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?
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.
Right out of the gate, our trip to the Kentucky Derby took an unexpected turn. We had left Missoula, MT, planning to go to Glendive, MT, and then across North Dakota, when our friend in Missoula texted this picture from the North Dakota Department of Transportation:
Maybe South Dakota would be a better choice. Not that we are afraid of driving in snow. Especially in my Dodge Ram truck with four new all-weather tires that cost more than my first car. But we are not in the truck. Because of high gas prices, we decided the Toyota Camry hybrid was a better choice. And for gas prices, it has been. For snow, not so much.
Once we crossed out of the land of high gas, house and food prices in the state of Washington, we have not found any gas stations that charge above $5 per gallon as in the Evergreen State where filling the 24-gallon tank in the truck cost more than $100. Wattabout $5 per gallon? Mostly they have been under $4 per gallon: $3.86 in Bonner, MT. $3.96 in Hardin, MT. $3.88 in Kadoka, SD. But the cheapest gas so far has been at the Pony Express at the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, IA: $3.75 per gallon (more on the WinnaVegas in the next post).
Detouring to South Dakota meant a long day of driving before we reached Deadwood, SD, home of Wild Bill Hickok’s fatal card game. We avoided the deadly casinos and stayed in a slime plant. The slime plant did have a casino, which we avoided, and is a hotel built in what used to be a plant that processed gold slurry (known as “slime”) from the mines in nearby Lead, SD. The plant closed in 1973, and in 2010, a group of preservationists and businessmen decided to save the building by opening a hotel there. Nice rooms for $119; dining and gambling inside the building. Looking down on the main part of Deadwood, we could see the melting drifts of snow that were left over from what must have been a winter with many snow storms. Fortunately, the roads across South Dakota were dry and bare of snow as we continued the next day.
The lobby of the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Ark., serves many purposes. It’s the spillover seating for the bar off to the side. There’s a band shell for music and evening dancing, and during the day it serves as a waiting room for those checking into this majestic and old – mostly old – remnant of the late 19th Century.
The clerk who helped me check in was enthusiastic about all Hot Springs had to offer, although he mostly rained on my ideas for a one-day visit here. Hot springs out in the wilds? No, all the waters have been long ago captured and fed into spas and bath houses. The only place on Bath House Row that still offers “waters” is the Buckstaff Baths. There are spa offerings available at hotel, which did not fit into my schedule.
What’s the most popular activity for people to do at this national park? Get out and take a hike, see the natural beauty of Arkansas. Would it match the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest?
Let’s face it, I was only being polite. The clerk didn’t need to feel bad about my refusal to engage in hiking or taking in the waters as he suggested. My real reason for coming to Hot Springs was to attend the races at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
I bought a Daily Racing Form (DRF) at the front desk (how many hotels can you do that?) and walked off to my room with the paint peeling from the walls. Clean, but old – mostly old. Studied the form and then headed down Saturday morning to the best use of the Arlington lobby. Every morning before the races, Eddie “Pick 6” Pannell offers his advice on the day’s card.
He starts out asking if anyone in the crowd bets horse according to the horse’s names. A few raised their hands, and I could have held up a finger or two since it is something I rarely do. But once in a while a name pops up so much like mine that I can’t pass it up. On those races, I accept that I will bet the name, the urge so strong that it will bias my handicapping so much that I can’t get through the past performances without going back and confirming my namesake has the best chance of winning, three-legged horse or not. I settle for the name and hope for the best, which hardly ever comes my way. Johnny Five? How could I pass on that? A moderate bet for a two-dollar bettor like me, and the horse veers immediately out of Seattle’s Emerald Downs starting gate, unseats his rider and hits the rail, rolling over it into the infield. Could be a horse high jumper, but in Thoroughbred racing that is DNF: Did Not Finish. (Next time Johnny Five ran, he won and paid $8.80, and I was nowhere near a track or off-track betting).
Never follow my bets. I could not do what Pick 6 was doing, offering tips on four-legged animals who seem to do what they want not what the Daily Racing Form says they should. I’d feel too guilty about anyone who took my handicapping advice and then a subsequent financial bath.
Pick 6 warned us about betting names and omens:
“I woke up right at five o’clock in the morning, looked out my window and saw five bluebirds singing on the telephone line. I was on the fifth floor of the hotel in Room 555. I put on my pants and found I only had five dollars left to my name. Got out my form and saw that in the fifth race there was a horse named Henry the Fifth. Took the No. 5 bus to the track and used all five dollars to bet on Henry the Fifth to win. Stood in the fifth row up from the rail and watched him come in fifth.”
