Photo of Belmont Stakes day crowd courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire.
I grew up betting exactas. That’s what my old man bet and that’s how I learned to play horses. It was a great bet, it seemed. You can’t decide between two horses? Bet ’em both! Maybe they’ll run one-two! Better still, the payoffs were often much bigger than a win bet. Who were these suckers who didn’t play exactas?
The problem was that more often than not my dad and I found ourselves lamenting the fact that we had half the exacta. At the end of a losing day, we could say “I had a winner in almost every race, just bet them wrong” as if this were something one could brag about.
As I grew older and learned more about the sport, I came to realize that exactas just weren’t my cup of tea. For one thing, it was a lot easier to pick a horse that might win than a horse that might run second. For another, I realized that what was alluring about exactas (and trifectas and superfectas) was that you got to bet on multiple horses in one bet. You weren’t forced to commit to one over the other.
The multi-race bets offered me everything that the exacta did and more. The payoffs were much higher, and whenever I was alive in the middle of a sequence, I bet less on each race, saving me money over the course of a day.
The first big pick four I ever hit was on Belmont Stakes day in 2006. I was in the Mirage sports book in Vegas with friends, in town to play in the World Series of Poker. I remember the final leg of the pick four was the Belmont Stakes, and I was alive to two horses. Other horseplayers around my seat in the sportsbook knew I was sweating a big pick four, and they were cheering me on. In the final stretch of that race, as one of my two horses, Jazil, charged for the finish line, the people sitting around me all started whooping and hollering. I buried my head in my hands, having misread the horse’s number and thinking it was some other horse that was about to win the race and kill my bet. When the dust settled and the race was over, the man in front of me asked incredulously, “What’s wrong? You just won!” I looked up at the giant screen and saw them leading Jazil to the winner’s circle. I couldn’t believe it. The bet paid almost $2,000. I was hooked.
Since that day I’ve played the pick four on almost every big race day of my life. I’ve hit it more than a few times, too. I lose most of the time, but the times I hit it pay off big enough for me to convince myself that I’m probably still ahead. The great thing about pick fours on big race days is that there is guaranteed money in the pot. This year’s Belmont card had an all-graded-stakes pick four with a million dollars guranteed. With the feature race, the Belmont, being as wide open as it was, I figured there was a good chance to make some money. And I was right.
Here’s how I played it on Saturday:
Race 8 - The Longines Just a Game, a Grade 1 turf mile for fillies and mares
The first leg of the pick four is maybe the most important. For me, anyway, in order for the whole “minimize how much I bet all day because I’m alive in the pick four” thing to work, I have to actually live through a leg or two. If I dump a couple of hundred bucks into the pick four and then I’m out on the first leg, I usually spew off lots of steam money on the next few races trying to get that money back. It’s not a good scenario for me and my lack of self control. And it has happened to me more than once. So I like to do what I can to stay alive through the first leg.
This was a good race for that since there were 7 entries and one scratch. With only six horses running, it would be easy to spread out and make sure I was on the winner. I took four of the six horses, and doubled up my bet on two of those four: Stephanie’s Kitten and Mizdirection.
I watched the race with a sportswriter friend who knew little about horse racing. He was chatting me up about some topic totally unrelated to horses or racing or the combination thereof as the horses were off and running. I interrupted him as the horses hit the stretch and explained to him that my horse was making it’s move on the rail. She was in a dramatic stretch duel with the longshot Better Lucky, one of the two horses I didn’t have covered on my ticket. She eeked it out, though, and won by about a half-length. He consoled me after the finish and said “sorry about that,” clearly confused about which horse I was talking about being “on the rail” or maybe about what the rail was.
STEPHANIE'S KITTEN (inside, red and white silks) EDGING AWAY IN JUST A GAME
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Stephanie’s Kitten was 3-1. Not the chalkiest of horses, but not a longshot, either. Given the shape of later races, I needed some heavier odds to come home or I was looking at a cheap one.
The thing about the multi-race bets - just like with any other bet at the races – is anybody can and everybody does bet on the obvious choices. When you win a pick four with four straight favorites, you end up cashing a little ticket. Depending on how much you invested in your bet, you could even lose money. That happened to me and a group of friends one year on Travers Stakes day when we cheered like idiots for the favorite in every leg only to find we were in possession of a winning pick four ticket worth $6. $6 we had to split five ways.
Race 9 - the Woody Stephens, a Grade 2 dirt race at seven furlongs for 3-year-olds
Another thing about betting multi-race bets is that you don’t have any idea what the odds will end up being on your horse when you make the bet. You have the morning-line odds, which is often a fair indicator. But not always.
I had picked two horses in the Woody Stephens, out of 11 total entries. This was a race I was taking a real gamble on. It was wide open. The morning-line favorite was the 11, a horse named Let Em Shine who had won three straight races in a row, his last with a 109 Beyer Speed Figure. I decided to pass on him, figuring that none of those three wins came against any tough competition, and the last one was run on a synthetic track. I was taking a huge risk leaving out the favorite. I also passed on the second morning-line choice, a Baffert horse named Zee Bros who in four lifetime starts had posted two triple-digit Beyers. He was impressive, but he had run only one graded stakes, the Derby Trial Stakes, in which he set the pace and faded to sixth. His next race out, he destroyed with a 103 Beyer.
This was interesting to me because the winner and place horse from the Derby Trial (who had finished neck and neck) were both entered in this race, and neither of them had run a race since then. The fact that Zee Bros came out of that one and posted a career-high number made me think it was a key race. I took both of the top finishers from the Derby Trial, Forty Tales and Capo Bastone.
