Last week, I was lucky enough to get a pass out for what has become an annual pilgrimage to the Breeders Cup. It was a remarkable trip, taking in a few sights and sounds outside of the racing – as well as all the fun of the Breeders Cup fair, and below are some words and pictures to illustrate the week.
Every trip to the US starts the same: with a long old flight across the pond. I don’t know about you, but I always fret about who I’ll be sat next to for the next eleven hours, and pray that I haven’t been given a middle seat.
Luckily for me, I had an aisle seat. And I was sat next to a charming young lady who explained that she was heading out for the Breeders Cup too. It turned out that the charming young lady was jockey Laura Pike, and that she was riding out – and leading up – I’m A Dreamer, David Simcock’s hope in the Filly and Mare Turf.
We had a good chat about life as a jockey (not all glam), trying to get on (quite tough in such a results-driven business), working at Mr Simcock’s (excellent boss), writing a diary (which Laura did for Racing & Football Outlook), heading to Australia for the winter, and travelling to the States – again – with I’m A Dreamer.
That chin wag, and a bit of kip, shortened what could have been a very long flight, and meant I landed Stateside in good spirits. But I still had a very tight connection window in order to catch my flight – the last of the night – to Las Vegas. At least, I thought it was a tight connection. As it transpired, tail winds and a curiously charitable immigration officer in LA means I actually arrived at the gate for my hour hop across the Sierra Nevada mountains with enough time to quaff an exorbitantly expensive ‘pint’* of Samuel Adams, one of the few pleasant beers mass-brewed over there.
[Note: a US pint is 473 millilitres, compared with 568 millilitres in a UK, or imperial, pint. Thus, a US pint is only five-sixths of a pint as we know it, meaning that the price I paid was even more galling than first appeared. But I was thirsty!]
So I was in luck: decent seat on the plane, good racing company, sweet connection to Vegas and a cheeky ‘pint’ en route. What could possibly go wrong? Well, time would be the unwelcome arbiter of that rhetorical question…
[Note: all images can be clicked on to bring up the full size versions. Hit your browser’s back button to return to the post.]
It was late when I got to my hotel, New York New York, seen here in daylight. In fact, though the local time was 11.30pm, my body clock was displaying 6.30am, which is not the sort of time a man in his forties should be raising a glass. Three short stack pints later, and it was bed time.
My problem here was that I was physically in the Pacific time zone but my brain was still in Greenwich Mean Time. Fractured, fitful, sleep ensued. The sort where you feel refreshed after three hours, only to flag and then slump very soon after.
I’d excused myself from the day trip with the boys to London Bridge (yes, the bridge they thought was Tower Bridge, and which now spans a lake in the predominantly desert state of Arizona. Despite this, the boys tell me it was a very good day), and instead headed to the Gamblers General Store in downtown Las Vegas.
The Gamblers General Store is one of those shops about which gamblers generally get excited. If you’re a casino gambler, the place is positively orgasmic; if a horse racing punter, then it’s merely arousing.
However you feel about betting, there is something here for you. Cards, chips, tables, fruit machines, memorabilia… you name it related to gambling, it’s here. Here are a few shots from the store, taken with their very kind permission.
Disappointingly for me, though undoubtedly a sign of the times, the Gambling General Store no longer stock all the latest horse racing books. The rise and rise of internet monoliths like Amazon and eBay mean it’s difficult (read, impossible) for a single location ‘bricks and mortar’ store to compete. GGS does have an internet presence too, but it’s no Amazon.
I was in the store for twenty minutes or so and managed to spend a couple of hundred dollars on books I can’t find back home. (I actually love to read US horse racing books, as they are a rich source of ideas which we Brits are slow to embrace in our betting. The notions of pace, speed and trip ‘handicapping’ are still peripheral areas of form study here in UK, whereas Stateside they’re fundamental areas).
Amongst the books which looked like books, there was one ugly-looking spiral-bound yellow-covered ‘nothing’ text by a bloke called Barry Meadow. Written in 1992, this manuscript – entitled ‘Secrets of the Pick6’ is almost certainly the seminal work on constructing Pick6 (or jackpot or any other multi-race bet) wagers, and must be the genesis of Steven Crist’s subsequent book, Exotic Betting.
