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Nice guys — and equines — finish third.
That was the plain, conservative takeaway from two weeks ago, when vacation summoned me into the state of Kentucky.
My girlfriend has a love for horses and always wanted to see the attractions surrounding them in the Bluegrass State, so we decided to spend a week there this summer.
I was able to get in a few destinations of choice. We took the time to visit the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington and attempted to get inside the fortress that is Rupp Arena, only to find that the outer doors were locked for the commoners such as ourselves.
However, this sojourn was about the horses. And to a similar extent, my wallet.
We spent Friday at the hallowed grounds of Churchill Downs in Louisville, site of the Kentucky Derby. It wasn’t a Derby Day by any stretch of the imagination, but those waiting to get in didn’t care. There were outlandish outfits and hats, groups upon groups of people waiting with their selfies popping at every turn. It easily put my blue shirt and khakis to shame.
Friday was the next-to-last race day of the spring season at Churchill Downs before the track takes a racing hiatus until September. While I didn’t know the first thing about coming up with the winners going into the experience, I was determined to give the practice of “picking the ponies” a try. It was nothing outlandish. Going in with a modest amount to wager, if I lost what I brought, then that was it. At least I would have had the experience, and just a little less in my pocket.
But at day’s end? Picking nine of the 11 races, I departed through the Churchill Downs gates with the princely sum of $7.60 more than with which I entered.
Right now, Kentucky doesn’t have a major professional sports team to call its own. That Kentucky-Louisville hate is real on the collegiate scene. Yet rest assured that in the absence of big-league sports, the horse industry is the substitute.
The thoroughbreds are treated and revered like NFL stars, and Derby winners are understandably toasted forever. At the Kentucky Derby Museum, visitors can watch a riveting 360-degree film entitled “The Greatest Race,” which does an unbelievable job of immersing viewers in the sights and sounds of Derby Day. Already, the museum has space to celebrate future winners — all the way until the year 2054.
Consider that when it comes to the Derby, only 3-year-olds are eligible. That means those horses have just one shot — and two whole minutes to etch their names in the history books. If you’re Maximum Security, you’ve obviously made history in the wrong way.
At the Kentucky Horse Park, visitors can gaze upon previous Derby winners, including Go For Gin (1994) and Funny Cide (2003). As we watched Funny Cide be released into his paddock late Wednesday afternoon in a manner befitting a former champion, the park guide made it clear that the horse still has a dedicated fan base that comes to see him regularly.
Say what? A fan base? This is Kentucky, after all.
Back at Churchill Downs, the mission to walk away with extra cash in my pocket was a plodding process. Clutching the race-day program that contains more information than you’ll ever need, there were conservative calls a plenty.
In the most simplistic form, you can pick a horse to win, place (finish second) or show (finish third). Should you pick a horse to show and it gets in the top three, you’ll at least walk away with something, yet less than if you made the bolder call to win or place.
Making a minimum $2 wager isn’t exactly the hardest task in the world. There is an army of Churchill Downs employees at multiple locations, ready and waiting to accept your prognostication on a race.
Some people were willing to take chances on horses based on a lucky number or the color of its silk. I didn’t do that, at least, relying on past performance from the horse, its jockey and its trainer as well as if the race was run on Churchill’s dirt or turf surfaces.
I hit on a winner in the second race, guiding Snap Hook and his 4-1 odds to a win. As I gleefully collected my $22.50 for this achievement, an electronic voice said “Quit now.”
Yeah. That didn’t happen.
I took fliers on a few horses, such as Kowalski at 10-1 in the fourth race. Why did I pick him to show, at least? He’s trained by D. Wayne Lukas, the owner of 14 Triple Crown victories. Even though there were better odds in the field, seeing half of the second floor of the Kentucky Derby Museum dedicated to Lukas was enough for me. Lukas doesn’t put up with nonsense, and neither was I.
Kowalski finished third. Hey, this isn’t that hard!
My most aggressive play was in the eighth race, coming with Sir Navigator at 3-1. Having tasted success earlier and seeing his recent run of good luck, I went with the horse to win, plopping down Alexander Hamilton’s likeness on the subject.
It turns out he navigated his way to runner-up by a nose. Oops.
Thus, it came down to the next-to-last race. Would I accept the meager gain of just over a dollar for the day and just watch the last two? Nah. You’ll likely only come to Churchill once. Take a third-place flyer on Carte Blanche, having run in the top 3 in all three of his races this year at 20-1 and see what happens.
The horse picked up its bronze medal. I strolled to the window, collected my pittance and departed.
Nice guys finish third.