May 19, 2022

Off Track: Or, What I Did with $100

by Guinotte Wise

Warning: I’ll tell you right up front, I booby-trapped this rather meandering essay with a silly Broadway tune that, once absorbed into your already crowded headspace, will remain there to annoy you for a long, long time. Maybe always. I still haven’t gotten rid of it. When I wrote this piece, I had to look up a book or two that I had read on horse race handicapping, to get the authors’ names right, and during the search, there it was—I Got the Horse Right Here: Damon Runyon on Horse Racing.

Something clicked into place when I saw that title, something from many years ago. I’m not a Broadway tune guy, though I’ve been known to, on occasion, break into a phony basso profondo of “Ooooooo-klahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain….” That is, if I’m sure I’m alone. Only the dogs get treated to this, on a pasture and woods walk. They know me for the total nerd that I am and love me despite my uncoolness. Dogs don’t care.

What clicked? Damon Runyon plus Guys and Dolls plus a song I thought I’d forgotten but, like a chicken pox virus, had lain in wait. This link will bring you to a video of what I’m talking, humming about. It’s a song that crawls into you, and grows. In you, not on you. While it’s much more benign than Covid, you’re still the host to something, if not malarial, that’s as hard to shake. Thank Frank Loesser.
I got the horse right here,
The name is Paul Revere,
And here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear,
Can do,
Can do,
This guy says the horse can do,

And so on and on in a bunch more verses and can-do’s, without drawing an apparent breath in its falling gracefully down the stairs catchiness. Got it? Good. I will now proceed with my tale.

 
I’m not a gambler; not a good one anyway. My Uncle Pete was. Reno Pete. My earliest recollection of Pete was of him pouring concrete splash blocks for gutter drains and stacking them on a flatbed truck at my grandmother’s. It was not a rural setting. This was Mr. and Mrs. Bridge territory over by Ward Parkway in Kansas City. A short walk to the spectacular Rose Garden in Loose Park or a stroll past the Russell Stover manse. His enterprise was not looked upon favorably by neighbors.

Pete used part of the vacant lot next door to form and pour these things, then when they set up, he’d take them out of the form and pour some more. My guess is he’d talked his folks (my maternal grandparents) into using their backyard and the vacant lot to start a business. Their yard man didn’t like it, not one bit. The mixing mess and the cement dust interfered with his plans. The yard man’s name was Ras (pronounced Ross) and the story was that he was a displaced Arabian prince. I believed it. I was maybe ten, and thought it a marvelous story, that my grandparents’ lawn was watched over by Arabian royalty. Of course, Ali Baba and Aladdin books had figured into my thinking.

Pete and Ras got into it, verbally, and I was crestfallen; two of my favorite people were at odds and both had solid arguments to back up their angry words. I put my hands to my ears and ran to the below-ground garage with Rusty, the old Cocker Spaniel, who also preferred a more peaceful atmosphere. The driveway wound around behind the house and led down to the large garage. It was a wonderful smelling cavern: oils, gasoline, cleaning fluids. It was Ras’s HQ as he did several properties in the neighborhood and he kept his equipment here; push mowers, shrub clippers, grass whips and the like. It also housed my grandfather’s black Lincoln Zephyr. This was maybe 1948. Things seemed simpler then. It wasn’t Ras’s wrath that made Pete reconsider the splash block business. My educated guess is Pete encountered a poor effort-to-dollar ratio. Shortly after this he became a full time gambler, horses his specialty, his job, while poker and craps were diversions.

was never lazy. After his stint in the Army Air Corps, he’d helped build airstrips in Tangier, Morocco and other far flung places in the hegemonic race for postwar territorial advantage. He’d worked in the Louisiana oil fields and was a roughneck in the crew that brought in the largest gusher in the world at that time, an H. L. Hunt enterprise. He’d raced motorcycles on flat tracks and done well at it. But he also had a head for figures, honed at The Colorado School of Mines, and that dovetailed with a love for horse racing. Pete told me he had a “system.” He became a handicapper, keeping dry and muddy track statistics, speed ratings, owners, trainers, jockeys, last and recent wins, and he bet accordingly. He made a living at it. Of course, no successful handicapper relies solely on a system—gut instinct is part of it. As Ted McClelland points out in Horseplayers, Life at the Track, “It has to be developed by watching thousands of races and losing thousands of dollars until, eventually, you have a feel for the tote board, the way a guitarist has a feel for the next note, the way a carpenter has a feel for just how hard he should press his chisel against the lathe to winnow a perfect table leg.” Pete had that innate skill and, against all odds, he made a living at the track, mainly Caliente in Tijuana. He finally moved there, enjoying the last thirty years of his life. Pissed off at a DUI he had got in San Diego, he told me, “A sawbuck to the officer in Tijuana and you’re on your way again.”

nickname back then was Butch, and a girl I knew from Little Rock had bet on a horse named Butch’s Dream at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Pete was in town about then, and I asked him if he knew the horse. He consulted a well-worn leather notebook and read me the stats. Stride on turf. Stride on dirt. Race lengths the horse liked. Muddy or dry. All sorts of info. Clearly, Pete had found his métier.

