The greatest race horse to ever live was a reddish-coloured Virginia-bred colt named Secretariat. In two racing seasons, Big Red won 18 of 22 races, only failing to "hit the board" or finish in the top three once, that in his very first race. He was the 1973 Triple Crown winner, capturing the Kentucky Derby, followed two weeks later by the Preakness Stakes, followed three weeks later by the Belmont Stakes, one of only 11 horses to have accomplished the hat-trick in the past 100 years. It was not his winning record, however, that made Secretariat the greatest ever, but the way in which he won. He set track records in both the Derby and the Preakness and in the Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles the most gruelling of the three, he set a world record for the distance of 2 minutes, 24 seconds, beating his nearest competitor by an astonishing 31 lengths. Running on his own, for the pure joy of it for more than half the race, Secretariat pulled away from his rivals with every stride. And for those who say: "You'd run fast too if a guy was hitting you", it should be noted that his Canadian jockey, Ron Turcotte, never even cocked his whip during the entire glorious ride.
We'll not see anything like Secretariat today at Hastings Park, where the track record for 1 1/2 miles stands at 2:29, held since 1995 by a horse named Lucky Son. Had Lucky Son run in the '73 Belmont, Secretariat would have beat him by 20 lengths. We almost see one of his granddaughters, but the filly is scratched prior to the start of the fifth race. Perhaps it's a good thing. After four races, Make Me Up has yet to finish better than fifth, and any comparisons to the exalted grandfather would likely have ended in disappointment.
When I say "we" I refer to myself and my imaginary friend - let's call him Kent - who has accompanied me to the track today to test a theory. Tell people that you're a horseracing fan, that you regularly attend and wager at the track, and often many of these same people who paid $50 a ticket to watch the Vancouver Grizzlies for six years will call you a sucker. Horse racing is fixed, they'll tell you as they head to 7-11 to pick up a few Scratch 'n' Wins, and you wouldn't catch them throwing their money away.
Now the truth is, I like going to the horse races by myself. It's my thing, and I've been doing it since I first started hitchhiking to Winnipeg's Assiniboia Downs with a buddy whose father owned and trained a string of perpetual losers. I like the characters who hang out at the track, and I'm attracted to its slightly seamy side. I like the action of watching two or more horses battle to the wire, the outcome only decided by studying a photo. I like the fact that some of the greatest writers the world has known, names like Hemingway and Stienbeck and Faulkner and Dickens all wrote about the races. And yes, I like the gambling. I don't buy lottery tickets and I've only been to Vegas once. But I love the fact that every time I go to the races I get eight or nine chances to study the Daily Racing Form, make comparisons, call on my knowledge of racing and a little bit of luck (racing luck, any veteran horseplayer will tell you, is essential to racing success) to try and pick the winner. And I am a gambler. I don't make huge bets, generally less than $20 on any one race, I won't bet a horse at odds lower than 3 to 1, and although statistically the favourite will win 33 percent of the time (and finish in the top three 66 percent of the time) I rarely make a straight bet on the favourite. There's not enough of a gamble in it. Not enough return on investment.
So while I don't need to have other folks around to enjoy a day at the races, horseracing is a struggling sport in many parts of the world, including this one, and I like to do what I can to promote it. So I often challenge the doubters to give it a try. All you have to do, I say, is bet the favourite to Show (finish third) and chances are you'll have something to cheer about in every race. And, if the statistics hold true, you might even walk away with enough to cover parking and admission. Of course, as I don't bet favourites myself, I've never actually tested this theory. So today Kent will do that for me.
Hastings Park, like most things on Canada's southwest coast, is in a beautiful setting, near the water of Indian Arm, with the snow-capped Coast mountains in the background. Essentially a "B-level" track in comparison to Toronto's Woodbine or California's Santa Anita, it is still one of the nicest in North America. Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Mecca of horseracing, is located next to a freeway in what can only be politely called a "run-down" section of Louisville, Kentucky. Seattle's Emerald Downs is a nice facility, in that it is only a couple of years old, but it's an hour from downtown in an industrial park. Woodbine, the only track in Canada that can attract the calibre of horses who race for the Triple Crown, is near Pearson International Airport. Arriving at Hastings, we settle in near the top of the grandstand, where we can see the horses race along the backstretch (at ground level, the infield Tote Board obscures the view) light a smoke (the racetrack is one of the few places where smokers still outnumber the health-conscious, environment-protecting, SUV-driving crowd) sit back to enjoy the scenery and study the Form.
The first race is for 2-year-olds, Juveniles as they're called, racing 3 1/2 furlongs, or just under one-half mile. Of the eight horses that enter the starting gate, only four have ever raced before, and only one of those has raced twice. It's the kind of race where anything can happen, from a horse refusing to enter the gate, to a horse refusing to leave once the gate is opened. I'm a gambler, but I'm no fool, and I usually don't bet these kinds of races. Kent, on the other hand, can be as foolish as my imagination will allow, and he puts $2 to Show on the 6-5 favourite, a black gelding by the name of Deas Island. To my eye, there's not much to make Deas Island the favourite over any of the others, except for the fact he had the fastest training time one day last week. But training is one thing, and racing is another, and when the gate opens Deas Island hesitates for a second. The next time Deas Island runs, the Racing Form will note he was "left" at the gate. At this short distance, being left at the gate will kill you. Kent is 0 for 1 on the day.
