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May 6 - Triple Crown Appreciation

“And they’re off!  Out of the gate it’s X by two lengths followed by…”

Most kids are taken to the ballpark and taught to play catch when they are little.  They learn the game, the
rules and the players, and have a hot dog and cotton candy.  I did those things, too, but I also developed
an appreciation for other sports thanks to Boris, my grandfather.

Boris was a person who was curious about life and the environment and the world around him.  He
would be the one to observe the untraditional and unusual and notice what others might ignore.  He
tried to learn everything he could in his 89 years.  He also tried (successfully) to instill in me an interest
in things, including sports that were not mainstream.  From him, I learned about horse racing.  

He would drive up from Pittsburgh, with my grandmother on Saturday morning.  He and I would go to the
track.  Usually just to give my parents a much needed rest.  We’d take the sports section from the paper
to get an idea about the day’s races, and buy a program on the way into the track for a second opinion.

He approached going to horse races and betting with a very healthy attitude.  We were there more for the
experience, taking in the sights and sounds and betting a few dollars here than trying to win enough to
pay for college.  

He taught me that there were different types of thoroughbreds as they paraded past on their way to the
starting gate.  Bays, chestnuts, grays, palominos, Arabians, the occasional white horse, etc.  He
marveled at the way they moved so quickly and beautifully around the track.  He also noted the spectacle
of the fans, the hats, the pomp and color of the parade and the excitement of the announcer.  

“Around the first turn it’s Z with a slight lead on the rail followed by Q toward the outside…”

We would study the paper and the program.  He taught me how to pick a horse.  He would say, ‘don’t
pick it by the name’.  Of course I still occasionally do this for fun, and once or twice have won some
money by doing so.  But in races as big as in the Triple Crown, going by name will get you nowhere.  
You look at a horse’s earnings and wins more than the odds, and in which races it has run.  Winning a
bigger race, like the Santa Anita Derby, which is a grade 1 stakes race (one being the highest), with
better horses in the race is a better indicator of how the horse may fare in the Triple Crown.

Odds are largely about how many people are betting on a horse to win, and they change.  Winning
horses, with greater earnings at bigger races are the more solid bets.  At first glance, I would pick High
Fly for this year’s Derby - but I haven’t studied the paper yet.  And again, Boris said don’t bet by name.  I
also would avoid betting by owner.  Just because Steinbrenner owns a horse doesn’t mean it’s going to
win.

Of course, there’s the occasional scratch, which not many people can anticipate, save psychics and
perhaps the trainers.  And then there’s the long shot from nowhere that occasionally takes everyone by
surprise.

With his teaching, I picked the Derby and Preakness winner last year.  I missed on the Belmont, but hey,
no one is perfect.

He also showed me how to read the results board, and that if you bet your horse to place, and your
horse wins, you still get some money.

One of the most important things he communicated to me without words, was that going to the track
isn't about winning lots of money.   It was about spending time with his granddaughter.  He made the
point that one can have a good time, bet a little on a few races and go home before the racing ends.

As I got older, and was in town during the first weekend of May, we’d sit and watch the Kentucky Derby
together.  We would tell each other our picks and see how well we did.   

In his later years, we would make a bet between us as to the winner of each of the three races.  We
would each pick a horse.  If my horse won, he owed me a dollar.  If his won, I owed him the dollar.  
Neither horse won, no one owed anyone anything.  He even let me have the favorite in the Belmont,
Empire Maker, as my pick two years ago.

He died a year and a half ago, but I remember him fondly at this time of year particularly because it is the
first week(end) in May.  Now that he’s gone, I take picking a horse for each of the Triple Crown races very
seriously.  I feel like I kind of owe it to him to involve myself in the day and the experience, even if I don’t
place a bet.

“And down the stretch they come!”

Will we see another Triple Crown winner in our lifetime?  So many times since Affirmed in 1978, a horse
has gotten close, winning the first two.  And every time, it can’t find a way to win the Belmont.  I think it’s
possible - anything’s possible.  But I think it has certainly become much more difficult and rarer than it
used to be in the first half of the twentieth century.  Horses are now like relief pitchers in baseball.  
Specialty horses for certain races and distances only.  These specialty horses act as spoilers to the
would-be Triple Crown winners.  Whichever horse wins the next TC, will have to be a true champion.  

For Saturday, I’ll be thinking of the old guy, waxing nostalgic about the good times at the track I spent
with him, and enjoying the race that much more because he taught me how to appreciate the different
and unusual in sports.

And for those who are wondering, I have now studied the paper.  Through careful deliberation, my picks
for tomorrow are:  Afleet Alex (Win), Bandini (Place), Bellamy Road (Show).