Preface: Horse racing has enthralled men longer than just about every other sport in existence. Fossils indicate that the early Egyptians, Syrians, and Babylonians couldn’t resist the itch of the track. The same thing goes for the Greeks, who included both mounted and chariot races in the original Olympic games back in 648 BC. And though we’d like to credit a love of animals and the thrill of competition for inspiring the global phenomenon, it’s no secret that the chance to mint a fortune from another creature’s hoof-work has always been the magnetic attraction. Things clearly haven’t changed much over the centuries, since according to the infallible wikipedia, world-wide gambling on the sport generated an estimated $115 billion in 2008.
Like most things steeped in tradition, there’s a patois used by those in the know, seemingly cobbled from mixture of Farmer’s Almanacs, military training manuals and the scrawled margin notes of bookies, that can keep outsiders at a furlongs-distance from the sport. Luckily, we had a trusty guide on the scene — a sixth generation Kentucky horseman and a bloodstock agent to help us stay afloat during our inaugural visit to Saratoga Race Track. You could brand our resulting experience as a trial by fire of sorts, if only because wearing a blazer and pants in 95+ degree weather burns quickly and deeply into the memory.
Find out if our luck held up. Our story continues after the jump.
America’s Oldest Organized Sporting Venue
“Man is a gaming animal. He must always be trying to get the better in something or other.” — Charles Lamb
The U.S.’s tenure in the history of horse racing is decidedly junior compared traditions abroad, but Saratoga Race Course is still an American treasure. It originally opened on August 3, 1864, and today stands as the oldest organized sporting venue of any kind in the country. If that kind pedigree wasn’t enough for you, it’s also mentioned in Carly Simon’s 1972 #1 hit, “You’re So Vain”. How’s that for a legacy?
To those in the business, Saratoga is notorious for different reasons — all of which are reflected through its nickname as “The House of Upsets”. Legendary Champion Man O’ War notched his only defeat in 21 starts on the dirt, and Secretariat followed suit, losing there the year after winning the Triple Crown. And though the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont races are the biggest events of the season, Saratoga’s 1 & 1/8 mile main dirt track is home to over 17 Grade I stake races, all of which attract elite competition from around the globe gunning for cash purses ranging from $300,000 to a cool $1,000,000.
A Day at the Races
It’s easy to think you’ve stumbled onto the set of ESPN Game Day when approaching the track. Lines of enthusiastic fans form long before the track opens, coolers in hand, ready to pay their $3 entrance fee and jockey for prime positions at one of the various picnic tables scattered throughout the 350-acre grounds — the closer to the betting stations and TV banks, the better. Meticulous gamblers and curious onlookers have another distinct advantage at Saratoga compared to other tracks, since the paths from the paddocks, stables, and even the track run through the picnic area, giving anyone willing to mash up to the fence a front row view of the competitors.
Those averse to the BYOB tailgating scene can always take shelter at one of the many outdoor bars scattered throughout the campus, or grab a bite at the Turf, Club and Porch restaurants nestled above the track or along the rail. There’s also a Shake Shack, Blue Smoke, and other more casual, but excellent concessions for soaking up the ever-flowing booze. The paddock bar in particular is where went spent the majority of our time in between races, out of the sun and directly in front of the walk to the track. We still owe our guide another round for that pointer alone.
Naturally, much of the glitz and glamour associated with the sport radiates from the halo of the club house. Saratoga’s VIP-only area remains reserved for horse owners and others willing to shell out for a more civilized look at the action, with luxuries that include on-demand Perrier and a fleet of ceiling fans. Though heavyweights from the city are always in abundance given the track’s proximity to Manhattan (we spied Bobby Flay), the sport’s prestige around the world also attracts a global crowd of 1 percenters. The $750,000 purse Whitney handicap was the main event of the weekend, but the area’s biggest annual horse auction, known as the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale, set to begin early the following week, had attracted particularly illustrious crowd including billionaire Sheikh Mohammed, vice president of UAE and ruler of Dubai.
We were definitely in over our heads seating in our press box, stealing glances at faces between sun hat eclipses, but it was nothing another Saratoga cocktail and getting some skin in the game couldn’t solve.
“Horse racing is animated roulette.” — Roger Kahn
Place Your Bets
1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir well with cracked ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass. Twist a lemon peel over the drink and use as garnish.
