Monday, August 5, 2013
By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com
A friend and I had the only live ticket in the last race of a $20,000-something Pick Six pool. We kept this opportunity to ourselves, as jinxed people were all about.
Our horse had the best of everything, save for one element. It had the best speed figure, best trainer, most money won, best bloodline, best jockey, least taped. It lacked only gate expertise.
The horse didn't just break poorly. Sometimes it didn't seem to break at all.
Oftentimes this horse stepped softly from the gate, as though testing the water temperature of a bubble bath. There's no such thing as gate breeding. But there is gate hate. And this horse was like that. The gate crew at a small track didn't help. You know the way major track gate crews wear stylish windbreakers and lock hands and firmly but gently push a horse's rump into the starting spot? At this place, it was as though gate work was a person's third job of the day, little experience required. They stopped just short of banging garbage can lids together to move a horse forward.
It was like our horse thought upon entering his gate spot: Finally, a little peace and quiet. Now I can catch a few winks.
The horse carrying our $20,000-plus, which was at least double what he was worth, was a co-favorite with a cheap speedball whose style never varied: Go as fast as possible, ride the rail, hope for the best for a change.
Our horse appeared genuinely afraid of the starting gate on this, only his hundredth time in it, or so one imagined, given the extra schooling he must have had. The horse seemed to think that the gate was about to eat him whole, that it was a torture chamber full of pipes and yahoos yelling profanities.
Jockeys at this place could do one thing great: Come off horses like paratroopers. If a fly landed on a horse's nose, off might come the rider. The jockey hopped off this time out of habit.
"Scratch him, scratch him," I began yelling from the rail, preferring now that our chance to win be switched to the cheap speed, who was sitting in the gate like he was about to be paroled from prison.
"He'll quit," my friend said of the speed.
Of that there was no doubt.
"But where?" I kept asking.
My friend pointed to a spot too near the finish line.
I could have sworn our horse broke out the back of the gate and waited until the tractor pulled it out of the way before it started to run.
The cheap speed was contested only by the breeze and built a huge lead over our horse, who began weaving around holiday parade stock down the backstretch. I have looked at film of this race many times and have computed that we ran approximately 10 more lengths than the one out front.
It was gallows humor at the end, the speed horse floating out like driftwood, the jockey continually looking behind while probably wondering where everybody was, ready to bail at a moment's notice; our jockey moving inside and back out and back in for no reason whatsoever; our horse seeming to mix lead feet; the photo light coming on at the end, and staying on and on and on; our jockey pointing me out to a security guard; a steward probably doing the same.
The record showed we lost by next to nothing.
About everybody but a few grandparents had the consolation payoff.
The chart of this race is on a wall in my office along with this cut out in big newspaper letters, like a ransom note: NEVER AGAIN!
This reminder to never let uncontested speed beat me out of good money has paid off three times so far at the frilly Saratoga meet, whose crowds of fresh faces and nice clothes, men and women together at the races, make horse racing seem like the boom sport of the decade.
Uncontested speed lasts longer in good horses.
I have cashed three tickets because lead speed held, contending speed quit, and closers got up for second.
Lose and learn.
Our horse appeared genuinely afraid of the starting gate on this, only his hundredth time in it.