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Blog - LIFESTYLE

Fans line up outside the tunnel Santa Anita Park to watch the horses enter the track for each race. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)

This is the big show. Forget the Derby. Forget all those races named after dead racehorses and deader rich guys. Because when the leaves start to change colors and fall on the empty backyard at Saratoga Race Course; when the ocean breeze gets a little bit brisk and chases away the seagulls from the empty grandstands of Del Mar, the real race fan knows that it must be time for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

The local bar probably won’t jack up their prices and sell tickets to dopes in summer suits. Your neighbors probably won’t invite you over to their barbecue-slash-hat contest to watch the races and pull horse names out of a mason jar to figure out who to root for. Those things are all fun, sure. But that’s all for them. This is the Breeders’ Cup. This is for us.

AN EVENT FOR RACING FANS

Fans Lined Up

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

The Breeders’ Cup is our reward for following these animals and jockeys year-round, for being witness to every big moment. The freaky runaway victories, the nail-biting blanket finishes, the crushing upsets and the inspiring longshots. We watched them all; and now we get to see what’s what. We get to see the best of the best race against each other. No palooka tomato cans entered for a minor share of the purse — just the best horses on the planet facing off for one last race before they hand out all the trophies for Eclipse Awards and Horses of the Year. And each of them intends to leave it all out there on the track.

For me, personally, this would be my second Breeder’s Cup. My first was in 2007 when it was held at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. That year was a literal washout as it just poured buckets on us all day long. The experience, had it not been my first trip to the World Championships, would have been entirely miserable.

This year the race was held at Santa Anita in sunny Southern California. The track is an astounding place to watch a horse race, nestled at the base of a towering foothill that acts as a dramatic backdrop to the unique downhill track. The weather here is as close to perfect as you'll find in America, and is the strongest of all cases for continuing to hold the roving races here year after year.

IDEAL SETTING FOR THE BREEDERS' CUP

BCFans

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

I took my seat in the stands, an open-air press box, and settled in for a long day of racing. The first post time was at the ungodly hour of 10:15 a.m. local time. Even though the first Breeders’ Cup race wasn't until noon, and even though the bet I planned to go deep on, the late pick four, didn't start until the afternoon, I still got to the races early enough to do some serious handicapping. There was a 50-cent pick five that started with the first race and had nearly a million dollars in carryover from the day before. It was likely to be a positive EV (expected value) pool, meaning there'd be more money paid out on the bet than collected in tickets, thanks to a huge carryover and the low track takeout. Steve Crist of Daily Racing Form invested $700 in his pick five tickets. I ended up betting $30 worth of half-dollar tickets. The pool hit almost $6 million. I hit the first leg with a 6-to-1 horse and figured we were off to the races.

I was out of it on the very next race as were most other bettors. Flashback, a Bob Baffert-trained horse who had run a decent second to Goldencents in the Santa Anita Derby, seemed well-placed in this easy race with a small field. He went off as the overwhelming 3-to-10 favorite but lost to a horse named Zeewat (the what?), knocking out most of those 12 million pick five tickets and insuring a big payday for someone.

ALMOST READY FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP RACES

American Flag

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

The fourth race was the first of the Breeders’ Cup races and it set the tone for a day for drama. For one thing, there was an incident in deep stretch that lead to a steward's inquiry and ultimately the disqualification of Gary Stevens and She's a Tiger. The victory and the $1.1 million winner's share werer given to the second-longest shot on the board, Ria Antonia, a $9,000 purchase at auction who had earned about $50,000 in purses. Secret Compass, meanwhile, was fatally injured in a tragic breakdown on the backstretch, and Hall of Fame rider Johnny Velazquez was unseated and hurt in the fall.

Johnny V would be taken to the hospital across the street, where he reportedly demanded to go back to the track to ride, but doctors instead decided to remove his spleen.

Who could blame Velazquez for wanting to return? The Breeders’ Cup is the richest day in racing with million-dollar purses in every race. One good day at the Breeders’ Cup could make a jockey's nut for an entire year, maybe even two! Instead Johnny V, one of the country's leading riders and the assigned jockey on many of the day's best horses, would undergo surgery. (Said Calvin Borel on Twitter about his own spleen removal: “I haven't missed it.”)

At the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, the crowd cheers big for the winners of every race as they trot back to the winner's circle. It's really a swell thing for a cynical racing fan to see. It starts as the horse makes its way back around the first turn. The fans at the far end start to clap (on this day that was mostly us, the members of the press in the open-air press box. And despite it being taboo to cheer in a press box, many here eschewed convention for the day and rose from their seats to applaud the champions, myself included - much to my publisher's chagrin.), then the fans near the paddock tunnel catch their first glimpse of the returning champ and they begin to holler. Soon the entire grandstand is aware of the winner's return and they all rise to their feet in applause.

The appreciation here is for the horse, for the sport, and not just a celebration of monies won. At a day of races like this, winning or losing money at the teller's window is secondary. The pain from a losing bet is overtaken by the presence of a world champion. Being witness to something special and great is paramount.