None of the day’s happenings would have made sense without our trusty guide, Price Bell Jr., a 6th generation horseman and Kentucky native. As a professional bloodstock agent for Nicoma, Mr. Bell spends his time evaluating the sport and consulting with buyers about purchasing, breeding and appraising thoroughbreds. Think of the experience like getting to watch an NFL game, next to a professional scout. Under his tutelage, we were given a crash course on the basics of betting and what to look for in the horse.
The first wrinkle to understand about horse race gambling is the concept of “Pari Mutuel” betting, now anglicized to parimutuel. Devised in France in 1865, the phrase literally translates to “betting among ourselves” and unlike in Vegas where the desperate and foolish compete against the house, it involves betting against everyone else wagering on a race. Tracks make money by deducting a percentage from each dollar bet to cover purses, expenses and taxes, which is usually less than 20%.
Typical “win” odds can range from 1-1 to 50-1 in most cases, and there are a variety selections that compound them. So-called morning line odds printed in the day’s official track program are simply educated opinions from the track’s handicapper on how the gambling public might divvy their money that day, and serve as a starting point for betting. As betting begins, true odds are updated every 30 seconds and posted across the track’s various TV monitors and tote boards, reflecting the money wagered on any given horse relative to the total pot.
“Diligence is the mother of good luck.” — Benjamin Franklin
While the odds serve as a starting point for informed betting, successfully beating them involves knowing how to decipher the gobs of information on each thoroughbred included in the program — and plenty of luck. Shrewd pickers who can get past the small type and tightly packed layouts will find every detail they could possibly want on a horse including its sex, age, color, sire, breed, any medication it’s taking, as well as the owner, current jockey, and trainer.
Then there’s a breakdown of the horse’s career record, in addition to more detailed notes on its recent training regimen and racing performance that year, complete with stats on where the horse placed, the competition it faced, who the jockey was, how much weight it was carrying, the length and type of track it ran on and its varying positions on the track throughout the race — often used to determine a horse’s style as a frontrunner, stalker, closer, or something in between. An equally thorough statistical gold mine is provided on the current Jockey’s past performances too.
Once that’s all processed, it’s time to make wagers. The most straightforward bets are picking a horse to “show” a.k.a finishing in the top three, “place” a.k.a finishing in the top two, or win, — but that’s just the start of the money blowing fun. “Exacta” wagers involve picking two horses to place first and second in exact order, while “Quinella” bets involve just selecting the top two regardless of order. Daily Doubles are about picking the winners of two consecutive races, usually offered on the first or last two races of the day.
Then there are three horse wagers, and even more exotic selections like the lofty pick 6, — essentially the PowerBall of horse race gambling, — that involves correctly picking the winners of six designated races in succession. If in the (likely) event that there is no winner, a carryover jackpot pool is formed for the next day’s races. The lucky saps who manage to choose five winners also receive a consolation payoff.
Winning while losing
Despite our inside advisor and devotion to data, we still picked losers during our time at Saratoga, but we didn’t walk away discouraged. Afterall, a day outside in the company of beautiful people intent on merrymaking is a hard thing to frown upon.
Horse racing is by no means the easiest sport to pick up casually, but there are certainly quirks that America’s other pastimes could learn from it. While some factors, like affordable entry fees for spectators made possible by legalized and regulated gambling, hint at new models for balancing profitability with accessibility, other details strike right at the heart of what it means to be a fan. In an era where champion athletes are immediately ushered off of the field for seclusion and post game interviews, the fact that a winning horse strolls immediately into the crowd of cheering onlookers to claim a $750,000 purse is a remarkable thing — and one of the deepest hooks that will stay with those willing to give the race track a chance. Then again, it’s probably the least they could do, since stalking your favorite horses on Twitter is out of the question.
“The only sure thing about luck is that it will change.” — Bret Harte
The industry is also aware that attracting a new generation of fans requires making education a top priority. One way they’ve made good on that promise is through the new fan development initiative dubbed America’s Best Racing — which can be accessed online through the portal Followhorseracing.com. There, anyone looking to know more can find current news, information on tracks, profiles on key figures and plenty of primers on the basics. Similarly, they’ve also introduced free courses offering an introduction to betting on the grounds of prominent tracks like Saratoga during major events. Many venues are also being renovated to help patrons of all backgrounds have a more enjoyable day at the races. Even with these changes, horse racing can’t win ’em all, but as we discovered that weekend, winning isn’t everything.