I paid particular attention to what he said about races two, three and four because I figured on exploring the track on my first visit there, wandering the food stands, restaurants, betting windows and the casino – people watching instead of horse watching. So after a brisk two-mile walk, partly along the Grand Promenade behind Bath House Row, to Oaklawn, I figured I had the info I needed to fill in for what I had not handicapped. I did races one, five through nine, neglecting the last race of the day because it’s usually filled with what’s left over.
Race one went with my pick, Audacious Angel, showing no interest in racing today while Pick 6 Eddie’s choice, Heavens Whisper, won by one and three quarters lengths. I lose eight bucks on that race. OK, I’m a two-dollar bettor but sometimes those two-dollar bets are times four. Looking at Pick 6 Eddie’s winner, I figured I could rely on him to see me through the next three races I had neglected.
What a disaster. Not only did Pick 6 let me down, but the teller at the betting window seemed to be in cahoots to make my day at Oaklawn a bust. Eddie liked Rosemary Beach as one to pair up in the Exacta (betting the top two horses to finish in order) with others he thought would be in the top two. I’m sure I told the teller I wanted #11 (Rosemary Beach) paired with Eddie’s five horses. I’m sure I told the teller I wanted #11 (Rosemary Beach) paired with 1, 2, 5, 7, 10. That would be five one-dollar bets (11 with 1, 11 with 2, 11 with 5, etc) or $10 in bets if you reversed the bet or “boxed” it (1 with 11, 2 with 11, etc), which I did. If the 11 comes in first or second, I collect winnings, hoping for the longest odds to pair up with Rosemary Beach to enhance the payoff. Instead, the teller seemed to have written it as all six horses boxed together, or something like that. I still can’t figure out how my $10 bet ended up costing $30. Maybe I did not speak Arkansese well enough. Like the sign says at the window, “Always check tickets before leaving.”
I did not.
The #12 (Dabinawa Dove) came in second to Rosemary Beach, and Pick 6 Eddie had overlooked this 68-1 long shot who had only run one race so poorly it earned no Beyers points (you can look that up). The Exacta paid $56.80, the Trifecta (top three horse in order) paid $325 and the Superfecta (top four horse in order) paid $595. And we had not a cent of any of it. Only a dove would bet that horse.
I had not abandoned all hope in Eddie just yet. He had suggested another bet that seemed worth doing – betting the 50 cent Pick 3, naming the winner in three consecutive races. Put in three horses in each race as possible winners and the total bet is $13.50 (my two dollar bet times 6.75), but the payoff, Eddie said, could be grand if something other than a favorite won one of the three races. My picks for races 2, 3 and 4 were (11-7-1) with (8, 6, 5) with (2, 4, 5). Rosemary Beach came through in the second, Frost or Frippery won the third and all I needed in the fourth race, thanks to Eddie, were to see Trail Boss, Wild Haven or French Dancer cross the line first. Eddie did not recognize the worth of #3, Ludington, who won the fourth race and had me down $51.50 after four races, the Great Recession all over again for a wayward two-dollar bettor.
What would the Pick 3 pay? Who cared? I had none of it, although Eddie and I got two thirds of the way through it before our trio refused to play along. Maybe if I used his bets with my horses. I could climb out of this recession with a few wins, which, as soon as I thought it, struck me as the losing gamblers’ fatal flaw and phrase: ”Stay and win back my losses,” which usually means losing everything in your pocket and, hopefully, never have an ATM card anywhere near you.
There’s always some truth in those sayings about what the “normal” gaming addict would do: Like bet $22 on the next race and win $10.80, a normal routine for me at the racetrack. Flatoutcountry came through to win, but all my horses in my exotic bets (Exacta, etc) never made the tote board thanks to Flashy Biz at 14-1 and Letters to Belle, which “couldn’t last,” according to the DRF. In it’s last race, a DNF and 0 in Beyers. Never finished better than sixth. Will the one person named Belle stand up and share some of the money they won on this 47-1 horse?
Down another $12 and figured out what I could lose: no more than $100 or I would have to check out of the Arlington and sleep in the truck.
In for $10.40 in the race with all depending on B.B. Dude, running his first race since getting gelded. Always bet those horses since now they can keep their minds on racing. The Dude did not abide. He finished sixth, perhaps fretting over love’s labors lost.
We’re up in the 70-dollar range now in money lost, $73.10 to be exact, although they say to never count your money at the table, especially if doing so makes you want to faint or break down weeping. But I bucked up, or maybe start that “uck” word with an F. Time to go all in or go home. Into the seventh race we march, armed with a win ticket on Box of Chocolates and a 10 cent Superfecta boxed filled out by Better Charge It, Kinetic Swagger and Rocknroll Rocket. Plus, we have renewed Eddie’s Pick 3 idea for races seven, eight and nine. In for a total of $27.50, including the Pick 3. We’re 60 cents over saying goodbye to a Ben Franklin, and thank God I have legs enough and don’t need bus fare to walk to my overnight accommodations in my truck.