It’s now a proud addition to my horse racing and betting library. 🙂
The rest of the day was given over to Breeders Cup research, a body of work for which time slipped by more quickly than my progress required. In essence, I realised that I would be snookered and would not complete the full analysis that I’d had in mind.
Actually, the real problem was that at this point, I still believed I would have time to finish what I’d started, and be able to join in all the good stuff that the rest of the team were doing.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: sometimes, I’m an idiot. This was one such time. With fifteen races to wade through, and activity planned for each day and night, this was an unsolvable (insoluble?) conundrum, to which I felt I might still find an answer.
Even with turning in at 9.30pm (that three hour kip’s deficiencies in the revitalisation stakes came home to roost immediately after dinner), and rising on Wednesday at 5.30am, I was still only able to make minor inroads into the necessary analysis.
On the bright side, I did get to see a glorious sunrise over Las Vegas’ McCarron Airport and a part of the Strip.
Wednesday was moving day and, after a second hearty breakfast* in the New York New York diner, we were set for the road.
*There are not, as far as I can tell, any other kind of meals in America aside from hearty ones. What they take from our pints they place on our plates, whether we want it there or not!
‘The road’ for us comprised a drive back West, from Las Vegas to Pasadena, via Death Valley and Ridgecrest. Our first stop would be the small town of Pahrump in the middle of nowhere. Notable for being a previous land of the Shoshone Native Americans, it was subsequently adopted by setters who assembled cotton plantations.
These days the only noteworthy point about the town is the name of the Judge, who is currently bidding for re-election:
I’m sure he (or she) is a very fair-minded politician, and has no issues whatsoever about his/her unfortunate nomenclature. Onwards. For that was where we had to go.
We skirted up the side of the Death Valley National Park, a place which is as barren as the first part of its name suggests, and not nearly so verdant as the second part implies.
Some sixty miles later, we stopped at a place called Badwater Creek, which gloried in a classic American factoid. You see, Badwater Creek is, apparently, the lowest point below sea level in the Western hemisphere.
This demarcation – created by American politicians to describe the US and South America, though in reality if such a thing exists it must cover everywhere west of Greenwich – got me huffing and puffing needlessly about its irrelevance.
So it was that in a nothing place I was being irrelevant about something irrelevant. And this on a day when I could have been studying Breeders Cup form.
There were a few bits and bobs of interest along the route: a coyote, which came right up to the car (apparently they eat the insect kill off the front fenders of cars); ‘the artist’s palate’, a geological kaleidoscope; and a little bar with a sign telling all that it gets very hot outside. See below.
We pushed on westwards, headed for Ridgecrest, a soulless small town in the midst of nothing in particular.
In point of fact, as we learned that evening, Ridgecrest is known to Brits for one thing: it’s the place that many of our forces complete their desert training prior to shipping to Afghanistan and other far-flung desert destinations.
There is very little to recommend itself unto our senses in Ridgecrest. As a very late ‘cry on’ to the trip, I stayed in the only place I could find a room, the Budget Inn and Suites, a classic ‘murder motel’. Luckily for me, Norman Bates must have given up on this godforsaken hellhole before we did, and granted me a bloodless overnight stay.
Thursday morning had us return to the automobile for the final leg of the car journey, the 150 miles to Pasadena. Although this was primarily a trip along the freeway (motorway), it was in fact more appealing as a spectacle than the drab nothingness of Death Valley. Of course, I appreciate that the drab nothingness is the core feature of Death Valley, but I have to concede to being more a ‘bright somethingness’ kind of guy.
We arrived in Pasadena around 2pm and, naturally, headed straight for Santa Anita to check out the track. If I’d been paying attention, I’d have noticed that most of the races were being won from the front. I wasn’t. And I didn’t.
Fits and starts of BC research were undertaken at the back of the stand but, by now, I was resigned to eating my half-baked cake over the coming days. Nothing gives me the wagering trots quite like consuming half-baked form cakes, so it was little surprise that a core theme of the actual racing was financial diarrhoea.
