Updated: September 24, 2012, 5:37 PM ETBy Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com
Horse racing has redefined the impossible."Impossible" in sports means next to impossible. The impossible in baseball is when a pitcher batting .050 hits a grand slam with two out in the bottom of the ninth to win a critical game. The impossible in college football is when a USC quarterback does consistently well in the NFL. The impossible in the NBA is Cleveland defeating Miami in the playoffs. The impossible in tennis is a USA male winning a major. The impossible in golf is Tiger hitting three straight fairways with drivers. The impossible in motor sports is Danica finishing on the home stretch with the winner. The impossible in horse racing is more familiar. The mostly impossible happens daily. The nearly impossible happens hourly. An impossible winner in a horse race takes your money and leaves players in a mood for something that offers a more reasonable chance of winning, like, Keeno or three-card monte. Nothing drives newcomers to the pari-mutuel wagering game away faster than when a horse that can't win wins by eight. I recently took a married couple to the races, the second time they had wagered on horses. I spent 45 minutes going over a race top to bottom, explaining what mattered and what didn't, detailing the perils of the obvious, looking for clues that might evade the average antsy horse player. The husband and wife and I put a total of a hundred bucks in play and watched in stunned silence as a 25-1 impossible horse won for fun, but not our fun, somebody else's. As I explained to the newcomers to horse racing that patience was an important handicapping characteristic, and that these inexplicable occurrences evened out over time, they collected their things and went to a casino for some spins on slots that seemed to make more sense. Far and away the parties held most responsible for impossible horse racing wins are crooks, trainers who use unnatural means to achieve success. When a horse with lousy form wins by ten, it's automatic to hear in off-track joints across the land, "They got us again, the cheaters put another one over." But sometimes impossible wins have recurring elements that suggest there might be more than crookedness to some big-number wins. Here's an example of what might be only 90 percent impossible on the horse race track. It's when horses that have run against one another come back to race together again at wildly varying odds: with the animal at the longest price winning. According to my notes (with skulls and crossbones in the margins), defeated horses come back to win against animals that had beaten them with surprising frequency. Obviously, horses that defeated others by small margins are particularly vulnerable to turnarounds. That's because animals and bad jockeys aren't consistent. But sometimes the rematches involve reversals of considerable amounts of ground. Look at this one. A horse that was 3-1 runs a solid third. One in the same race that was 8-1 runs closer to last than first. So in three weeks they come back and compete against each other once more. The one that had been 3-1 is now favored. The one that had been 8-1 is now 20-1. And the 20-1 horse moves swiftly from last to first down the lane and wins like there was nothing to it. And you could almost hear newcomers to the sport and to the wagering game collecting their belongings, crying foul, tipping five percent, and heading somewhere else for a better bet, like a scratch-off lottery card. Here's the thing. They're animals. Here's something else. One race shouldn't matter too much. Write to Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org.