When Derby Day rolls around I always get a little quickening of the senses. My folks used to have Derby parties, and one year Pete was there. He took bets from those who wanted to wager, passed them along to his bookie. There was no off track betting at the time, no legal OTB. Pete was usually at the big stakes races. I still have a win ticket from Churchill Downs in 1955 that Pete got signed by Diamond Jim Moran. They used to pay British royalty $10,000 to attend the Derby. Moran got $50,000. Runyonesque. (I got the horse right here….)

I think fondly of Pete as Derby Day nears and, the last few years, I’ve won hypothetical money on win bets, trifectas and some admittedly wuss across the board bets. Then I would ignore the Preakness and Belmont Stakes other than to see if there was a triple crown winner.
 

This year I decided to put some money on the three races, or at least the first one if I lost it all on The Derby. Minimal research guided me to Twinspires.com, an online betting resource with a good reputation. They offered a $100 sign-up bonus but I bypassed that, suspecting strings, and put $100 of my own into my betting balance: half for me, half for my wife. Then I began checking out the probable Derby horses, their trainers, jockeys, past races and weather forecasts for Churchill Downs. I did a bunch of work leading up to the race and, on Derby Day, I bet some exactas and one or two longer odds horses. I also placed some across the board bets. My wife? She picked a Baffert and a Pletcher, money on the nose and to place. “I don’t go for all that exotic stuff,” she said, “all those triplectas or whatever.” She won. I mainly lost except for a place bet on Hot Rod Charlie in an across the board bet. She had Medina Spirit at 12-1 to win and Mandaloun to win, place or show. So we had about eighty bucks to wager on the Preakness, thanks to her.

My wife had lost interest in the other races, so I doubled down on my latent handicapping knowledge, gleaned one season at Omaha’s Aksarben track, a track so iffy it wasn’t even listed in Las Vegas. This was in the Sixties. Back then I was a field engineer for a paving company and spent all my days outdoors at various jobs, figuring the yield on concrete pours. I also spent time at Aksarben, as did some of my colleagues. To make that season-long story shorter, I did a lot of figuring, slide-rule work, hand calculator figures, and filled several yellow lined pads with figures. At the end of the season I was ahead twelve dollars. That was because, on the last day, a field superintendent told me to bet Wise Boots to win. He was connected, so I did. Ten bucks to win. Wise Boots ran at 8-1 and my thought, as he crossed the wire five lengths ahead of the closest horse, was why didn’t I bet $100? Because I didn’t have it; $100 back then was like $1,000 now. But the horse covered some losses. I never placed another (horse) bet.
 

That is, until the 2021 Derby. That atavistic Reno Pete gene surfaced and Hot Rod Charlie called to me. I bet him to win. Later he looked even better when Baffert’s horses were pulled, in a controversial decision by the racing officials, moving Pletcher up a notch to winner and Hot Rod Charlie to third, or show position. But Hot Rod Charlie was not to run in the Preakness. That race sneaked up on me anyway. Unprepared, I bet feebly. Low odds horses that ran at even lower odds. One or two silly bets. I came out less than even and vowed to up the ante in the Belmont Stakes. Of the original hundred, I was down to about $50.

As Belmont neared I did some homework. Only eight horses were running, Hot Rod Charlie among them. (I got the horse right here…) The longest odds horse, at 30-1, was France Go de Ina, the Japanese entry. Belmont was offering Japanese entries a million dollars more if one of theirs won. So the incentive was there and, I reasoned, they wouldn’t have brought a horse all the way over if they didn’t think they had a chance at it. This awkwardly-named horse was a beauty, and I was drawn to the three-year-old chestnut, even though he’d “thrown” an exercise rider in May. I looked up this particular workout and viewed it several times. It looked to me as though the rider stepped off the horse, but what do I know. Maybe it was a workman’s comp deal. Anyway, I was pretty thorough in checking all eight contenders’ last few wins, losses and Beyer speed records, and wouldn’t have bet the race had it been, say, at Aksarben years before. But I was determined to bet the Triple Crown, whoever was running.

History, you old teacher, you. I did bet ten across the board on France GDI for $30. Bye bye $30. France ran dead last. No one paid jack.

