Horse racing is the only sport in the world that exists solely because of, and for the benefit of, its fans. Without gamblers in the seats, at the OTB’s and on their online accounts, the Sport of Kings simply could not exist in North America.
The gambling aspect is surely what drew me to the sport initially. It’s not just gambling, though; not like in Vegas where you’re playing against the house. When you play the races, your competitors are everyone around you. As a long-time fantasy sports player, I thoroughly enjoy forming opinions about a race and putting my money up against everybody else’s.
Not unlike in Vegas, however, the odds are always stacked against you. The job of the handicapper is to determine in his or her mind each horse’s probability of winning a particular race and, then, to watch the tote board to find value. Just like at the craps table, though, even the best handicappers come up empty more often than not.
What I often forget while my head is buried in a set of past performances (“PPs”), cursing a losing streak or celebrating a big score, is just what a great spectator sport horse racing is. Gambling aside, nothing beats a day at the races. I learned this lesson well a couple of weeks ago when I made my first trip out to Santa Anita for Big ‘Cap Day.
Santa Anita is one of the most beautiful race tracks in the world. This is obvious from seeing it on television, but until you actually step inside the Great Race Place and see the San Gabriel Mountains framing the track for yourself, you cannot begin to appreciate the majesty of the venue.
Being able to see the best horses in the world compete against that glorious backdrop certainly doesn’t hurt either. Hence my excitement for Big ‘Cap Day, highlighted not just by the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, but also the Grade II San Felipe, which serves as the main prep race for the Santa Anita Derby and is a points race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. I studied the PP’s for hours before leaving Chicago for the Golden State and felt moderately confident with how I got through the card.
Then the rains came.
Friday afternoon featured pouring rains in Southern California, the likes of which we hadn’t even seen in Chicago for over a year. A handicapper needs to be able to adjust to the conditions, and I was ill-prepared to do that on my maiden voyage to Arcadia.
Santa Anita features a unique downhill turf course, and I was really looking forward to seeing a 6 ½-furlong sprint down the hill. But when race 2 was taken off the turf, almost half the field scratched. (I managed to land on the winner in that race, Revenue Virginius, but I must give credit to one of the horse’s owners, who I overheard at the bar talking up the horse all morning.)
The rest of the card was a bust. I managed to stumble into a couple of small wins and a decent trifecta that allowed me to dump a good sum into the Pick 6 pool, but all of my top plays came up empty. By the time Melatonin, a 16-1 shot, crossed the wire first in the Big ‘Cap, I had given up all hope of making a profit this day.
But I couldn’t feel down. I was in Southern California, for crying out loud. The sun was shining. The scenery was magnificent. And the best equine athletes in the world were putting on a show. Although my pick in the San Felipe, Exaggerator, failed to live up to my expectations, I may have seen a Kentucky Derby star being born in Danzing Candy (although I still wouldn’t sleep on Exaggerator). Just like many a Sunday afternoon at Sox Park, I didn’t have a care in the world. My picturesque surroundings were all the therapy I needed to get over the beating I took at the windows that day.
You win some, you lose more. But that should never get in the way of your enjoyment of the sport.