ALMOST A MILLION-DOLLAR BABY
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In the end, it came down to a racehorse's heart.
Stranger still, it was the heart of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's racehorse. And for a member of Red Sox Nation, that made it one hard nut to swallow.
But that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
My interest in race horses began, a few years ago, as an aesthetic one. Up close, thoroughbreds are gorgeous animals, tall and gleaming and strong and beautifully configured with their tossing manes and flying tails. And at the Saratoga track, you can get very close to these breathtaking animals. In fact, you can almost reach out and touch them. But you don't dare do that, because you might spook them. Like the high-fashion models they in many ways resemble, thoroughbreds are quite high-strung.
At first I would just stand at the paddock rail, ooohhhing and ahhing and whispering "how beautiful" as the horses went by. Slowly, though, I started betting.
Betting on horses may be gambling, but isn't anything like pulling the lever on a slot machine. For each race you have to process past performances, track conditions, whether any post position that day is favoring winners, the records of the jockeys and the trainers, the Beyer numbers, what the turf writers are saying, your lucky numbers, your daughter's first name, and a host of other arcane facts and figures. In fact, you could call horses slot machines for intelligent people, if you wanted to call degenerate horse players intelligent, and believe me, I'm not the one to argue that.
This was the year that Randy and I decided to get serious about horse racing. We took a room near Saratoga, and last week we spent three days at the track. By Saturday, the day of the 135th running of the Travers, both of us had turned into betting fools.
That day, the biggest one of the season, the Pick 4 - where you pick the winners of four races - were all graded stakes races with top-level horses. The last race was the Travers itself. The guaranteed payoff? One million dollars.
This was a good year for the Travers. Although Afleet Alex - who won America's heart by first stumbling and then impressively winning the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes - was out for the season, there were still some top horses in the running. Steinbrenner's horse, Bellamy Road, was a big black beauty who had run an impressive 17 1/2 lengths in front in the Wood Memorial.
He was the favorite going into the Kentucky Derby, where he hurt his leg, decisively lost, and then retired for much of the season. His first race back was going to be the Travers, where he was again the favorite; there was a big question, however, whether he was ready to run. Other Triple Crown horses like Flower Alley, Andromeda's Hero and Don't Get Mad, were also in the race.
By collating the picks of all the touts and factoring in speed and distance, Randy and I eventually worked out a bunch of possible Pick 4s. We bet 12 combinations at a dollar each. By the first of the Pick 4 races, the eighth, I had pretty much forgotten the bets. But damned if four of our tickets hadn't picked Leroidesanimaux, who won the eighth. In the ninth, the 101st running of the Hopeful, the touts' "unbeatable" favorite tanked, canceling all but one of our tickets. In the tenth, the 21st running of The King's Bishop, the touts' "unbeatable" horse, Lost in the Fog, turned out to be really unbeatable.
Randy's sunburned face turned an even brighter red. Suddenly we were one race away from a million dollars. Our fate, of all things, was in the hands of George Steinbrenner and in the legs and heart of the beautiful Bellamy Road.
It's funny how you react when a life-changing million is on the line. My first reaction was, "Things like that don't happen to people like us." Randy's response was, "The Red Sox won the World Series last year." I was so nervous I had to go for a walk. When I came back, I found that Randy had shared his excitement with everyone at the rail.
"You're not going to faint if you win?" a woman asked me. "Be prepared for screaming," I said. "How does it feel?" another asked. "It feels strange to have my fate in the hands of something over which I have no control," I said.
And then they were off, with Bellamy Road in the lead from the start. I could hardly breathe, and that was only partly because Randy was holding me so tightly. When the horses came around the turn I could see that Bellamy Road was giving it everything he had. And then, just as they passed by us, Flower Alley passed Bellamy Road by a nose. He went on to win the race by 2 1/2 lengths and he took our million dollars with him.
You know, there is magic in the world, miracles and wonders, and on some great days we are allowed to be a part of it. On Saturday our lives were entwined with the life of a great horse who was running his heart out. We were part of a crowd of more than 42,000 that was cheering it's lungs out for him - and some of them were cheering for us, too. And we were just a few horses' noses away from becoming millionaires. You can't ask for more than that.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.