I’m ahead of myself marginally. Thursday still had time for a night out in the Yardhouse pub, a place with a truly inspiring range of ales, and hearty (oh, yes) burgers to help absorb them. I’m broadly an IPA drinker in the States, as there are so many excellent micro-breweries that focus on this most noble of long glass tipples. After a few samplers, I settled on my glug of choice for the next three nights, Point The Way IPA, a beltingly hoppy infusion, and one which – if I had any clue how to import – I would.
And then it was Friday, and Breeders Cup race day one. Just the six Breeders Cup races today (with another nine to follow!), and an interesting undercard which featured the inaugural running of the Twilight Derby, a turf race with two Euro’s entered. More of that anon.
We opened up with the Breeders Cup Juvenile Sprint, a race which essentially proved to be my undoing for the whole weekend. Two strong, and ultimately incorrect, views – though by tiny margins both – unstitched me from the outset.
Firstly, I’d taken the view that Beholder, a local speedball, was a certainty for the race, and had a decent three figure bet (sterling) ante post. Imagine my surprise when connections opted for their stated second choice race, the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies, over more than than a quarter mile further.
Embittered and impoverished by this second early setback (I’d also backed the Frenchie, Chinchon, for the Turf – he didn’t make the flight), I thus determined that Merit Man was a standout in the day of race market. Although I took a hefty rule 4 reduction when his only conceivable danger – on paper at least – Super Ninety Nine was withdrawn, I felt that at least I’d be hitting the ground running and clawing back some of the deficits from Beholder and Chinchon.
Sent off at 3/5, he was about the only horse to get to the lead on the main dirt track and not hold on. Hightail, the 15/1 outsider of the remaining field of five, hung on by a nose. Good bye win bet. Good bye decent Pick 3 bet, with winners in the next two races at good prices.
Next up was the Marathon, an absolute crap shoot if ever there was one. Only Eldaafer in the entire field of thirteen had run a mile and six on dirt before, and he was one of any number of poor Americans. I took the view that this lay between Fame And Glory and Calidoscopio, the two class horses of the race. Both had it to prove on the surface, but if they took to it, they’d have a great chance. I backed Fame And Glory.
On lap one of this two lap affair, Calidoscopio was ten lengths off the back of a stretched out field, and looked as though he’d be pulled up. By the end of lap two, he had won by four and a quarter lengths, and it was Fame And Glory who had pulled up, along with fellow Irish raider, Sense of Purpose.
The winner paid 17.2/1 on the tote, and I had not a bean on. It was going to be that sort of weekend.
Race three was a race where the Euros had shot blanks previously, but shaped up well this time, due to both the strength in depth, and the fact that the natives would have to race without the medication which seemed to help them.
Sky Lantern was favourite but, as so often in Breeders Cup races, it was the ‘wrong’ Euro which prevailed. This time, under an excellent ride from Christophe Lemaire, Flotilla bagged the spoils, from local runners in second, third and fourth.
Again, no win bet for me, and the Pick 3 paid $3,495. It would have paid about an eighth as much with Merit Man winning the first, but that would have still equated to an early $475 score. These were blows from which I’d not recover.
I did however manage to bag $5 of the exacta, which came back at $85.50 for each $1.
Race four: Juvenile Fillies. I did have Pick3 tickets running on to three horses in this race. And this was the race in which Beholder pitched up, rather than the opening contest where I’d wagered here. Stupidly… ridiculously… unforgivably… inexplicably, none of my three picks were her, despite the fact that she was the second favourite.
She went out to the lead, and stayed there, showing real gameness as well as speed to win by a length from two fillies I had included.
The Pick 3 dividend was declared at $734.60, and one horse had (arguably) cost me a piece of both, as well as a big chunk of cash in the win pools.
Of course, the reality is that I cost me that, not the horse. She did great.
Race five was the Filly and Mare Turf, and surely it was time another Euro winner. We were well represented here with The Fugue, Nahrain, I’m A Dreamer, Ridasiyna and Up.
As it transpired, not for the first time on the day, European jockeys did less than optimally, and an ex-French mare called Zagora stormed home from Marketing Mix, with The Fugue an unlucky third. I’m A Dreamer, subject of support from me, was a stopped in her run sixth, and Nahrain – also bet by me – is still running.
