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Wednesday, April 6, 2005
Cronley: What's wrong with a friendly wager?

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

Welcome new horse players.

It seems to happen every spring, a three-year old son of a dude ranch-type mare emerges from a field of weeds, not dreams, to compete with multi-million dollar Keeneland Sale graduates in a Derby prep race -- the Good 'Ol Boys Stable versus some Sheik  and people fresh to the game drop in to see if they've been missing anything.

One element of horse racing that is frequently treated as being incidental by numerous national media operations is gambling.

On Kentucky Derby day, it's doubtful you'll see a televised feature story about somebody betting blood bank money, or a television feature about somebody pounding an ATM machine, or a feature about somebody betting quarters. What you are apt to see Derby Day is a television feature about one of these standbys: rich owners, sunrise, rich trainers, rich jockeys, Billionaires At Sun-Up is the name of the piece. In what is considered to be the best horse racing motion picture, "Seabiscuit," nobody is even shown gambling, it was as though between races all those people in the stands turned to one another to discuss cloud patterns.

Even when the expert handicappers make picks on television, it's like they're risking toothpicks, it happens a second or two before the post, and nobody ever says what you need to hear, which is: I'm betting a $20 Exacta box, 2-6, everybody to the windows!

To most track people I know, horse racing is about gambling.

We don't play cards to admire the dexterity of a dealer's fingers.

And we go to the races to wager.

From here to the Kentucky Derby, we'll talk gambling, not musculature, and help you become an odds-on choice to lose less than you might have otherwise, losing less, it's the next best thing to breaking even and only twice removed from winning outright.

Some people shouldn't gamble on anything.

An example of a person who shouldn't gamble is somebody to whom a reasonable win isn't enough.

I am an example of somebody who should gamble long and often.

Winning $100 makes me extremely happy.

If it takes a gambling win of around a thousand bucks to get you excited, and you're not wealthy, you're in trouble, you might think about looking into one of those meetings where people drink bad coffee and talk of waking up in pools of vomit and fear and wondering where the money went. True story: I know a man who has no job and is heavily in debt and hit $200 on the slots the other day and put it all back in the machines because he needed to win more. Let me tell you something. Gambling is much harder if you need to win the money. When I win $200 on the quarter slots, I'll stand on my head and turn in a complete circle.

Here's one secret of hanging onto more of your money because you read this today.

A week ago I was at the simulcast joint losing in ways a British golf announcer might tab: diabolical.

I went there to put $20 on a spot, a three-year old that had won at a million to one and was back in a much easier race at a morning line of 15-1. Some players think a horse that beat long odds was a fluke, which is usually true enough with cheap older horses, but, is not always the case with fast and expensive fast animals. Long odds among three-year olds can point to impatient handicappers. This spot-horse of mine went off at 20-1 and was bumped, trapped, cornered, ridden like they were roping calves, and it finished third and should have turned around and bitten the jockey.

Some days you simply can't win, no matter the game, cards through horses. You know it. The waitress knows it. Those holding the dinner reservations know it. The tellers know it. You do everything right and bet $50 to win on a good one in an embarrassing field. It goes off at 6-5 and loses a photo by, and I'm not kidding here, what appeared to be a growth or swelling on the winner's nose. I know horses' noses. You can't lose by unnatural causes. Can you?

Then I lost a $20 show bet on one that misjudged the start and the finish to run fourth at 13-1.

I do realize that I am blessed to be able to write about days like this and be paid a little something, thank you, up there, thank you, thank you, thank you.

After four hours I was down $122 when there came out of nowhere a closer to get second on a $1 Exacta that paid me $95. The inexpensive claiming race was almost comical in its unfolding, eight speed horses, so to speak, speed in this case meaning urgency. You have never seen so many horses stop so suddenly, as though they had come to a huge mirrored reflection of themselves.

The horse that had been next to last won of course.

The horse that had been last by a great margin didn't so much close for second as it stepped deftly around those seeming to marbleize.

The tendency to try to get back all of your losses can turn the well-meaning into prospective junkies.

I walked, down twenty-something.

Some people have never experienced the unique sensation of dropping a few bucks.

Winners, on the other hand, are frequently small losers.