Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
If you’re reading this, I’ll bet my own money that you saw the Kentucky Derby last weekend, or a replay or highlights not long after. I won’t know much more about you, save you have an interest in horse racing, be it a long-vested passion or that still-new excitement from having picked your first winner. Since you’re reading this on your computer or smartphone, however, during the week, probably at work, there’s a decent chance that you’re like me. We’ve grown up in the age of the Internet, so to say that our personal, social, and professional lives have changed rapidly since our youth is a great understatement. It’s been very natural for us to seek out the next new thing, from social networks to smartphones.
Coming to love the sport of horse racing is not so much about finding the next new thing, but rediscovering the old. If you watched much of the Kentucky Derby telecast last week, you probably heard, before and after, how Orb’s owners and trainer represented the “old school” way of raising and running a racehorse. That they won was a reminder that:
1. Horse racing is deeply connected to its traditions not only in big race days, pageantry, and record books but also in its people, most of whom have learned their trade from families and connections that go back generations.
2. While other sports also have their “old schools,” such an approach still finds success in horse racing. Technology has changed most other popular sports to a degree that former strategies for success are legitimately outdated.
3. Winning is the best tradition of all.
It’s remarkable that, in a sport where all the action seems to take place in under two minutes, that the word that I hear most often associated with its people is “patience.” For the families that bred, raised and trained Orb, their Kentucky Derby victory was the culmination of a 4-year process where almost everything had to go right and nothing could go seriously wrong. Patience and luck level the playing field and allow the modest stable to compete with sheiks and tycoons and the old school to compete with the new. Luck may not be inherited, but the patience needed to bring horses to the races is something that is indeed passed down the generations.
I have found that the easiest way for me to engage in the “Sport of Kings” is by betting on it.
The people associated with Orb showed on Derby – and regularly show with their other horses – that a patient-and-prudent course often is a winning one. A day at the races is two minutes of tremendous excitement then 28 minutes of anticipation for the next race, repeated 10 times. On big days, the wait between races gets a little longer. If you are going to the Preakness Stakes this weekend, or the Belmont Stakes in June, go intending to soak up every ounce of atmosphere you can. The time between will give you plenty of time with your friends to get drinks, place bets and to walk around. A little bit of patience, and an old plan for betting, can help you enjoy the day.
What can be tremendously daunting, especially for a new fan, is the array of bets that can be made at the track. I think the key for new fans is to simply have fun with it at first, try new strategies, and not be concerned with more complex bets. If you’re going to “Old Hilltop” – the nickname for Pimlico, home of the Preakness – here’s a decidedly quaint strategy for approaching the races, placing a premium on having fun and trying to cash a few tickets.
- Bring about $200 in cash – I’m not saying you need to play this much, but cash will speed everything along especially in drink lines, and I think you’ll see that the longest lines are not for the betting windows but for the ATMs.
- If you want to end the day with some money in your pocket, play $6-10 a race. If you don’t mind going home empty-handed, play $12-20 a race. Winning, of course, will make either situation moot, but knowing ahead of time how much you’re willing to lose will allow you to focus on having fun.
- For your personal bets, stick to betting Win, Place and Show. Show bets pay out if your horse finishes in top 3, place top 2, and your horse must win to cash a win bet. I like to bet horses to either Win and Place, or Win and Show. So, a $2 win-place or win-show bet costs $4.
- If the horse you want to bet on has lower than 5-1 odds, bet win and place. If he/she finishes second, the smaller place payout will usually pay for the whole bet.
- If the horse is 6-1 or higher, I will bet win and show. Show payoffs are smaller than place bets, but on 6-1+ or higher odds horses, they’ll usually pay $4.00 to cover the original bet.
- To place one of these bets, simply go to a window and say “$2 to win and place on the 5” or the amount and horse of your choice.
- If you can’t decide between two horses, bet them both and ignore the place/show bets.
- If you’re studying the horses a bit more closely, pay attention to non-favorites between 4-1 and 9-1. The public likes to bet favorites and longshots and often ignores good horses in the middle.
- If you’re going with friends, consider a team bet on the exotic bets like the exacta or trifecta. Usually, the betting minimums for these bets allow you to easily construct a ticket that only requires chipping in $3-4 a race. Have the most experienced bettor go the windows for your team.
- If there are two of you, consider a $1 exacta box. Each of you pick a horse and take the betting favorite as well. Say, $1 exacta box on 1-3-5 (or your picks). If two of the three come in first, you’ll have a good score. You can add more horses to your bet with more people involved, but additional combos will require more contributions.
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
- Bet at least one race …
- after watching the horses in the paddock. Look for a happy horse (hard to describe) – bet that one.
- after eavesdropping on a conversation between grizzled racetrack veterans – a guy knows a guy, and boy has he got a good one.
- on a horse whose name you like
Above all, have fun. Celebrate the wins, forget the losses, and learn something new.