Memories of the track – and your gutless wonder

As far back as I can remember, I have loved going to “the trail”. That’s what we called it. Whether it was Latonia (now Turfway Park) in northern Kentucky or the River Downs (now Belterra) in the California community of Cincinnati, when someone asked my dad and I if we were going “on the trail” on a particular summer day, we knew what it was like. meant.

In the mid-1970s, our group at trail excursions included Dick Stevens, John Fife and Joe Pfeffer. I learned a lot about pari-mutuel betting from each of them. (Pari-mutuel betting is a form of betting in which those who back the top three places in a horse race share the losers’ stakes – minus the trail commission.)

After a while, we welcomed our friends Clarence Brabson Jr. and his son – and my classmate, teammate and high school brother – Clarence Brabson III to our group on the track.

As you get older, trips to the trail are less frequent but still enjoyable. Pam and I try to get to Belterra at least once a summer and maybe bring other family members if their schedule allows.

Not too long ago, on one of our track days between races, I was asked how many long shots I had landed over the years. In racing parlance, a long shot is any horse at 20-1 or higher on the scoreboard. (For those of you who watched Race for the Roses 2022 on May 7, you can imagine where this takes us.)

So, to the best of my memory and in no particular order, here are some of the long shots I’ve bet and won on.

• Circa 1979 – A horse appointed team leader at River Downs had the uncanny knack of peeking the board and losing – unless his odds were high. My dad noticed it in the race form and kept a close eye on the crew chief’s ratings. One summer day the odds were quite high and we all bet on Team Leader – except one of us who will remain anonymous. I think a $20 bet returned close to $400. It was a good day.

• Circa early 1980s – A horse named Tribal Leader at River Downs or Latonia had the same tendencies as Team Leader. Perhaps he also had the same owner or the same jockey. Tribal Leader took us off the trail with smiling faces.

• Circa September 1980 – A horse named Speculatrix in Latonia was racing in the second race on the map. The second race being the highlight of the Daily Double. I don’t remember which horse won the first race that night, but I picked it on my DD. Before betting the double, a very nice lady who was sitting nearby “suggested” that Speculatrix would win the second race. The horse was something like 25-1. As a cash-strapped UC student, I figured heck, I was betting a 4-8 (or maybe it was an 8-4) Daily Double. For $2, I made over $300. The nice lady sitting next to me handed me some bills to redeem for her that night.

I suspect horse racing is a lot like Rick’s Café Americana casino in Casablanca – as honest as the day gets.

There have been a few other less memorable long-term bets I’ve taken over the years, but not one compares to what happened on the late afternoon of Saturday, May 7, the day of Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky. – and across the world of equine excitement.

In an incredible upset, the longest of the longs, Rich “Lucky” Strike, goes 80-1, drags the entire race to halfway through the stretch, then runs into another horse, shakes his head , pulls himself together and rushes to the finish line just ahead of favorite, Epicenter. Rich Strike won by just three quarter lengths over Epicenter with a winning time of 2 minutes, 2.61 seconds.

Derby’s single biggest upset came in 1913 when Donerail won 91-1. Rich Strike spent most of Saturday at 99-1 in betting and was still 91-1 less than two hours before the race.

That’s where my bet, uh, my son Colin’s bet, uh, my son-in-law Stephen Forsha’s bet came in.

Less than an hour before publication time, I decided to email my son-in-law, Stephen, who is way more tech-savvy than me. In other words, he knows how to place a Kentucky Derby bet with his cell phone.

Colin had left the house just before the race. Before he left, after the fact, he turned around and said, “If you place bets, put $10 on Rich Strike for me.” With that, he left.

(I told him it reminded me of Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz telling his players to “save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me” when the Irish and Hurricanes faced off in 1988.)

My initial bet that I was going to send to Stephen was this:

• $20 to be won on Simplification (my horse), he ran 4th;

• $20 to be won on Cyberknife (for Pam, without her input), finished 18th; and

• $20 to win on Rich Strike (Colin’s horse), I thought, damn it, I’m going to put $10 on an 80-1 hit too.

When I emailed Stephen our respective bets, I changed the last bet to $10 for Colin, thinking there was no chance in Hades that Rich Strike would win.

Watching the race on May 7 and knowing full well the date of my father’s death on May 9, and also knowing that it is the end of his death that the Derby will never be able to run, I am convinced that he laugh at me for changing my bet.

My son laughs too. It was my $10 that got him $818. I think he owes his brother-in-law a finder’s fee, but I’ll leave that to them.

Meanwhile, I listen to Frank Sinatra sing “That’s Life”.

See you on the track. No risk, no glory.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.

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