Commentary

A Metropolitan tale

How to find a winner in a Grade 1 race despite really trying

Updated: May 30, 2013, 12:34 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

"So who's gonna win the Met Mile?" Big Lou tossed the question out there gently, a slow pitch that invited everybody to take a big swing. And then he ordered a round of refreshment that he thought might inspire or lubricate the handicapping process. The swinging began before the refreshment arrived.

"I think Fort Loudon might be worth a small investment here," said Mission Impossible, who always looked for long shots, or horses whose missions seemed to border on the impossible. He put his hands together, and then, over the steeple he formed with his fingers, looked at everyone in turn with great solemnity. "Did you see Fort Loudon's trip in the Carter? He had the one hole."

"Wait a minute, wait a minute, when did the number one post position become tantamount to chicken pox?" interrupted Euclid, whose real name nobody at the track could even remember anymore. He was a numbers guy. Euclid couldn't have picked out a racehorse in a lineup of barnyard animals, but he knew numbers, all sorts of numbers  speed figures, mud numbers, turf numbers, sire numbers, probabilities. To Euclid, playing the horses was like trying to solve a challenging mathematical equation. The problem, as some saw it, was that Euclid's numbers all originated elsewhere; they were made by a committee of elves, for all he knew, or by a computer programmed by a mad scientist. But he had faith in them. "The inside post position can be and usually is a positive factor in any algorithmic assessment of a horse's winning probability," Euclid said. "So far this year at Belmont, horses from post position No. 1 have won 24 percent of all the races run at a mile and longer."

"Well, that's very nice, but the Carter Handicap wasn't a mile. It wasn't longer than a mile. It was seven furlongs," Mission Impossible said, as if moving the football just as it was about to be kicked, Lucy to Euclid's Charlie Brown. "And so your 24 percent becomes irrelevant. But here's the point I was trying to make before I was interrupted: Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, people have had a better journey than Fort Loudon had in the Carter. Checked in the turn, he couldn't get through along the inside, and when the horse in front of him, Consortium I think it was, stopped to a crawl in midstretch, Fort Loudon had to be taken up and swung to the outside. And he still finished fourth, only two lengths behind the winner."

The refreshment arrived, and just in time, too, because Euclid, sensing his approach to the game being attacked, was about to launch into a spiel on the purity and infallibility of numbers, which would prompt somebody to point out that a race is too complex to be reduced to a number, which would lead to somebody else pointing out that there are altogether too many numbers to know which ones even matter; then Mission Impossible would moan that nobody watches races anymore and Buddha Bob would toss up his hands and insist that Zen handicapping trumps all other approaches, and so they probably never would have figured out the Met Mile if not for that tray of sustenance that suddenly appeared in the middle of the table.

"Well, if ya like Fort Loudon," Buddha Bob said, "ya have to love Discreet Dancer. He had some trouble, too, in the Carter, but did ya see that gallop out. After the wire, he passed everybody."

"Yeah, that's what I want," Big Lou said, taking a sip from a cold bottle beaded with moisture, "a hoss that passes everybody after the wire. Can we bet on that -- win, place, show and gallop out?"

"Ya miss the point," Buddha Bob said. "The gallop-out meant he wants more distance, and that's what he's getting today, an extra furlong. This is his moment to shine; this is his time to be a hero; this is where he punches Jabba the Hut in the nose and elopes with Carrie Fisher. I got a feeling about this one, ya know what I mean, on account of Discreet Dancer is unbeaten at a mile, two for two, perfecto. And here's another thing, Todd Pletcher wins at 35 percent when he stretches a horse out from a sprint to a route."

"Since when is a one-turn mile a route?" asked Mission Impossible.

"Since ya stopped walking four miles through the snow to school everyday," said Buddha Bob.

"Fair enough," said Mission Impossible, "but if Pletcher wins 35 percent in these situations, how do you know this horse won't be included in the 65 percent that lose?"

"I'm telling ya, I got a feeling."

Everybody stared at Chilly Pat with something that wobbled between violent outrage and astonished admiration.

"Ok, ya got a feeling, Buddha Bob, and some of yous guys have an opinion," said Big Lou, who once beat a professional boxer in a barroom brawl after spotting him two punches and a pool cue. "That's all very good. But I got something better. I got inside information."

The table went quiet. Everybody set his refreshment down and focused his attention on Big Lou, who spread his hands out on the table, palms up, so that they seemed to be huge, beseeching placemats.

"They like the five hoss today, Swagger Jack," Big Lou said, and everybody scrambled to get a look at a Daily Racing Form for some refreshing of the memory. Swagger Jack, of course, was the upset winner of the Carter and a winner in three of his last five outings. After the Carter, he returned to his Calder home in Florida, and now he was back in New York for the Met Mile.

"So they like Swagger Jack. That's nice, but who's 'they' exactly?" asked Mission Impossible.

"The connections," Big Lou said, in a cryptic whisper, as he leaned over the table.

Euclid looked down at his Racing Form again to see just who these connections were. "You know Marty Woolfson?" Euclid asked, referring to the trainer.

"No," Big Lou said, "but I got a friend whose brother knows one of the owners. "And they like the horse today."

"Here's a nickel," Mission Impossible said, tossing a coin onto the table. The coin clanged against a bottle, ricocheted, rolled a few inches and fell over on its side in front of Big Lou.

"What's da nickel for?" Big Lou asked, nodding at the coin.

"That's what your inside information is worth," Mission Impossible said. "By the way, you owe me four cents change. Look, connections for all nine of these horses probably like their chances. That's why they entered."

"The horses are on the track, gentlemen," announced Euclid. "Time's short. We have to decide whether we're going to do something together here or go our separate ways. Personally, I think Flat Out is a standout. All the numbers agree. He has the big fig, no matter what number you look at, and he loves Belmont Park."

"Yeah, of course, Flat Out; he's the favorite. But what about Cross Traffic?" Buddha Bob said. "He finished a head behind Flat Out in the Westchester. If ya like one ya gotta like the other."

"That was the best race of Cross Traffic's life, and he still didn't win," Euclid said, with his usual certitude. "Today, Cross Traffic will bounce like a helium-filled basketball."

"That's it, I think I have it now," said Chilly Pat, who had sat, well, chilly throughout the entire discussion. An investor who counts on most people being wrong most of the time, Chilly Pat always sails into the wind. "You know," he continued, "together you fellas make one great handicapper. You have everything covered  the numbers, the trips, the angles, even the mystical. But independently you're hopeless. So here's what I figured out: Mission Impossible, you like Fort Loudon, number four; Buddha Bob, you like Discreet Dancer, number two; and Euclid, you, of course, love Flat Out, number six. That totals 12. And 12 -- with all due respect to Big Lou's admirable efforts and his willingness to share -- minus the misleading inside information of number five, Swagger Jack, equals seven, who I believe is Sahara Sky."

Everybody stared at Chilly Pat with something that wobbled between violent outrage and astonished admiration. After a fraught moment, Euclid, whose eyes had suddenly gone red, was first to speak.

"That makes sense to me," he said, nodding. "Yes, the numbers obviously support that, although the algorithm might be rather strange."

"Sahara Sky's good with me," Mission Impossible said. "He had a nightmarish trip in the Carter, and he's 9-2. I can accept those odds."

"Ya know," Buddha Bob said, "funny ya should mention Sahara Sky. I had a feeling about him."

"Excellent," Chilly Pat said. "And if we couple him in exactas with Cross Traffic, rejecting the erroneous basketball assumption, I think we might really have something."

Sahara Sky won by a nose over Cross Traffic, with the exacta paying $77. And that's how they hit the Metropolitan Handicap.