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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My day at the races. And some lessons.

Last Sunday was a really nice day.  So, we wanted to do something outside. I decided that going to the horse races was a good thing to do outside. That didn't go over well at first because horse racing has a bit of a bad image in my house. Ten years of training not very successful horses and losing a fair bit of money because of that would tend to do further that image. But still, there is nothing as satisfying as sitting out in the sun on a hot day in late spring at one of the most visually pleasing racetracks in the world.
Woodbine is really as much a big outdoor garden as a Racetrack.

 After some hemming and hawing, we made our way to Woodbine for our "outdoor" day. 
The first stop was the walking ring. Woodbine has a great walking ring. Even if you know nothing about thoroughbred racing, it is just a spectacle to watch the horses being walked before they go out and compete. Trainers and owners talking about their horse before the race, tiny jockeys waiting to hop on when the call for "riders up" is given and fans lining the rail trying to figure out which horse they might bet on.

This was a horse in the walking ring at Woodbine a few years ago. You get this "up close" look there.

We went to Woodbine to watch the Thoroughbreds. I love the horse races, but I rarely go to the thoroughbreds, mostly because I know very little about it and also they take so long between races. I like the standardbreds, but for a couple of hours once in a while, on a nice sunny day, I don't mind.

We went for fun, but of course there were some lessons. There are always lessons. 

We arrived just before the 3rd race, and those horses were getting ready to be saddled and led to the track. I looked them all over, not knowing anything about any form any of those horses had. I just looked at how they acted and how they appeared to me. I was going to go on that. Of course, I could see the odds board and I am well aware that a horse that is 70-1, no matter how good it looks in the walking ring is not likely to be competitive. So, after my viewing of the horses, I selected the one I liked on appearance and also one who had some reasonable shot, according to the bettors. I actually liked 3 different ones that had decent win odds, but I settled on the one that looked alert yet not over eager.
That horse was the number 3, Classic Bryce. He was 6-1, but then went off at 9-2 on the final odds flip before the horses lept out of the starting gate.
Then, we went to take our seats outside. It wasn't a very busy day, people wise, at the track, so we got good seats. I didn't know it at the time, but the people sitting directly above us were the owners of Classic Bryce. That became apparent as the race was being run and they were cheering for the horse the way that only owners cheer for their horse.
Again, I do know a bit about thoroughbreds, although I don't follow them, but not enough to justify buying the Racing Form. That is also something I have found in the 30 years I have been attending the horse races. You start out knowing nothing, then thinking you know something when you still know nothing, then realizing you never knew anything, even when you thought you knew something, and that the less you know sometimes the better.

Top of the stretch. After a very patient ride, Classic Bryce, in the orange cap and orange shadow roll, is sitting in very tight, waiting for racing room. At this point, he seemed to have a shot, but he was no sure thing.

Which brings me back to my first time ever at the horse races, which was the harness races at Greenwood in August, 1983. Now, it is almost 30 years later. I remember a few things about that night. It was my best friend Mark's 18th birthday that night, and after we went for dinner, he was insisting that we go to the races. I was extremely resistant. I thought I would have no interest in it. I never had before. Even though my family had always had some interest, and I grew up in Montreal, passing the big Blue Bonnets sign just about everyday on my way from my house to my grandmothers.

This was the sign I passed just about every day. At night, it was flashing and was quite a sight. However, I never did go in to the track, and now it is gone. I wasn't a fan of racing in those days.

After some hemming and hawing, similar to my wife on this day, I relented and we went. 
It was also a very nice sunny, warm night as we headed into the track. In terms of the races and the program, I knew nothing. It was all names and numbers to me. In spite of that, I picked 4 winners out of 7 races. I can say with a great amount of certainty, that in the 30 years since that night, I have rarely picked winners at that rate. Again, the more I knew, the worse I got at picking winners. 
My second time at the track, two weeks later with my friend Ian, I did even better. By now, I thought I knew something about what was going on, and I picked 7 out of 10 winners and some exotic bets. I went home with more than $200 profit that night, thinking I had it all figured out. Likely, most of the winners were do to some weird luck I was having. That luck went both ways as time went on.
I remember long losing streaks, where I couldn't pick a winner no matter how hard I tried, and how smart I thought I was. I once went about 2 months, which likely comprised more than 100 bets without cashing a ticket. On the other hand, I once went to Los Alamitos track in Los Angeles, and although I didn't know any of the drivers,  or horses I picked 5 straight winners, none of which were favorites, and made a lot of money. Mostly, that night was simply on the feel I got from the particular horses, and in some instances, I picked a few based on their name. And by then I was smart enough to stop when I was way ahead and not think I was so smart that this was easy and I would not lose it all back. I left the track that night on a high and learned a valuable lesson. 

