

When Rich Strike read what the pundits had written about him Saturday morning, it made him so mad he’d run like hell to prove them wrong.

That’s how Steve, my horse-race betting partner for years before he died in 2010, would explain how Rich Strike won the Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2022.

Steve always bet long shots, especially on horses with names that amused him or reminded him of his wife. As a steady reader of the Daily Racing Form and horses’ past performances, I would try to talk Steve out of his more “strange” bets, often by reading what the professional handicappers wrote. Kind of like they said about Rich Strike on Saturday:

“Poor speed figures. Best speed rating well below the average winning speed. Return to dirt might offer some hope for improvement.”

Steve would see such an assessment and say, “When the horse reads that, he’ll be so mad he’ll run like hell to show ’em.”

Nothing could persuade Steve to stop betting the looongest shots available, $2 to show on the least chalky choice. He didn’t hit often. But when he did, he’d signal “loo-ser” with an L to his forehead and wonder why I spent so much time with the racing form.

Nothing can persuade me to abandon the DRF. I can’t watch a race without an overnight session with the past performances. Leading up to the Derby, I had watched all the prep races, bet them, did OK and had a plan for the first Saturday in May: A Pick 3 with one horse in the first race (Jackie’s Warrior), four horses who might win in the second race (Shirl’s Speight, Cavalry Charge, Adhamo, Santin) and six horses who I thought could win the Derby (Mo Donegal, Epicenter, Messier, Tiz the Bomb, Zandon, White Abarrio) for a $24 bet. An Exacta boxed with Epicenter, Zandon and Tiz the Bomb for a $12 bet. And a graduated across the board bet on Epicenter, my fav: $5 to win, $10 to place and $15 to show.

Sixty-four dollars coming into the Derby. More than I usually bet on a race — or in a whole day at the races. But it’s the Derby, and I’m splitting my bets with Michael, my new horse-racing partner.

And things looked good coming into the Big Race. In the first race of my Pick 3, Jackie’s Warrior had gone wire to wire at even odds in the 10th race and in the 11th, Santin won by a neck at 7-1 odds, which would fatten up the payoff for my Pick 3.

Things looked even better when the horses were coming down the stretch in the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby. Epicenter was in the lead, holding off Zandon on the outside. A No. 3 (Epicenter) and No. 10 (Zandon) finish would complete my Pick 3, win my Exacta and pay off all three positions in my across-the-board bet. Just to win three bets on one race would be a first-ever accomplishment in my handicapping career.

My eyes were on Epicenter and not on what jockey Sonny Leon was doing with Rich Strike on the inside. Take a look at the great NBC overhead shot to see what a thread-the-needle ride Leon had on Rich Strike, which ended with 3 and 10 in second and third place. I tried to read the numbers of the winning horse. Was it No. 1, Mo Donegal? A possibility that Michael had bet because that was the hometown of his grandparents. Or No. 2, Happy Jack? A long shot but not out of the realm.

But No. 21? The horse that sneaked into the race at the last moment when Ethereal Road scratched? With odds at 81-1, ignored by betters even though he finished third behind Tiz the Bomb in his last race? This was the horse that destroyed all my carefully laid plans?

It was.

But who cared? Friends of Steve had kept his betting peculiarities going since he died. If we were ever at a track together, we’d place a bet in the last race on the horse with the longest odds. Just before Kathy and I left for the Derby, we had dinner with those friends and agreed to bet the longest odds in the Derby.

That would be No. 21. Rich Strike and Sonny Leon. We had placed a $10 show bet on the horse, which returned $147. Yeah, I lost all my well-planned bets (except for the place and show on Epicenter). But watching this race, having a bet on this uncertain winner and dancing around at the finish was the best race ever.

Thank you, Steve.

After Rich Strike had won the Kentucky Derby.

3 thoughts on “Steve ruined my Derby bets — and saved the day

  1. That is a beautiful tribute to Steve, who was one of a kind! And so are you, John B. We should all have a friend like you!

    Like

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