Order Horse Win Place      Show
1 Essential Quality $4.60 $3.00      $2.60
2 Hot Rod Charlie $4.10      $2.90
3 Rombauer      $3.50
4 Known Agenda
5 Bourbonic
6 Rock Your World
7 Overtook
8 France Go De Ina (Or, France Went De Ina)

The win/place/show horses’ numbers were Essential Quality 2, Hot Rod Charlie 4, and Rombauer 3. And, I had bet some trifectas. 2-3-4 for $6, 4-3-2 for $6, and 2-4-3 for $6. Or so I thought. When I looked up my $200 plus “winnings,” I was dismayed to see I had only a $17.50 balance. Then I retraced my bets. Instead of betting 2-4-3, I had bet 4-3-2 twice. My fault. I meant to bet 2-4-3, but screwed up. Coulda woulda shoulda is the bête noire of bettors. So is, “thought I did, coulda sworn….”
 

I was left with that sad balance of $17.50 in my TwinSpires.com account. I waited until I finished this essay to blow it, so that you would know the end result of my hundred bucks. Now, if you’ll indulge me, this final portion of the essay deserves present tense treatment, to give you the real feeling. Logging on, I see a race at Churchill Downs in nineteen minutes to post. I see only one trainer name I recognize: Assmussen. It’s an allowance race (usually broken maiden but not ready for stakes) and the horse’s name is Excession. Ricardo Santana Jr. is the jockey, speed number is 87, up there with the favorites. Boom. $5 across the board for $15 of the $17.50. Six minutes to post. Leaves me a $2 bet. Let’s see what happens. He’s number 6 in the gate.

Oops, I did it again. I have this problem with numbers. In my haste I bet number 4, a horse named Gigging. Saez up. Cano, trainer. Odds 11-1. Just went to 13. Now at 12. Someone likes him. Same speed numbers as Excession.

Results: neither Excession nor Gigging in the money. Here goes nothing. Or rather here goes my last two bucks. Churchill Downs again. Novel Squall to win. (I saw a race with Novel Squall, Oaklawn, where she was last, took the rail in a tight position, won. A big wow, that race.) No time to research, post is ten minutes. Novel Squall is the long odds at 14. $2 to win. Hey, this could get me back in the game. Come on, One! (This time I’m betting the horse’s actual number instead of the profit line odds, being nine. Now she’s at ten to one. Nine to one. Eight. Jeez, lots of folks betting her. Four minutes to go. Back up to ten to one. Tip sheet says “clocker special.” (Fast workout in the last few days.) She’s in the rail position to start, and liked the rail in that Oaklawn win. And they’re off!

Novel Squall ran third, but heckuva try. Good race actually. So this essay cost me $99.50 and didn’t cost you a cent. Guess who the real winner is here.

Uncle Pete, where is that handicapping DNA when I need it? Oh well. I’ll always have… the horse right here. His name is Paul Revere. And there’s a guy who says if the weather’s clear…. You know what? Here’s the whole thing: “Fugue for Tinhorns.”

I got the horse right here,
The name is Paul Revere,
And here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear,
Can do,
Can do,
This guys says the horse can do,
If he says the horse can do,
Can do,
Can do
Can do.
Can do,
Can do,
This guy says the horse can do
If he says the horse can do,
Can do,
Can do.
For Paul Revere I’ll bite,
I hear his foot’s all right.
Of course it all depends if it rained last night.
Likes mud,
Likes mud,
This “x” means the horse likes mud,
If that means the horse likes mud,
Likes mud,
Likes mud.
I’ll tell you Paul Revere,
Now this is no bum steer,
It’s from a handicapper that’s real sincere.
This guy says the horse shows class,
Can do,
Can do,
Paul Revere,
I got the horse right here.
I’m picking Valentine,
‘Cause on the morning line,
This guy has got him figured at five to nine
Has chance,
Has chance,
This guy says the horse has chance,
If he says the horse has chance,
Has chance,
Has chance.
I know it’s Valentine,
The morning works looks fine.
Besides the Jockey’s brother’s a friend of mine.
Needs race,
Needs race,
My friend says the horse needs race.
If he says the horse needs race,
Needs race,
Needs race.
I go for Valentine,
‘Cause on the morning line,
The guy has got him figured at five to nine.
Has chance,
Has chance,
This guy says the horse has chance.
Valentine,
I got the horse right here.
But look at Epitaph,
He wins it by a half,
According to this here in the Telegraph,
Big threat,
Big threat,
This guy calls the horse big threat.
If he calls the horse big threat,
Big threat
Big threat.
And just a minute boys,
I’ve got the feed box noise,
It says the great grandfather was Equipoise.
Shows class,
Shows class,
This guy says the horse shows class,
If he says the horse shows class,
Shows class,
Shows class.
So make it Epitaph,
He wins it by a half,
According to this here in the Telegraph.
Epitaph
I got the horse right here.

Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: Frank Loesser
Fugue for Tinhorns lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.