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Forgive the win

11/25/2013

Usually people who try to pick the winners of horse races have to explain why they missed something.

The horse had trouble.

It needed the race.

Bad ride.

Bad luck.

The picker had personal issues.

Bad track.

Having to explain a big win is something new; but that’s what I’ve been doing since Breeder’s Cup weekend.

Here’s an inside look at what picking horse races is like. It’s nerve-wracking. A picker is not good company the day of the event. On one morning of some big races, I yelled at an elderly school crossing guard to get out of the way. If you’re picking something like a Breeder’s Cup card, the search for the first win can be agonizing. With each loss, you imagine yourself going 0-14 and having your rotten picks spin viral online. Who cares if you go 1-13 and your one win is odds-on.

Each picker’s prayer is: Just one win.

Here’s what’s particularly difficult about picking in print or on a screen for the Breeder’s Cup: You have to make your selections so early.

You have to make your picks around the middle of the week, before a track bias settles in, before a rider’s or a trainer’s hot or cold streak, sometimes before a horse lopes around the track one last time. True, location, like perception, usually leads to reality. You can pretty much assume that most California horse race tracks are going to run fast and sunny. But picking horses days before the races is a good way to go zero for the Cup one of these years. The most difficult aspect of picking so early is you don’t get the benefits of the selections made by the traditional lousy handicappers. Picking early, you have to try to simulate a bad handicapper mindset and assume he or she will make the obviously terrible selections.

I hit some this year. Hallelujah. You can look it up.

The first one was the biggest. But some readers have contested this victory, and I have spent three weeks explaining the win.

Here’s what happened. In each Breeders’ Cup race, finishers one through four were predicted. But some horses on the Cup card are more unpredictable than is usually the case. The first Breeders’ Cup race was the Marathon, which is to horse racing as the long driving contest is to tour golf. It’s a spectacle, a show. Included in the field for the Marathon were two horses that made no sense whatsoever, one from South America, one from England that had never run on dirt before. It reminded me of my rich small-track handicapping heritage. Here’s a solid Cup angle: Connections don’t usually pay a small fortune to ship a dog halfway around the world. Oddball horses in the Cup can usually run some. When all the horses with form in a race appear to have only a slight chance, and when two from the moon appear to have as good a chance as any, you put the two outsiders on top of everybody else and then throw them out: They win or they don’t run a lick. Significant change is what long shots have in common. The other horse on the Cup card that made no sense was Verrazano, who figured to win easily or stop like the first in line behind a school bus. So I wrote that you should put the two rank outsiders in the Marathon, and Verrazano, on top of all the others, then forget them.

The puzzling horse from England won the Marathon and paid good money for two bucks and All.

Moreover, the one I had next in line in the Marathon ran second and paid more good money.

It was pure luck.

Everybody didn’t know that?