The Sure Thing: Saratoga Race Course

They met during a veterinary school exam at a horse stable in California many years ago — my aunt unsure of exactly what to do, the trainer working in the stable offering words of advice.

My aunt introduced this trainer to her brother (my uncle) and they’ve spotted her at various tracks for years. The most recent encounter was surely going to be the most profitable.

“I trust her,” my uncle said of this trainer after bumping into her at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. “She told me to stay away from a horse and it came in ninth.”

OK, so she can pick losers. Big deal. I can do that, and prove it every time I go to the track. In fact, I’d estimate I pick loser at a 95 percent clip.

After warning my uncle about one horse, she gave him a tip on another — a surefire winner for a race on Thursday. None of the horses in this race had ever raced before, so there were not prior results to study. But she had told my uncle that this horse was a “monster in the morning,” meaning he had impressed in his morning workouts.

My aunt was less enthusiastic when she heard about this tip, saying, “She’s never given me a winner.” When my uncle hears this he is not discouraged. “She’s due,” he says. As if to validate her status, he also tells me she can “sit in a box whenever she wants because she knows people.”

So she knows people. But does she know horses? We’re about to find out. Or are we? The rain has forced my younger brother, uncle, and I to abandon our trip to the track and instead go to OTB (off-track betting; a place I used to associate with degenerate gambling addicts, but now view in a much better light). Will the rain affect the race, too?

During the second race, I’m not thinking about the rain. Scrolling across the bottom of one of the televisions mounted on the wall are the scratches for the upcoming races. “Fourth race…Scratched: 1A China…6 Moon Ala Mode…Gelding: 7 Gentlemansapproval.” The phrasing makes me think our horse, Gentlemansapproval, is being scratched. It turns out it is much worse.

When I bring the sad news to my brother and uncle — the “retirement horse,” as my uncle calls him, won’t be racing — I am quickly informed that “gelding” means our horse will simply be without something in the upcoming race. Apparently he was a bit too amped for the race, so his trainers — perhaps my aunt’s friend — decided to castrate him. “This is a good thing,” my uncle assures me.

However, we are worried about the rain moving the race off the grass and onto the dirt. Races are often “taken off the turf” if it gets so wet as to be dangerous. We ask one of the OTB employees and he is confident the race will remain on grass. “It’s only light,” he says, referring to the rain. “It’s clearing up anyway.” My uncle thinks this guy knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t.

Not as bad as you might think.

Fifteen minutes to post, the race is moved to the mud. My brother has already bet (our horse is 16:1), but asks the employee if he can be refunded. His bet is relatively small, so a refund shouldn’t be a problem. “But you’d be pretty mad if you took back your bet and that horse won,” he reminds my brother. “That’s true,” my brother says, and decides to keep his bet.

My uncle and I haven’t bet yet. I decide I’m going to follow him. I don’t know the difference between grass and dirt as it pertains to horseracing, but I trust my uncle’s judgment. He seems skeptical — the trainer’s tip was given with the assumption that the race would take place on grass. This horse — and the rest of the field — has never raced competitively on dirt; they might hate it.

I could sense my uncle’s doubt, but perhaps using the same logic as my brother, he pulled the trigger. I followed suit. After all, this horse was a lock. He was a monster: grass, dirt, concrete — it didn’t matter.

Except that it did matter. The gentleman got out of the gate OK, but after the horses started kicking up mud, he fell back farther and farther. My uncle noticed it right away. “He doesn’t like the mud,” he said before any of the horses had even separated from the pack. “He doesn’t like it at all.”

As the first two horses finished, the TV switched to the finish line camera. After all the horses had crossed — coming into view for a second before disappearing off the screen to the right — the camera held steady. Why? Because all the horses had not finished. Our horse still hadn’t crossed. It seemed like a full minute before it finally did, though it was probably about 10 seconds after the winner. One horse even finished after it did. So it was 7/8.

The post-race write-up says our horse “broke a bit awkwardly, was urged along near the back, raced off the rail on the turn and faltered then was not urged in the final furlong.” That makes it sound better than it was. As I noted, his start wasn’t terrible. He wasn’t “urged” down the stretch because he was already out of contention.

When I told my dad about how the horse didn’t like the mud on his face, he made a good point. “If it were in first, it wouldn’t have gotten any mud on his face.”

Well at least Gentlemansapproval wasn’t alone. All the bettors who backed him had plenty of mud on their faces as well.

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