DECADENT AND DEPRAVED… AND AWESOME!

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By West Coast Craig

ARCADIA – I saw a “Phillie” win a World Championship on Saturday. No, I’m not beating a dead horse here, it happened at Santa Anita Park, in an event that deserves some recognition on this site full of degenerate gamblers and that endangered species known as the Rail Bird.

they're off

Let me preface this by stating my love for the track. I learned to read a form while working as a Pinkerton up at Saratoga one summer in college, had my ubiquitous beginner’s luck betting on Angel Cordero
in every race, and instantly fell in love with the whole thing:

  • The gorgeous grandstands
  • The enormous layout
  • The barns and the paddock
  • The manicured infield (including, at Saratoga
  • The canoe painted in the colors of that year’s Travers winner)
  • The colorfully sleazy clientelespeaking of Angel Cordero… Yikes!).
  • oj-and-angel-cordero2.jpg

  • The building excitement of a race, the tension of the horses entering the gate, the sudden release of them leaping out of it, the pressure as they jostle for position heading around and into the far turn, and the growing roar of the crowd as they come down the stretch.
  • The language of betting, the exotics, exacta boxes and quinellas, trifectas, superfectas, the pick six, and the shorthand you had to learn when you stepped up to the window— ten dollars to win place on the seven, and a two dollar exacta box on the 3, 5, and 9—even the windows had cool names: parimutuals.
  • The science; so many angles to try and figure out… Is it a turf horse moving to the dirt? Is it a first time Lasix? This one posted a bullet workout this week, what are its Beyers the third trip coming off a break? This one closed strong and finished second by a nose at 7 furlongs, so maybe now that it’s racing at a mile it can pull away?
  • And all of this gets you thinking:

      ‘Nothing else is working for me today, I might as well bet on the one with the funniest name…’

    The cheapest tickets to this year’s World Series were at least $500, and going to this year’s Super Bowl will run you close to $2000 at least. General Admission to the Breeders’ Cup, the preeminent horse racing event in the world? $10. Parking $10. Kids are free, so pack up the family and head to the track… And this year, as last, that track would be the gorgeous Santa Anita Park. So, yes, I packed up the family, my crew of MTM Video Crew/Interns, and headed to Arcadia around 10:30 AM (the first post was at the unholy hour of 10:35). Fortunately for us – if unfortunate for the business – the lot wasn’t very full. Horse racing has been hit pretty hard by the economy and by a general malaise of un-hipness that’s been slowly building since its hey-day in the fifties.

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    Still, we were taken aback by what looked like a pitiful turnout (I’d been to the Breeders’ Cup here before and once at Hollywood Park and it was always packed). But it was early and this is Los Angeles, where it’s fashionable to show up a few innings or races in, especially when the main event, The Classic, wasn’t until 3:45. Not that I was complaining; there were few lines at the windows or beer stands or the BBQ grill, and plenty of room in the wide open infield (one of the things that makes Santa Anita unique). We perched ourselves on the grass near the back stretch—a fine strategic choice with beer, food, bathrooms, and windows all nearby—and my crack cameraman took some great footage, like this:

    Breeders’ Cup 2009 from youdiejoe on Vimeo.

    This is from the eighth race, the Breeder’s Cup Turf – a fantastic mile and a half run that starts up the hill, comes down and crosses the dirt, then circles the entire track. The six horse in front here heading into the far turn – Presious Passion, the American horse in a field of highly favored Europeans – miraculously hung on to the lead before eventually being taken down by the Irish favorite, Conduit, the BC Turf’s defending champ. The place and exacta I had with them put me in the black, though, and paid for my bets on The Classic.

    Like the NFL, it’s a sport driven by gambling; only horse racing actually encourages you to do so. The Racing Form can now be purchased on-line the night before for almost half the price you’d pay at the track and is full of interactive features and even video clips of past performances. When I first moved out here a couple of my friends and I would attend Sunday seminars given by honest-to-goodness successful, professional handicappers for free. The main thing I learned: Unless you’re going to do this every day and keep diligent, detailed notes while mastering complex formulas for divining the overlays, you’re just hoping to get lucky. Of course they want you to bet, but it’s not like Vegas where you’re going against the house – you’re actually going against everyone else in the track. The track just takes a commission and nothing makes you feel smarter than beating 50,000 other people who just had to bet the 4-5 favorite.

    Santa Anita helicopter shot

    The Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown races get a lot of play but frankly, I think they’re all hype. They’re just kids, three-year-old horses who’ve had but a handful of semi-decent challenges, if any. Sure, there are a lot of funny hats and mint juleps – the blue-bloods throw a painfully un-hip party – but it’s basically like watching a college bowl game. Yes, it can be exciting and occasionally a winner will pan out in the pros, but more often than not they don’t. This year’s Classic featured a couple of Triple Crown contenders, including Kentucky Derby winner (Preakness: Place, Belmont: Show) Mine That Bird and Belmont (and Travers) winner Summer Bird. They turned out to be Vince Young and Jamarcus Russell.

    It’s The Classic, so it’s automatically a strong field. But outclassing them all was a girl. Zenyatta was 13-0 coming into this, over half of those G-1 races. Trainer John Shireffs didn’t waste time on the condescending-sounding BC Ladies Classic the day before, throwing her in with the big boys, instead. And she didn’t just win, she won in amazing fashion. If horse racing needs a boost, not just a new gimmick but a new star, this is her. The crowd, which indeed packed the place by that point, was clearly here to see her. There were lots of pink “Girl Power” signs everywhere you looked. I of course, threw her out of my betting scenarios (The people’s choice should never be yours… This ain’t a craps table!), but knew this had a feel that went beyond the wagering. It seemed to plug into the public’s imagination, transcending the sport.

    The tension was ratcheted up even higher when there was trouble at the gate and one horse refused to go in, bucking and twirling, the crowd oohing and ahhing with each jump until the jockey had to get off and the horse had to be scratched. When it started Trevor Denman began his always lyrical call. Zenyatta got off to a terrible start (only Mine That Bird was behind her when they went by us heading into the far turn), while predictably, Regal Ransom and his stablemate Giralomo, set a fast early pace. This at no point seemed a foregone conclusion but I’ve been to a lot of big races in my life and I’ve never heard a crowd’s roar this loud, this excited, as when she went to the outside down the stretch. It was pure frenzied delirium that took over. It built and exploded when she won and continued on at that pitch for minutes afterward, something you never see. This was star power.

    Now, obviously I’m a West Coast guy, so I’m partial to this Filly and I just have to ask: In the biggest race of the year, where was Rachel Alexander? If the NHRA wants to reverse its downward trend, they’ve got to get these two together soon. And when that happens, you ought to watch.

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    About the Author ()

    West Coast Craig reports from Hollywood with an endearingly laid back style. A happily married father of two little boys, WCC has an avocado tree in his yard, plays the hot corner in a "Valley" hardball league and always manages to take cool sports-related mini road-trips, often with his immediate clan. He hails from Oneonta, NY but has been "So very L.A." for twenty years, so his sports teams are the Yankees AND the Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the L.A. Lakers and the Colorado Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques. WCC loves bacon-wrapped hotdogs and can touch his heel and his ear... with his hand.

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