The bright side, such as it was, was that I had Zagora on a 50c Pick3 ticket, along with Beholder (yes, I put her in some woefully understaked insurance bets), and three in the Ladies’ Classic.
As it had done all day on the dirt, the speed held up in the Ladies Classic, and defending champ, Royal Delta showed guts and class to repeat the winning dose. She’s an excellent race mare and deserved this, beating out two unbeaten mares in opposition in the process.
It was the worst of three possible winning outcomes for me and, although I did have the second horse as well, I was happy to snare a score. Alas, the $75.55 return for fifty cents didn’t even pay for the paper on which the ticket was written. Beholder. Damn you, Beholder.
There was one race to go, and I was losing but not too much (excluding ante-post woes alluded to already). The final race was the Twilight Derby, a new turf contest and one in which both Dermot Weld and Jeremy Noseda were represented.
In a race where I knew the top US turfers would not be (they were racing in main Breeders Cup races), this looked promising for the raiders. So I backed them to win and I backed them to be 1-2.
Speaking of Which, Weld’s horse, was propelled to the front around the home turn and shot clear, looking to have stolen the race. But Grandeur, under William Buick, was galvanised and given an illegal British ride (which is, of course, perfectly acceptable in the US of A) to prevail close home. $100 were sunk on the runner up, but $50 on the winner and $25 on the exacta returned $760, and that was as good as it would ever be.
The beer that night tasted sweet. Too sweet. I’d chicaned my way out of some good draws, mainly by failing to back Calidoscopio and leaving nemesis horse, Beholder, off my Pick 3 tickets; but I’d still come out in front from one great race. I’d used up all of my luck, and whilst drinking Point The Way and guzzling another hearty meal, I’d scarcely noticed the wind change direction.
Saturday dawned, and the anticipated hangover was a mere mild headache. I felt good, and I felt lucky. I should have felt again, because clearly there was some numbness thereabouts: it’s hard to be as misguided as I was on this wagering day of days.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And they’re right. I’d had a decent amount of time to get through Friday’s races, and I was pretty close to nailing it. Only a very strong – and wrong – opinion on Beholder had cost me dearly.
But I had not had sufficient time to properly analyse Saturday’s nine race Breeders Cup extravaganza and, consequently, should not have been betting especially heavily. Hindsight and theory are what they are, and in the moment reality is often something quite different. I punted. Heavily. And without fortune. Here’s the full sorry tale…
My opening gambit was a dig at the early Pick 5, requiring players – as the name suggests – to pick the first five winners. My A and B combinations amounted to $300, and I was able to sell four 10% shares to members of the group. The first three legs of the bet were before the Breeders Cup nonet commenced, meaning that this was a twelve – yes, TWELVE! – race card.
The bet kicked off with a nice 5/2 winner on the A tickets, and it was not the favourite. That was the zenith of the day.
As I began my inexorable hurtle to a new lifetime nadir, it was a Brit pair which kick-started the misfortune. The second race was a turf contest for two year olds, and both Johnny G(osden) and Tom Dascombe had runners. They both had good chances too, based on form and scope for improvement.
That they finished seventh and eighth was frustrating. That my other two options in the race also failed to fire, and the winner was only a 5/1 shot, was annoying. The Pick 5 was dead on leg two.
Of course, as must be the case with such things, I had all the remaining three legs covered, and the bet paid $2,551.80 for the dollar I’d staked it. Slipped off the hook.
Race three was a nothing race for me, and it was won by a 10/3 chance, Politicallycorrect, which was a nice topical winner for those who wagered on such portents, in the days leading up to the US election. Obviously, I’m a far too sophisticated loser to engage in such base shenanigans. Ahem.
The real stuff kicked off on race four, the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf, historically a strong contest for Euros, and likely to be more so this time due to the absence of medication on these young horses. (European horses never use it, American horses almost always use it; meaning that some US nags could have had their chances compromised by the absence of the ‘juice’.)
Plenty of Euro’s to go at here, and Dundonnell was a strong jolly. Artigiano was my fancy, but you also had George Vancouver, Lines Of Battle, and Fantastic Moon from the ‘away team’.
I wagered Artigiano. He finished sixth. Others bet Dundonnell, an unlucky fourth. And one in our group was on George Vancouver, who paid a healthy $20.60 for a $2 stakes (just over 9/1).
