Happy Horses

BOOKS-Button1I took a friend of mine, George, to the races on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon. Our weekend sojourn to Santa Anita Park was George’s first trip to a racetrack. It was also the first time he had ever laid eyes on a Thoroughbred. The day proved to be educational for both of us—teacher and student—as the racehorses once again proved what great equalizers they truly are.

Spending an afternoon at the racetrack is nothing new to me. As editor of a monthly horse-racing magazine, it is among my chief responsibilities to chronicle the races. There are few things I enjoy more in this world than watching Thoroughbreds compete. During a good day at the races, we all try to catch a flash of brilliance here or there, a hint of promise that tomorrow big dreams will come true, that the horses we’re watching today will be champions at year’s end. “Hope springs eternal,” they like to say in this business. It’s true.

My passion for Thoroughbreds dates back to childhood. In fact, I can’t recall a day I didn’t trot off to school with a Daily Racing Form in my backpack, tucked in along with all the other semester’s required reading. As the years progressed and my knowledge and understanding of the industry expanded, I delved into studying pedigrees and their influence on a Thoroughbred’s performance at the racetrack. Today, more than two decades later, I am still learning this fascinating game and all of its nuances.

Anytime an opportunity presents itself to introduce someone new to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, I leap at the chance. George, in his seventies, had always admired the majesty of horses, but only from afar, from books and what he’d seen in movies. His hands had never touched the strong neck and thick shoulder of a Thoroughbred. His eyes had never met the eyes of a racehorse or witnessed a furious stretch drive between two rivals, each bent on beating the other. I wanted our afternoon at the races to be something personal for George. I wanted him to make a connection. I wanted him to see how magnificent these racehorses are up close and personal. I wanted him to appreciate the teamwork, the strategy, the preparation and dedication that go into a winning or, for the matter, a losing effort at the races.

As the runners prepared for the second race, a 6 ½-furlong turf sprint, I walked with George down to the saddling enclosure for a better vantage point from which to view the jockeys saddling up before heading out onto the track. The horses bounced around there, some of them on their toes, ready to strut their stuff on the track. Trainers offered last-minute instructions to the riders as eager owners and friends gathered around for a listen. Crowds of fans leaned against the white fence framing the saddling ring, hoping to catch a glimpse of something that might possibly point them in the direction of a winner: a thumbs-up from a trainer, an owner’s especially large entourage, the look in a horse’s eyes, anything at all that may signal that a winning effort is on tap.

I spent much of the time in the walking ring with George sharing the backgrounds of the horses competing in the race, talking about their bloodlines, their siblings, trainers, jockeys, past performances and running styles. I even went so far as to point out what I know about a horse’s body language and how various actions translate into terms easily applicable to any athlete readying himself for competition. George absorbed it all like a child at his first baseball game. He was making a connection.

Despite my occasionally lengthy dialog, George had his sights set on a long shot. I alerted him to the host of risks and questions associated with wagering his money on a horse with 20 to 1 odds. My warnings, however, fell on deaf ears. George stood firm. I, on the other hand, backed the classiest runner (at least on paper) in the field. We returned to our table in the clubhouse and continued our discussion of the race as we waited for the runners to make their way to the starting gate.

As the horses began to load, George said that he felt a little nervous. I told him not to worry, six more races remained on the day’s program, and he would surely cash a winner before we were through.
I kept close watch of the race’s early stages through my binoculars, describing to George that his runner was racing along in midpack. As the field entered the far turn and headed for home, George switched his focus from my race call and fixed his gaze to a nearby television set which offered him a much clearer view of what was transpiring on the track below.

As the runners charged through the stretch, my 2 to 1 favorite slid through an opening on the rail. He appeared full of run and was, without question, on his way to a resounding victory. I was confident that he was the right horse, so confident that I took the liberty of betting a small saver ticket on the favorite for George, just so he’d have a winning ticket to cash first time out when my selection streaked across the finish first.

Before I uttered a word, George’s 20 to 1 shot kicked into high gear in the middle of the racetrack. With an apprentice jockey up, the long shot collared us inside the sixteenth pole and posted the upset. George couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. With George shaking his head in disbelief at his good fortune, we watched the horse jog back for his winner’s circle snapshot. The young jockey’s smile was as large as the one on the face beside me. I was smiling too, hoping George had bet a saver ticket on his horse for me.

There is no greater feeling for a new fan at the racetrack than cashing a ticket for the very first time. With George clutching tightly to his winning ticket, I escorted my friend down the stairs to the mutual windows. After some convincing, George parted with the ticket. In exchange, $43.80 came back across the counter. He pocketed the return on his investment and we headed back up to our third-floor table.

As I began poring over the Form to study the runners in the next race, I asked George what led him to his winning selection. Without missing a beat, he replied simply, “He looked happy. He just looked happy.”

So much for pedigrees, power ratings, past performances, track variants, trainer-jockey combos, post positions and the like. Years of working around horses and the racetrack, and all it took to cash a winning ticket that day were a gut instinct and happy eyes.

We departed the track a couple of hours later. George had given $20 back in losing wagers, but left in the plus column for the day, a victory for sure. As for me, my years of handicapping experience delivered as many winners as George had on the day—one. My winning horse paid $7.20 to win.

As we exited the track, I stopped to purchase the next day’s Form. George asked why. After a dismal showing at the windows the logic made perfect sense, and I replied, “Looking for happy horses George, looking for happy horses.”

As the adage says, “Hope springs eternal.”

“Happy Horses” was my contribution to Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover’s Soul Vol. 1, published by Health Communications, www.hcibooks.com, in 2003.