My late pick four started in the race nine. I had already lost a pick five, the early pick four, and plenty of other pick three’s, but I had saved enough money back to make the wager that I had shared here in this column. I hit the first leg with a ‘B’ horse, Magician, who was 12.50-to-1. I survived through the next two legs with two heavy favorites: Secret Circle and probable Horse of the Year Wise Dan. Dan's win was particularly impressive as he stumbled out of the gate and had to make up a lot of ground. Expertly ridden by Jose Lezcano, who was riding in place of Johnny V, he waited until about the five-sixteenths pole to make his move. But he got up there and snatched the victory at the finish line, proving himself fast enough, sure enough, and true.

DAN THE MAN IN MILE

Dan Hill

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

This was it; I had made it to the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a live pick four ticket. I had only two horses covered in this race: the favorite, Game On Dude, and the longshot, wise guy pick, Will Take Charge.

My nerves went crazy. The will pays took forever to come up. They weren't earth shattering. All the chalk in the last two legs meant that Game On Dude would return $500 and Will Take Charge would return $1,600. Still, I got excited, because I knew deep down in my gut that Will Take Charge would win. I had this feeling. You know the feeling. The deep, pit-of-you-stomach feeling that you will win. The irrational assuredness of being certain you knew what was about to happen. The only thing to compare it to is a spiritual experience. It is beyond hope. It is absolute faith. I had seen this horse run all year long. I had lost a lot of money on him then won it all back. I was there when he started this campaign in Arkansas. I felt like this horse and I were linked. His owner, his trainer, everything about him just felt like the stuff of good story - an old man in his second act, a young, second-run horse coming off an inexplicable victory and facing off against top older horses. The beats of the story were all there laid out in front of us. All he had to do was break from that gate, size up his surroundings, and then kick for home like it was fun to go fast. When it was all over he'd get a bath, he'd get his chest rubbed and his rump pat and a pretty blanket of flowers around his neck. His rider would whisper in his ear softly and his trainer would smile at him in that way that he had seen before, not often enough, but not never either. He had done it all before. He just needed to do it one more time. Just one time. One time for me, baby.

“One time! One time!”

I was standing on my tiptoes. The horses were coming straight at us toward the finish line. We were crowded against the wall at the end of the grandstand, standing on the stairs trying to get a better look. Mucho Macho Man was leading the pack but “He” was coming. Will Take Charge was charging on the outside. He was coming and there wasn't anything anyone could do to stop him. Could he really do this? Was it happening?

WILL TAKE CHARGE (outside) CLOSING IN ON MUCHO MACHO MAN (inside)

Classic Finish

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

Each stride brought him farther forward; each stride closed the gap a little bit more between him and the lead. Soon he was neck and neck with Mucho Macho Man. They were matching strides. It was over. I had seen this race play out a million times before, each time in slow motion right in front of my face, most of the time when my money was on the horse on the lead getting gained on. This time it would be different. My horse was coming.

Just.

One.

More.

Stride.

Everyone's arms shot straight up in the air. A huge exclamation belted from the crowd. Not a cheer. An expression of surprise and awe, like after a half-court buzzer beater. An audible exclamation point. This had to mean he won. I smiled. Then they showed the replay. The crowd shouted again.

"Who was it?" I asked a stranger.

"Who knows!?!" he was dumbfounded. He was smiling, but worried, but also excited. What did we just see?

The replay played again, this time in super-slow motion, exactly how I saw it the first time it happened. But this time I saw something different. I saw Mucho Macho Man's nose hit the wire first.

It was close. Like flaring nostrils close. He didn't get there. I could see it. They hadn't announced it yet but they didn't need to. I put my head down on my desk.

A CLASSIC PHOTO FINISH

Classic Photo

Courtesy of Santa Anita Park

None of the press purists needed to worry about me cheering in the press box anymore. If anything I was prepared to cry like a baby. My heart was breaking. Better to come in last than this, I thought, incorrectly of course. But these are the thoughts the trauma of pick four heartbreak bring on.

“Next year … ” I thought to myself with a grin. Not just for myself, but for Will Take Charge. “Next year.”

This was what you hope for — a competitive, thrilling race. A crowd of tens of thousands holding their breath as they wait for the results of the photo finish. The bell finally rang and the flowers were put around Mucho Macho Man's broad, wet neck.

TO THE VICTOR GO THE SPOILS ... AND BLANKET OF FLOWERS

STevens MMM

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

The sun was setting and the massive crowd was making a quick exit. I sat in my seat for a long time. I watched the sun go down and the lights come on. I watched the TV cameras and reporters interview the winners, the incredible 50-year-old Gary Stevens, who had just won his first ever Breeders’ Cup Classic. I watched them pack up their gear and leave. I watched the cleaning crews come in and start picking up the empty bottles and discarded losing tickets. I watched the last of the big money winners leave the last open IRS Teller window. And then, I watched as the last cars drove off the lot. It was now night. The horses were back in their barns. The racetrack was now closed. 

2013 BREEDERS’ CUP: DAZZLING ON AND OFF THE TRACK 

Image Description

David Hill

David Hill is a writer, an agitator, a comedian and a gambler. He grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas near the Oaklawn Park. Today he lives in New York City. Further reading at fixintofight.tumblr.com.

Image Description

David Hill

David Hill is a writer, an agitator, a comedian and a gambler. He grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas near the Oaklawn Park. Today he lives in New York City. Further reading at fixintofight.tumblr.com.

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