As I was walking through the grandstand after the Just a Game I stopped to glance at the tote board. Forty Tales, winner of the Derby Trial, was 10-1! How could he be so high? Meanwhile, Let Em Shine was 2-1. Had I missed something? I looked back at the form. No, I felt confident in my pick. But the truth is, had I handicapped this race with the benefit of the tote board odds, I may not have arrived at the same conclusion. All the same, I decided to back up my bet. I ran to the window with only a minute to post to bet $20 to win on Forty Tales, the No. 7 horse, at 10-1. Then I chickened out and bet $10 at the last second. I hemmed and hawed long enough to irritate the guy in line behind me who, as I was collecting my ticket, threw his money at the teller and yelled out his bet as the bell rang.
I watched the race from the eighth pole, so it was impossible once the horses passed us by to tell who was who. The No. 7 was nowhere near the head of the pack as they passed us, so I figured I was done. The pack closed on the pacesetters pretty aggressively, though and from the back it looked like a blanket finish. I heard people around me saying the number seven over and over. I asked a stranger “was it the seven?”
“I think so, yeah.”
The number came up on the board – seven – and I pumped my fist. What a genius I was.
NO FEELING LIKE WINNING AT THE RACETRACK
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Cashed a ticket for a hundred bucks and had a live pick four with a 10-1 longshot on it. I watched the replay and Forty Tales swung out five wide to close at the wire. Two dramatic finishes in a row. Something about the way this was going down felt like destiny.
Race 10 - The Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap, a Grade 1 race at 1 1/4 miles on turf for 3-year-olds and older
This wasn’t really a sweat at all. What made it possible for me to play this ticket “caveman” style - meaning not ranking my picks as As and Bs and weighing the amounts I bet on how strongly I felt about different choices - and just taking every horse I liked on every ticket, was that despite having ten entries the Manhattan felt like a one-horse race. The one horse, Point of Entry, was coming off of five straight Grade 1 races with four wins and a second. He had just beaten Animal Kingdom at Gulfstream Park. His next closest rival in this race was possibly Optimizer, who couldn’t outrun his stablemate in the Dixie Stakes on Preakness day.
Point of Entry was 3-5 on the morning line. I singled him on all my tickets. But I knew everyone else at track had done the same thing. It didn’t matter. I had a 10-1 horse under my belt. As long as I could fade Orb in the Belmont, I was going to cash a big ticket.
I took my 3-year-old son, Gus, with me to watch the race from the Clubhouse box seats. He had been playing at the playground all day but started asking me about the horses, wondering why he hadn’t seen any yet despite being promised to see them as we drove to the track that morning. I held him on my hip and told him we wanted the one horse to win. Point of Entry won, but it wasn’t a wallop. Yet again, the horse I needed had to hold them off in the stretch. He found his extra gear, though, and pulled away right at the wire. Gus was excited that everyone in the stands was so excited. He high-fived with me, then high-fived with everyone around us. “Number one winned, daddy!” Winned, he did indeed.
GUS AND DAVID
We ran to look at the will-pays. I scrawled them in my notebook. I had picked five of the 14 horses in the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of the Triple Crown. The will pays were as follows:
Overanalyze - $1,324
Oxbow - $1,271
Palace Malice - $1,788
Revolutionary - $652
Unlimited Budget - $1,465
They weren’t huge numbers but for having an odds-on horse in the sequence, they weren’t anything to sneeze at, either. I was a little surprised at how low Revolutionary was. I was pleased with how high Oxbow was. He was my top pick at this point, so getting four figures on him would be a gift.
You may notice the absence of the Kentucky Derby winner Orb on this ticket. I decided not to back him. I had so much money riding on him in the Preakness. I stood to make around $3,000 if he had won that race. Perhaps it was foolish to not go with him, but I figured there was other value in the race. As his odds dropped before post time, I again wondered if I made a mistake.
Then, I looked at my ticket and realized that I had indeed made a mistake, just not the kind I had thought. There was no 12 on the ticket. It said 10! I had a bet on Will Take Charge and none on Palace Malice! How could this happen?
I looked at my notebook to make sure I wrote it down correctly, and sure enough I saw the error. I had made one of those curly, loopy twos, and if you just glanced at it you could easily think it was a zero. I must have told the teller 10 instead of 12. A stupid error, but it shouldn’t matter. As much as I loved that horse (I had written about him for ESPN before the Kentucky Derby) and had a lot of sentimental interest in him, I was sure that Oxbow would win this race.
You know what happened. My wife standing next to me, Gus up on my shoulders, standing on the apron near the finish line, I hear the announcer say the words “Palace Malice” with such enthusiasm, I knew he was pulling away.
PALACE MALICE PULLING AWAY
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
My wife, who knew about the error on my ticket before the race, gave me a knowing look. I crumpled to the ground to put my son down. I didn’t want to stand back up. It felt like someone had punched me hard in the gut.
This game can be demonic. There is an unmistakable weird mojo that surrounds horseplayers. I gamble on lots of things, from cards to dice to who can sink a coffee creamer in a trash can across the room. I don’t believe in jinxes or streaks. I’m not superstitious. But at the racetrack, it is undeniably true that all of these things exist. Ask anyone who has spent any amount of time gambling on horses, they will tell you, you can tell when you’ve got the good mojo, and you can tell when you got the bad kind. For whatever reason, you win when you’re supposed to, and when you’re not – the mojo has a way of making sure you don’t.
As my family and I walked back to our car after the race, I asked Gus who won the race. He said “the seven missed.” He was right.
The seven, Oxbow, just missed. But who won, I asked. “I did!” he proudly exclaimed, throwing his hand up for a high-five. I gladly obliged him. It felt like I had lost $1,800. But it was a great day at the track. Gus was right. He, I, and everyone at the track that day – we all winned.