You are never as smart as you think you are. 
I have sat next to some very novice people attending the track, and many pick simply on the name of the horse, and they win, when all logic suggests the horse is a very bad bet. Then, there are other times when it seems the horse is destined to win, on that night, when you are there, for whatever reason the gods have decided. This past Sunday was just such a day.
Sitting next to the owners as I think of it now 4 days later in retrospect was one of those times when you just find yourself in situations that you know will mesh together into a good story. In this case, the horse had to win, and I was destined to bet on him. No amount of handicapping was going to matter.
Does it ever really matter that much? I sometimes still ask myself that. Being the logical, studious type, I of course still stick to the theory that knowing as much as you can and making betting decisions based on that is the right way to go. But then, I also know that trainers and owners make the worst bettors. So there is that as well.

Classic Bryce, in the center, with the orange cap, just getting up at the end to win the race.

Last fall, I wrote a blog about an incident last summer when a horse I was certain had no chance almost won the race. I couldn't really find a horse to bet on that race, so I told my wife, who has no clue whatsoever what is going on at the track, to pick one. She picked a horse called Intimidate, and although I was certain he had no shot whatsoever, he was inches from the win at the wire, at 25-1. He went on from there to be a very successful horse. I told her not to waste her money, and I was wrong. Because maybe the reasons I used to pick the horses wasn't the right one. And another lesson is this:

When you are wrong, admit that you are wrong.

Sometimes you know nothing, but that is plenty enough. Knowing too much usually means you know not much at all. That is a life lesson I have learned over time. Of course, again, being in the dark and foolish is not advisable, but even the most studious of stock pickers lose their shirt from time to time on the stock market.

My first few times at the track. I knew nothing. And I won, lots. Then I got smarter. And I started to win less. Lots less.

Classic Bryce, in the winners circle. The girl on the far right, in the red top, and the guy just at the horses head with the white shirt were sitting right behind us,  cheering their voices out as the horse came down the stretch.
As I have said, I don't go to the thouroughbreds much. But, I have on occasion. And strangely enough, over the years, I have done very well, in spite or really not knowing much from a handicapping perspective. One incident sticks in my mind.

Back when I was still in high school, I went on a Saturday afternoon to Woodbine with my friend Ian. As we arrived, the horses were already on the track. It might have been my first time at the thoroughbreds. Anyway, one of the horses was named ,Up Pops The Devil. I thought that was a cool name. He didn't seem to have much support, as he was 15-1. But, in addition to his name, I also liked a group called Men Without Hats, and they had a hit at that time called Pop Goes The World. As I looked at the horses name, I could hear that song in my head, and so, knowing nothing, I bet everything in my pocket on him.
And you know how this story ends. He won. And I had enough money in my pocket for a month. Of course, I returned to Greenwood, with all my handicapping skills in tow, and lost all that money and was broke by the time I realized that I was better off betting names as opposed to form. Which brings me to another lesson.

You don't know it all, and you never will. Get used to it.

Sometimes, how the horse looks, or the sound of their name, is the better way to go. It defies all logic. But horse racing, like life, isn't always logical. 
I followed Up Pops The Devil the rest of his career, and he was the favorite the next 3 starts and never got close to winning. 
I think destiny plays a certain role in anything. I was somehow meant to enter the racetrack that night with my friend Mark. I was meant to bet on Up Pops The Devil that day, and that day only, and we were meant to go to Woodbine on Sunday, arrive just for that race, see that horse in the walking ring, sit beside those owners and have him win. No amount of knowlegdge or handicapping was going to matter either way.

1 comment:

  1. This is so heartwarming to read! Luck would have it that I came to own Up Pops the Devil and had him in my family for 15 great years until he passed away at our family farm. We still talk about him to this day about how wonderful he was in so many different ways. He was my best friend through my adolescence as I showed him on the hunter circuit. He always gave everything 100% and overcame many obstacles which taught me the importance of mind over matter. Although spirited, he had such a kind heart and knowing soul. He imprinted on my life and I am so happy to see that he touched someone else's life as well :)


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