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Monday, February 18, 2013
Illusions

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

You think you've had crazy days?

Somebody I know found a healthy long shot that looked every bit as good as most of the shorter prices in the race.

The fractions on this track were so fast, they looked like typos. And the early speed was quitting like it was running uphill.

The person with the long shot was aware of the late-runner bias and had played a horse that had been breaking hearts for months, closing with just enough promise to lure a bettor back.

This time, the six furlong race set up perfectly, with cheap speed running three across the dirt. The early fractions were almost laughably quick. And there the long shot sat, next to last at the rail, perfect. Then he was one better than next to last. Then sixth, then fifth, about as wide as you could be while remaining on the property.

"I got this," the guy with the good money on the long shot said.

"I don't know," somebody nearby replied. "He's like fifteen wide."

Tiring horses up front began to wobble and look around for a friendly face with an apple. One of the front runners appeared too tired to drift out and seemed to be thinking about sitting down.

And on the long shot came, passing, or rather avoiding, all but one horse that seemed to find a fourth or fifth wind and collect his legs under his body and attempt a straight line to the finish. Though game, the one still in front probably wondered if somebody had moved the point where the race was to end.

The two of them reached the conclusion of the race, one stopping, one going, in one of those dramatic jolts that makes even the casual observer jerk his head back.

"I got it!" the one with the long shot said, whirling around with his fistful of tickets.

"I think the inside horse held on," somebody watching the race on a TV monitor said.

I couldn't tell who had what. TV cameras are up the track a few yards from the finish line, creating the illusion that the outside closer wins most of the tough calls.

"The angle always favors the cheap junk on the rail," the one who thought the inside horse won said.

The guy with the long shot was so happy to have handicapped the race so relatively well that he said he'd bet the doubter a hundred bucks that he had won the race.

"You're on," the guy who thought he was better at camera angles than horses said.

The photo line came on.

I had stopped by the simulcast place to see what the "regular" people thought about the new Derby point system that makes early prep races seem almost irrelevant and races nearest the first Saturday in May seem do or cry. The long and suddenly intimidating road to the Derby tends to make the ten-win-point races seem like glorified workouts, and the 100-win-pointers resemble the gold they are. The new point system makes stuff like the UAE and Louisiana Derbies seem positively righteous. And the two last-minute wild card 20-win point races at Keeneland and Churchill mid-April could be SRO. The point system welcomes late bloomers with open gates, even today's greatest horse ever born, Midnight Lucky, a filly who won her maiden in LA last weekend, smiling all the way.

The people at the simulcast joint thought the new point system was fine.

The guy with the nice long shot lost the photo by an inch. He lost his bets, he lost what he could have won, and he lost the $100 to the railbird on the replay.

Some days.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.