Sunday, November 7, 2010

Secretariat, Keeneland and how I won big!

It being a clear, cool day here in the Land of Cotton, the lovely Miss Wendy and I decided to visit the local Cineplex. Why enjoy the beauty of a delightful fall day when you can hunker down in a dark room with strangers?

As chance would have it, “Secretariat” was set to start as we made it to the box office. Reviews for the film, starring the bodacious Diane Lane, suggested the movie might be a decent way to spend the afternoon, even though the final act is ancient history – Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973.

That said, the filmmakers have managed to pull together an exciting, uplifting film that should have you cheering and tearing up a bit as Secretariat manages to win the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes – the last leg of the Triple Crown – in style, pulling away from his closest competitor by a whopping 31 lengths.

I mention all this now for one simple reason. I have a horse story – doesn’t everyone? Mine’s true and it all begins eight or so years ago when my daughter, the beautiful and talented Lauren, was a student at the University of Kentucky. Go Wildcats!

The university, most of you will recall, is in Lexington. That would be, um, horse country. It’s one of the loveliest areas in the state, filled with grassy fields and rolling countryside, manicured lawns and antebellum mansions.

Keeneland, the thoroughbred racetrack just west of Lexington, doesn’t have the size or historical grandeur of Churchill Downs in Louisville. But it’s a lovely, picturesque site that draws thousands of horse racing fans from across the country in early fall and spring.

It wasn’t until Lauren was nearing the end of her senior year that we managed to make it to the track. About the only contact I had ever had with horse racing was sitting in front of the TV occasionally to watch the Kentucky Derby. The “Run for the Roses” seemed some sort of odd ritual that came complete with women in huge hats, gentlemen sipping mint juleps and a language all its own – furlong, filly, Trifecta and Quinella. All Greek to me!

Watching from a distance and actually being at a track is, well, the difference between night and day. Keeneland was elegant – remember me mentioning manicured lawns? The area is surrounded by grassy fields and white-washed fences, stables teaming with grooms and jockeys, and public areas filled with spectators.

There was a festive, holiday spirit about the place, a euphonic blend of opening night at the theater, football Saturday and circus come to town. And then there were the horses – glistening in the afternoon sun, sturdy and regal, dancing and preening as they were led by their handlers to the track.

Now that you have the picture, here’s the story.

A few hours earlier, as Wendy and I were making our way across the Land of Cotton, just across the Tennessee border, we made a pit stop at one of those ubiquitous fast-food joints that dot the interstate. Miss Wendy being the sort of woman who has never met a stranger, started chatting with a woman who it turned out was also on her way to Lexington. In fact, and I’m not making this up, she and her husband were on their way to Keeneland.

Turns out they were part of a syndicate that owned a horse, Blue Diamond Run, that would be in the third race of the day that very afternoon. A few minutes later I met Wendy’s new friend and her husband and, jokingly, mentioned that we’d have to place a bet on their horse.

I don’t recall his exact words, but the husband made the point that when Blue Diamond Run was running good, well, he was a winner. Unfortunately, he added, the horse had never really run particularly well. We all laughed, waved goodbye and continued our trip north into Kentucky.

We reached Keeneland just in time for the third race, managed to make our way to the front of the area where spectators were lined up to place bets, then became hopelessly lost with the various options available. I had never placed a bet on a horse, had no clue what the numbers floating in front of me represented or how much I should wager.

Wendy’s only advice was to bet on the one horse we knew that was in the race – Blue Diamond Run. So I handed the cashier $20 and told him to put it all on Blue Diamond to show. Wendy protested and said she wanted to bet on the horse to win. So we split the difference – $10 to win and $10 to show.

By the time we made it to the track, the horses were being pushed into the starting gate, about 100 yards to our left. I had just enough time to glance at the tote board and saw that Blue Diamond Run was a 35-1 shot, essentially the longest of long shots.

A bell sounded, the doors of the starting gate flew open and they were off, a dozen horses flying by in an instant, making their way to the first turn in the distance. I wasn’t certain, but it seemed that Blue Diamond Run was well up in the pack – and pulling away.

I yelled. Wendy yelled. Lauren yelled. I could just make out the blue colors of Blue Diamond as the horses headed into the second turn and, well, Blue Diamond Run was in the lead, holding his own for the moment. I yelled. Wendy yelled. Lauren yelled. In fact, everyone was yelling, screaming for one horse or another. It was utter mayhem.

And then I heard the announcer, a bit breathless with a nasally twang, telling me that the pack was entering the last furlong of the race and “still holding the lead was BLUE DIAMOND RUN; pulling away by a length, now two lengths … and the winner is … BLUE DIAMOND RUN.”

I yelled. But nothing came out. I had lost my voice. I glanced back at the tote board, now filled with a maze of numbers that were utterly indecipherable. I pulled out my ticket, trying to make sense of it. I turned to a guy standing nearby who looked like he had some idea of what was going on and shoved the ticket in his face.

His eyes widened and he told me what I already knew – I’d won! But how much? He glanced at the tote board, did a little quick math, then announced for my $20 investment I’d just made $250.

We hung around for some additional races and toyed with the idea of betting a few times. But, really, what was the point? We had spent a splendid afternoon in a lovely setting, enjoying our moment taking part in the “Sport of Kings”. We were big winners, but we already knew that before Blue Diamond Run make it official.

AND THEY’RE OFF: Keeneland (photo above) is a lovely thoroughbred horse track just outside of Lexington, a perfect spot to spend an afternoon if you’re looking for some excitement.

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