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My Old Kentucky Memories

May 4, 2009

Losing enough times can cure the most addicted of gamblers, or at least it did with me.  I realized then and there that I disliked losing a lot more than I liked winning, and that was the lesson that has stuck with me to this day.


Before the 135th Kentucky Derby, Steve Janus from wrote about Mine That Bird, “Lowest rated horse in the field by any standards. Stay away.”

            Anyone who bet with Bet Firms might want their money back.

            When the 8th horse of the race came from far behind the pack and slithered and slipped away against the rail, passing every horse and winning the Kentucky Derby by 6 ¾ lengths, the announcers were stunned. Calvin Borel had just pulled off one of the greatest upset victories in Derby history, on a Canadian gelding that cost $9500 and was trailered with a pickup truck by his broken-legged trainer, Chip Wooley, who drove 21 hours from his New Mexico home.

            What makes horse racing fun is the sheer randomness of it. Anyone who bet on the 8-16-2 Trifecta is now a lot wealthier than before because the odds against this wager were extraordinarily high. My son, Kyle, who drove to the Derby with his Kentucky-born friend from Bain, certainly didn’t pick this 50-1 shot although his mom liked the name of the 9th horse, Join in the Dance, who was 49-1, and asked Kyle to bet on it for her. Although Join in the Dance led for much of the race, Mine That Bird flew right past Dance.

            The thousands who bet on other horses weren’t dancing when the Bird won. But my old Kentucky memories were. Mind you, I have only been to Kentucky once when two college friends and I drove straight through to Daytona Beach in 1978 for spring break and drove back a few days later. We noticed the signs for Kentucky and thought of horses but still, we never stopped.

            The summer before Daytona was my fling at the harness race track. I had always been adamant against betting on horse races when my friend, Jeff, told me how he and his dad visited the tracks in the 70s, Hazel Park, Detroit Race Course, or Northville, to bet on horses. When he asked me to join them, I refused, saying I didn’t want to get suckered into it. Losing money just didn’t sound fun to me. But Jeff said, I could bet only $2 dollars and it was fun to guess the winner, whether winning or losing. After many times saying no, I finally said, what the hell? I’ll see what all the fuss is about.

            I don’t remember the first race I bet on but I know I bet on a long shot because of the horse’s name and the $2 I bet turned into over $100. Jeff said I must be skilled at picking horses and I believed him, thinking maybe I do have the right knack.

            I went a few more times to the Hazel Park Harness Raceway on 9 Mile Road and Dequindre with my friends, Jeff and Rob. In our college days, this was something to do, a way to escape the humdrum lives of college students living at home. So what if our friends got to party at U of M, MSU, and Western. We had Wayne State and could drive ourselves to the track at night.

            We began to go more often and I started studying the horses more than the college homework I was supposed to be studying. I studied the odds of each horse, the jockey’s history, how many races each had one, what the horses did on their last races, did they come from behind or lead from the start, how was the name, who was the trainer, how old were they, what did the experts say. Should I bet on the winner or be conservative and just bet on one horse to show? Should I bet on the Perfecta or Trifecta and should I box it? The questions haunted my brain and I needed every minute to decide how I should wager the precious little money I had that Rob and I had earned by cutting grass in the spring-to-fall season for about 30 customers. We lived at home, were on college scholarships, and had some extra dollars in our pockets to waste on horse-racing.

            I won a few times at the track and started studying the horses and began to feel like the knowledge was really paying off. Rob had other things to do at night but he was willing to give me money to chip in with me on my bets.  Since he trusted me and realized that I had been accumulating horse-racing wisdom, he said we could split the winnings.

            I went most every night in the summer and fall, roaming the beer-stained floors, parading around with the rest of the bettors. I went back and forth to the betting window, won a few times, but started to lose some confidence along the way. The wins started getting rarer and the losses a little more. I didn’t keep track of my bets at the track, but I started leaving with less money than I brought. And a few times, I had to tell Rob that I lost his money again. Finally, I advised him not to give me more money until I proved it was worth it.

            One night at Hazel, I began to look around. I watched the men around me, their saddened eyes and their haunted looks. I could see they were simply hooked and realized they didn’t know why they were doing what they were doing. They just had to bet. Even now, I cannot forget the haunted look of a gambler's addiction.

            I went to the last race of the night and said that this was it. If I won, I would come again. If I lost, it was goodbye Hazel Park. I bet every last dollar I had, leaving nothing for food or gas. My bet was for “all the marbles.” I wagered it all.

            And the race began. I stood and cheered for my horse to win. I had picked it based on all the knowledge I had accumulated, the odds, the name, the last three races, the sloppiness of the track, and, not to take any more chances, I bet on the favorite and thought, how could I lose?

            Easy. A long shot won, a horse I didn’t even consider, a horse like Mine That Bird. Mine was in the running but at the end slipped away into the back of the pack. I was discouraged but happy that I had made a final decision. I was never coming back to join the slumped-over, sloppy-dressed racing addicts. I was cured.

            Losing enough times can cure the most addicted of gamblers, or at least it did with me.  I realized then and there that I disliked losing a lot more than I liked winning, and that was the lesson that has stuck with me to this day.

            I told Kyle to bet $10 on a 6-15 Perfecta box at the Kentucky Derby, and I ended up not even close. The highly rated #6 horse, Friesen Fire, ended up 18th, 43 ½ lengths behind Mine That Bird. And I didn’t care. The few times and few dollars I ever bet on a lottery ticket or horse race were just for fun, just to see if maybe one time, I could get lucky again.

            What’s exciting is the fantasy of winning a big bet, thinking what might happen if the gamble pays off. But watching the lottery numbers in your hand and seeing the actual chosen numbers is usually discouraging, a real bummer. And that’s fine with me.

            I will remember my fling with the horses the way it should be remembered, as a moment when I learned the folly of wasting my time and money on trying to win by betting on obscure horses. I was a fool who used to think he was smarter than he was.  

            W.C. Fields once said, “Never give a sucker an even break.”

I was a sucker at Hazel Park and I have been stupid more than once in my life.

My goal now is not to fall for my stupidity again.


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