The thing that I notice in the first race is that five of the eight horses have the same father (although they all have different mothers), a horse named Vying Victor. There are a few areas in thoroughbred racing where Canadians have left a mark. The aforementioned Ron Turcotte, Secretariat's jockey, is one, as is jockey Sandy Hawley, the first North American rider to win 500 races in one year. Where we can really take pride though, boys, is in Northern Dancer, the most accomplished stud in North American racing history. A small, scrappy colt born on Windfields Farm near Oshawa, Northern Dancer won the first two legs of the 1964 Triple Crown, literally ducking under the neck of a larger rival to avoid being trapped on the rail on his way to the Kentucky Derby win. Injured in the Belmont, Northern Dancer began his stud campaign the next year. Of his first crop of 21 foals, 10 went on to be Stakes winners, the measure of any horse's ultimate worth. Over the next 22 years, Northern Dancer produced 645 foals, 146 of whom became Stakes winners, a percentage that makes him hands down the greatest sire in the world in the past 50 years. As a grandfather, or "sire of sires", Northern Dancer is without par. His son, Nijinsky II, became the only horse in 65 years to win the English Triple Crown, and then produced 155 Stakes winners of his own. Another grandson, Deputy Minister, was Champion Horse in Canada and Champion 2-year-old in the US, while his son, Awesome Again, won the 1999 Breeder's Cup Classic, the richest race in North America. Another son , The Minstral, won four Group 1 (on par with the Kentucky Derby) races in Europe and his son, Cigar, captured the imagination of the racing world in the mid-90's by tying a record for winning 16 consecutive races. Another Northern Dancer son, Sovereign Dancer, fathered Gate Dancer and Louis Quatroze, both of whom won the Preakness Stakes. The list goes on and on, because Northern Dancer could go on and on. He was retired from stud duty at the age of 26, and died in 1990 at the age of 29. His line, however, will continue for decades and it is unlikely this country will ever produce another one like him.
With Northern Dancer on my mind, I step up to the wicket before race two and put down a bet on one of Nijinsky II's granddaughters, a filly named Little Ballerina. Although there are automatic betting machines throughout the track, I always go to the wickets. It's part of the tradition. And on this day, I step up to the wicket with a lot a confidence, as I'm actually betting with the track's money, $38 I won on the last race I was at three weeks ago. Little Ballerina goes off at odds of 5-2 (lower than I like to bet, but she was 4-1 when I made the bet, and you get the final odds when the race starts, not what the odds are when you bet) and things initially go well. Little Ballerina is sitting fifth on the backstretch and starting to make a move on the leaders, when she has to check for a horse cutting in front of her. If the cut-off is severe enough, the affected jockey can file a Claim of Foul and the Racing Stewards can disqualify the offending horse. In this case, however, the move only causes Little Ballerina to slow her forward momentum enough so that by the time she gets back up to full stride it is too late. When they hit the wire, a mere six lengths separates the seven horses, with Little Ballerina at the back of the pack. The favourite, Fleet Alberta also finishes out of the money, and Kent and I agree we may be in for a long day.
And so it goes through the afternoon. On the next race, Kent's horse beats mine out of second in a photo finish behind a 17-1 longshot, and he collects $3.00 and I get nothing (I always bet my horses to Win (1st) and Place (2nd). If it wins, you collect the money for both places, and if it gets second, you usually at least get your money back. You can bet "across-the-board" or Win, Place and Show, but the money you get if it runs third doesn't usually make up for the amount you've bet). An even money favourite wins the 4th, and Kent makes 20 cents. I stay away from the 5th, which features a horse named Judge Dis Crystal, whose grandfather was named Judge Smells, and Kent collects another $3.00. The 6th is a wash for both of us. But things look up in the 7th as my pick, Bently T, wins at 7-2 and I collect $29.50 for my $10 bet. I'm back on the rails, as they say around the track, but in for a heartbreaker in the 8th. Vaux L'taire, at 8-1 my longest shot of the day, has me cheering in French as he hits the home stretch with a two length lead. If he can hold on I'll collect somewhere in the vicinity of $60, but (sacre bleu!) he cannot. He's caught and passed with less than 100 yards to go, and we settle for second-place money only, the princely sum of $16.00.
Undaunted as we go into the last race of the day, the sun is shining and I'm still holding $15 of the $38 the track gave me when I started. With a bounce in my step and little to lose, I go for broke, scattering $22 among a couple of different horses. None of whom ultimately show up. Four and a half hours after we arrived, we head for the parking lot to tally the day's numbers. I've lost $7 out of my own pocket, plus the original $38. A bad day at the races, but better than a good day at work. Kent, for his part, spent an imaginary $18 and collected an imaginary $10.90, an imaginary loss of $7.10 for the day. It was a rare day that saw four double-digit longshots win races, and the statistics didn't quite hold up as favourites won 2 of 9 (22 per cent), and finished in the money in four races (44 per cent). But its been an entertaining afternoon, and I have a feeling Kent will be back. The beauty of horseracing is that there is always another day. Something you can't say if you're a Vancouver Grizzlies fan.