When I was a kid I was obsessed with the Black Stallion series of books. I wanted to be Alec Ramsay and grow up to be a horse jockey and ride an Arabian in the Kentucky Derby. My dad told me that if I was still desperate for a horse by age 14 he’d consider letting me get one; of course (as he knew), by then I’d shelved the Black Stallion books and was busy eyeing up C. Thomas Howell and Rob Lowe on the pages of Tiger Beat magazine.
At any rate, I never got a horse. I now horseback ride maybe once a year, and I had never been to the Kentucky Derby, or any other horse race, for the matter — the Chucks at the Calgary Stampede don’t count — until last weekend.
Horse racing is a big deal in the southern U.S. This time of year everyone is gearing up for the Derby, even the horsey folks in Arkansas. For fun on the weekend people head to Oaklawn Park Race Track in Hot Springs, where you can eat corn beef sandwiches, drink cold beer and bet on the horses.
We went on a gloomy Saturday with my sister Leslie and my brother-in-law Kyle, who were also visiting for Easter. To make the most of our Oaklawn experience, my mom, a horse-races regular, had sent us with “Rick Lee’s Oaklawn Park selections and analysis” from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and also some guy named Terry’s picks, that she printed off the Internet. We had no idea who Terry was, but horse betting baffled us, and we needed guidance in order to lose our money properly.
The tricky thing about putting money on a horse is there is really no good way to predict a winner. Bluesie Brown might be favoured to win the first race, for example, but perhaps she ate too many sugar cubes last night and is feeling sluggish, or maybe Berry, her jockey, went out on a bender and is in no condition to ride. And there’s always the possibility that Little Frilly will “become a logical threat if able to hold form or improve for new trainer Jack Frost,” but then again she might lose it in the homestretch. You just never know. Plus it had been raining so the track was what they call “sloppy.” A game changer.
Some betters liked to wait until the horses were paraded past the grandstand prior to post time. This way, they could see if a favoured horse seemed skittish, or if an underdog was showing well. Or, they could pick a horse based on the rider’s silks.
In the end I came up with a process of triangulating Terry’s, Rick Lee’s and Oaklawn’s picks, and then going with the horse whose name resonated with me. Oddly, it kind of worked (also, I was placing the bet with the lowest risk — $2 across on my horse, which means I’d likely get something if my horse were to win, place or show, depending on the odds). Little Frilly won the first race, Beer Garden placed for me in the second race, Perdido Pass took the third, Would You placed in the fifth and Adaya showed in the sixth. My big disappointment was Runaway Crypto, who evidently does not run well on a sloppy track.
Blake seemed to have no luck picking horses, while Leslie’s technique, to “double down” on two different horses, worked better than Kyle’s “Texas hold ‘em” style of bet (to bet $2 on every horse to win, which actually isn’t allowed. Also, I made up that name).
In the end it wasn’t about the money we won (or, ahem, lost, which was about $20 on the day), it was the fun of betting, watching the race, cheering our horses down the homestretch and seeing a photo finish. And also, our new, southern tradition of toasting our picks by giving a holler, “Woohoo!” followed by a swaller of beer. Mmmm, mmmm … ya’ll.