Eddie had liked Box of Chocolates because of breeding (by Candy Ride – the sire – out of Lady Godiva – the mare). When talking in the Arlington lobby, he hadn’t said anything about breeding until handicapping the seventh race. He said he mostly used it when judging first time starters. This is what he said about breeding:
“Three people were sitting in a bar, each having a glass of wine. When the Frenchman noticed a fly in his glass, he drank the wine right down. When the Englishman saw a fly in his wine, he ordered the waiter over and said this was an abomination and demanded another glass. Then the Irishman noticed a fly in his wine. He immediately reached in, grabbed the fly by its hindquarters and held it over the glass, shouting, ‘Spit it back! Spit it back!’”
That’s what I know about horse breeding.
I liked Box of Chocolates for having the best Beyer numbers in the field at this distance (a mile) and at this level: Maiden race for 3-year-olds with $47,000 in purse money. Also drew the top jock at the meet, Ricardo Santana, Jr.
Whether breeding, best Beyer, top jock or all of the above, Box of Chocolate won, and the supporting cast in my Superfecta also played their parts very well, making it into the top four places. Payoff for that race was $27.09, just 41 cents short of what I needed to cover my bets, including the Pick 3, which as still alive and now paid for.
We’re only down $73.51, but almost winning back what I bet seemed almost even. What would it take to make me even? Eddie asked that question once to another top handicapper he knew. “How far ahead are you?” the handicapper asked right back.
I had No. 3 to win (Bebop Shoes. Who could resist?) in the eighth. Not just for the name, of course, I rarely do that. First, second and third in the last three races, including a stakes for $100,000 and two races at $83,000. The race today is an allowance (you can look it up) for $91,000, and Bebop Shoes has won at a higher level with higher Beyers numbers.
He was beaten by a neck by J.E.’s Handmedown. Which turned out to be a good thing. I had bet J.E. Handmedown, with longer odds, in my Exacta, my Superfecta and in my Pick 3, which had one more race to go. Bebop Shoes and J.E. Handmedown paid $21.60 in the Exacta, and the Superfecta completed by Bandit Point at third and Absolutely Aiden at fourth, a horse I had on my loser list – yes, I keep lists. I had seen his last race when he came in eight out of eight, fading badly from an upfront position. Pannell was high on him because of his first-time-starter win at Saratoga. I included him reluctantly after someone in the Arlington lobby that morning said he saw the loser race and thought he saw the saddle slip when the horse started going backwards.
I won $85.99, which put me $2.08 ahead. As much as I wanted to take credit for this – filling Eddie’s betting system with my horses – I realized that without his backing of Absolutely Aiden in the Superfecta I would have missed the payoff that made me a little bit ahead.
In the ninth race, all I had to do was hope that Nos. 3, 4 or 7 won the race. I didn’t handicap this race because of Classy John, No. 3 in your program. Had to go with him, and forget facing the past performances with a clear head. Back to relying on Pannell’s picks: five of the eight horse in the race got commented on, with this on Classy John: “Maybe. . . maybe, No. 3.” Added his top two with No. 3: Nitrous and Frosted Ice.
Many of the horses in this race had been in prep races for the Kentucky Derby, running in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and other stakes. None of them had moved on to Louisville and Churchill Downs but were here competing in the Bachelor Stakes for $150,000 in purse money. Classy John had come in seventh in the Rebel and no one but someone named John would bet him.
He got to third early in the race and then started falling behind. I watched him fade to fifth and then saw him cross the finish line in sixth. Frosted Ice was nowhere in the top four, and I said out loud, “What happened to No. 4?”
“No. 4 won. Didn’t you see?” said the unknown person beside me who probably was not named John or busy watching No. 3. Turned out that while Classy John was fading, Nitrous was closing the gap from sixth with a half mile to go, to fourth at the start of the stretch and on to win by one and three quarters lengths.
Thanks, Eddie “Pick 6” Pannell, for the $75.50 Pick 3 payoff.
And there was more to come. Pannell had mentioned Valorie Lund as a great trainer. She used to train at Emerald Downs and is, in fact, a great trainer. I might have noticed that if I ever handicapped the last race of the day. But picking this winner would mean overturning some deep-seated belief that horse bettors carry around like ticks embedded in some hidden folds of skin they can’t see; I’ll not say where. Betting Ship it Red, trained by V. Lund, to win added another $12.20 to my wallet for a total winning for the day of $85.78.
A profitable use of the Arlington lobby for that Saturday, and every time I wear my “Bringing Up the Rear” tie that I bought at the Oaklawn gift shop, I’ll thank Eddie “Pick 6” Pannell for my best day at the track and his good advice on horse names, omens and breeding.