It was an easy score, let slip. Yet again, the ‘wrong’ Euro had prevailed. I did claim fifty cents of the trifecta which came back $276.55 and it was to be my last score of the day.
One in our group – and I’m bound to say, not a racing punter – had $2 of the exacta (worth $135.60) and $2 of the trifecta (worth $1106.20). That cost him a trip to the IRS (tax) window, where a swingeing 30% was deducted from the bigger payoff. He’s to claim it back through a protracted rigmarole, which dents an otherwise impressive coup.
In the Filly and Mare Sprint, the fifth race of the day, Groupie Doll was many people’s idea of a ‘lock’ (banker). She had a wide draw and was hassled and harried for the lead all the way round. Despite that, she was much too good for her rivals, and closed out the Pick 5 as a 3/5 favourite.
The 817/1 accumulator was worth 50% more through the pool, and my effort was close but without any rolled tobacco.
No matter, for I did have a couple of nice Pick 3’s running, one ending in the next, the Dirt Mile, and one in the next but one, the Turf Sprint.
The dirt mile was one of those races which I’d made wide open. I had a squad of horses on my A list, and just one on my B list. The B horse was eventual winner, Tapizar, and I failed to include him in the Pick 3 ending on this race, despite going six deep. There were only nine runners.
That was another race where I could/should have had a piece of the dividends, and didn’t.
As you can see, they started in front of the stands for this race, and the glorious backdrop of the Santa Anita race track is brought into soft focus by the beasts in the foreground. (Note, the dude in the red jacket is an outrider, rather than a race participant!)
My Pick 3’s gone west, and there was little left to cheer aside from a few short-priced European turfers about which I’d go long. And be wrong.
In the Turf Sprint, which was next, the full field of fourteen would fair helter-skelter down that curious (by US standards) Oak Tree lane before finishing up in front of us in a desperate all out drive for the line.
The third of my three three ill-fated ante-post races was this one, as I’d had a small each way investment on Starspangledbanner, a horse I felt was well suited to this sort of test. He drew post position fourteen, which was plum, and catapulted from the starting gate to lead the field.
But he was going too fast. Sectional times of 21.1 and 42.2 are unsustainable, even for a Group 1 sprinter, and his light was all but extinguished as they reached the home stretch.
My view on the race had been wide drawn late speed would prevail. So when Mizdirection, drawn 11, collared the other late running type, Unbridle’s Note, drawn 13, you’d think I’d have copped a winner. I didn’t.
For some reason, probably bankroll related, I decided against playing further in the race, and I watched my last remaining chance of a winner head west. Actually, it was my second last remaining chance of a winner. More on that shortly.
Onwards and downwards, such was the order of the day for your misfiring scribe.
Breeders Cup Juvenile was next, and a well-touted New Yorker, Shanghai Bobby, was the dish of the day for many East Coast fans. Ridden by the talented Rosie Napravnik, Bobby was gunned up to the pace. The pace was strong, and it was contested, normally a combination which spells d-o-o-m for those embroiled therein.
But on this super-speed inside highway, and under a robust ride, Rosie rousted Bobby to cling on to victory by a slim margin.
Still going on some worthless Pick 3 slips, at least it was a turf race next. And a race in which surely the Euro’s would prevail, the Breeders Cup Turf.
Ireland won this last year with the old warhorse, St Nicholas Abbey, and he was close to favourite to repeat the dose here. His last run, down the field in the Arc, was in line with a number of previous BC Turf winners, who also flopped in the French Championship race.
Another in here who disappointed in the Arc, and the final destination of my wager in the race, was Shareta. She had won the Vermeille impressively on fast ground on her previous start, and looked to have everything in her favour here.
Alas, as is often the case, the Euro jockeys were comprehensively outgunned by their native rivals, and never really got close enough to threaten. It’s a pity that there was such a litany of poor rides from visiting jockeys, and the likes of Richard Hughes, Christophe Lemaire (so polished on Flotilla the previous day), and William Buick will be disappointed at the routes they took on the turf course, which has always favoured an outside run off the slight camber, and away from traffic problems into daylight.
Hindsight. Such twenty-twenty vision.
