When I was in high school and later college in Virginia in the 70’s, I started to get into horseracing. I was earlier introduced to the sport and to the concept of betting on horses while watching television every year and the Running of the Roses, the Kentucky Derby. My interest brought me to the Charlestown Race Track in West Virginia, about a 90-minute drive from my hometown of Alexandria. On the hierarchy of tracks across the country, Charlestown was pretty much at the bottom, with most claiming races less than $5,000 and the purse of the feature 8th race rarely exceeding $15,000. Over time as I regularly visited the track and pored over The Daily Racing Form, I started honing my handicapping skills, reading the great classics on the subject by guys like Tom Ainslie, and absorbing what I could reading articles by the ‘dean’ of writers on the subject, Andrew Beyer, who wrote for The Washington Post. I eventually starting going to the two tracks around Baltimore, Pimlico and Laurel, and starting watching all of the Triple Crown races on TV. In fact, in my 20’s I travelled to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes at least 8 times. Make no mistake, I loved horseracing: the whole culture of breeding for speed, training for the big race, the competition and the opportunity to bet and win money. For awhile there I was pretty sure I was developing a handicapping system that was going to make me a lot of cash.
It wasn’t until the late 80’s, however,when I was living in Los Angeles in the late 80’s a few miles from what I think is the greatest track in the United States, Santa Anita, that I REALLY got into horseracing and betting on race horses. After working on Saturday mornings, I would often head out to Santa Anita and play the last four or five races. I would even bring my five year old son along. I have this one vivid recollection one afternoon at the track with him and winning four races in a row! So there I was, with a HUGE wad of cash, exchanging ‘skin’ with my son, but at the same time realizing that I didn’t want to leave him with the impression that all Daddy had to do to make a lot of money was go up to a window and talk to a person on the other side! But such lessons were left for another day.
My betting strategy is pretty straightforward. Following the advice of many professional handicappers, the vast majority of my bets were to 'win’ only; I generally stayed away from the exotics. I also liked to play 'overlays’ (horses whose odds were considerably higher than what the Morning Line said they probably would race at) with out-of-towners who had stellar track records; there is often a local bias against horses coming in from the 'other’ coast, for example, therefore getting fewer bets and higher odds. I’ve actually done pretty well with this specific strategy, whenever it came up, which was not that often.
In 1974 and 1975, as a horseracing fan I got caught up in the incredible story of what was arguably the best female in horse racing history, Ruffian. Born in 1972, the coal black Ruffian won her maiden race in record time and by 15 lengths. She went on to win her first ten races by an average of 8 1/3 lengths, including the Filly Triple Crown. She was virtually unstoppable, and received a growing national following. Even the trainer of Secretariat, Lucien Laurin, suggested that Ruffian might be even better. In the summer of 1975, promoters set up a 'match race’ between that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure, and Ruffian, to be held at Belmont Race Track.
I remember being really pumped up leading up to the race. Both Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure had the same jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, and he was given the option to choose which horse he wanted to ride in the match race. Incredibly, Vasquez choose the filly. The event was nationally televised on July 6, 1975 on a beautiful summer day.
What happened once the race started was one of the worst 'hi-lo’ experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Ruffian struggled to break cleanly out of the starting gate, but quickly got in stride and was neck and neck with Foolish Pleasure within seconds of the race. The first quarter-mile was run in a blazing 22 1/5 seconds. I remember how amazed I was at how the two horses were so close to each other; in her previous 10 races, Ruffian had NEVER been behind at any point of a race. EVER. She wasn’t about to let that happen in this match race; in fact, she started to pull away a bit from Foolish Pleasure for a couple hundred yards. And then, the unthinkable: both sesamoid bones in Ruffian’s right foreleg snapped. The jockey Vasquez tried to pull her up, but Ruffian kept running and running, further complicating an already terrible injury. What we all saw on national TV was Ruffian right hoof 'flopping’ around, as she came to a stop. It was heart-breaking. The TV announcers were stunned. It was awful. Ruffian was carted off in a horse ambulance. Surgery was performed, but when the filly woke up from the anesthesia, she thrashed in her stall and re-injured the leg (back then top horse vets did not have the big pool of water for horses to recover in like Barbaro), and was euthanized, a few hours following the race. Ruffian was gone.
At the time, much was written about how unusual it was for something like this to happen. Over the years, I’ve experienced, both in person and on television, other breakdowns, and tried to rationalize that these were highly unusual events. In fact, there was a time a few years ago when I gave serious consideration to investing in the purchase of one or more horses with the idea of hitting the jackpot and having one of them run in the Kentucky Derby. In fact, I did a fair amount of research about investing in a racing syndicate; several years ago a local radio personality in Milwaukee was part of a syndicate with about 20 other investors, and they had some genuine success with the horse Captain Bodgett that raced and did well in the Kentucky Derby.
But over the past couple of years, I’ve soured on horse racing and no longer see the sport as something I want to devote much time toward. I rarely go to a track, and my online account on YouBet.com has been basically inactive for over a year. The tragedy of Barbaro’s misstep in the 2006 Preakness Stakes certainly affected my thinking.
And fast forward to 2008 and the most recent tragedy involving the filly Eight Belles in this year’s Kentucky Derby, and it’s pretty clear that horseracing has a major dilemma: breeders over the years have been tweaking their business models so that speed trumps over durability. This has been driven by stud and foal fees as much as anything else.
For me, the sad reality is that while I’ll probably continue to watch the occasional race on TV, the whole world of horse racing has a stigma attached to it and I’m no longer comfortable with it. I just don’t know how you correct it. Either you resign yourself to the reality that horses will break down and will be euthanized and it’s part of the sport, or you don’t.