$200 went on Shareta, another $50 on St Nick, and a further $50 on the exacta with the pair of them.
Little Mike won. Of course he did. (Who?)
It was looking forlorn by now, and the sensible thing to do was to draw stumps and start drinking. But when you’re at the track, and never more than fifty metres from a tote window, sense rarely enters the equation.
I had no clue in the sprint, and nor did anyone else seemingly. The superfecta (first four home in the correct order) paid $54,432.90, which is an awful lot of money if you were clairvoyant enough to find that quartet in sequence.
Needless to say, I wasn’t.
Down, down, deeper and down. The Mile was the penultimate race, and it was all about Excelebration. The second best miler of a generation represented not just himself but also the peerless Frankel. He was up against a US turf monopolist called Wise Dan, clear pick of the domestic herd, and the 9/5 favourite.
I piled into Excelebration as if this was the race at Ascot two weeks previously. Alas, that race – and the trip across – must have left their marks, because Excel could only finish a well beaten fourth. Wise Dan won.
To those fools who believe that this makes Wise Dan a better horse than Excelebration, I fear for their future investments. Clearly sub-par here, the Ballydoyle beast ran ten pounds below his best in finishing two lengths behind the winner.
Fair play to the winner, who is a very good horse indeed. By now I’d lost a lot of money, and I was relieved that it was the Classic, and the last race of the day. There would be beer and recriminations soon.
So to the last, the $5,000,000 Breeders Cup Classic, the main event of the day. But, wait. What’s this? Apparently we can’t go straight to the race because here’s ageing warbler, Tony Bennett, crooning something or other. Ah yes, that’ll be American razzmatazz. It would never be enough to simply have a great horse race without some trivialization of the event.
Here’s TB showing that the Californian sun has not been lost on him…
Finally, it was post time (fifty minutes between the penultimate and last races), and I’d gone way beyond the ‘get out stakes’. This was merely an opportunity to salvage a semblance of self-respect from the rotting carcass of a hundred losing slips.
I took a look at my ratings sheet, which didn’t have the colour coding of others, due to my travel laptop not having that function in its ‘office’ suite.
Here’s the grid – which horse would you have made the bet?
|Runners/ Trends||Pool Play||Flat Out||Alpha||Fort Larned||Game On Dude||Brilliant Speed||Handsome Mike||Nonios||Richard’s Kid||Ron The Greek||Mucho Macho Man||To Honor and Serve|
|G1 Stakes win||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
|28+ days off||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|3 and 4 yos (5 ok)||7||6||3||4||5||4||3||3||7||5||4||4|
|Beyer Top LTO (-ive)||No||No||No||No||No||No||No||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Top Beyer (year)||101||109||100||110||109||95||93||104||106||108||108||109|
Here’s a clue. Only two horses ticked all boxes perfectly; and only one of them had a chance to win based on speed ratings. That one had recorded the clear top rating of all runners, and was called Fort Larned.
Fort Larned was 9/1. I backed Richard’s Kid, a seven year old (older than any winner of the BC Classic). I lost. Fort Larned won.
I mean, seriously. Sometimes, all the info is right there. If one still cannot connect that information with a winning wager strategy, then one gets what one deserves. One got another losing slip. One is an idiot.
I’ll not be so crass as to mention an amount lost, but I will reiterate that it is the most I’ve ever lost, and with five days breathing space since this most complete of reversals of fortune, I can say that it will be a very long time before I again risk as much as I did here.
This was a classic case of a fool and his money being easily parted and, whilst many of the wagers were well made but without the requisite luck to bring them home, plenty more simply were not well made.
The buck stops here, and I have to accept that a week’s partying does not reconcile well with two day’s heavy punting. I will know more for next year…
There was just time for a couple more beers and one more hearty burger at the Yard House, before heading back for a final snooze at Pasadena’s Sheraton Hotel. Sunday would see me board the iron bird once more, bound for Blighty and a reconciliation with Mrs Matt and young Master Leon.
Whatever I might have been feeling inside about my financial loss was quickly put into perspective by a picture message I received from Mrs Matt. It is below, and so began my rehabilitation.
Life is life, and punting is merely a(n occasionally expensive) game we play. 🙂