Message from the end bar stool

Jan. 7, 2013.

Open Letter to the Owners of Inexpensive Claimers:

I don't like Open Letters. They run toward being self-serving and cheesy.

But this is an emergency.

Last week, Thursday the 3rd of January to be specific, an 82-1 horse beat me out of enough money to cure most of what concerned me.

I of course had the one that ran second at something like 15-1, which is the way traumatic races pan out. You're never next to last when one from beyond left field wins. You're next.

The race in question transpired at Penn National. It was a $5,000 claiming race for non-winners of three.

I was put on this earth to play $5,000 claiming races. These contests involve the salt of land trainers and owners, some earthy, some slippery. As for the horses themselves, most have more heart and guts than skill. The jockeys have more courage than the reality swamp show people who dangle their toes in gator water.

Cheap claiming races have vibes of their own, unique patterns that might warrant the paging of a psychiatrist elsewhere: in the lower claiming ranks, horses can win on five days rest because the last race around the track could have been the same as rest; horses brought in from the north 40 the morning of a race can seem to suffer from truck-motion sickness; barns tend to run extremely hot or cold.

You find payoffs in cheap claiming races that make less than no sense, results that are farther out than almost impossible, performance lines that read like science fiction.

The one that beat me was named Tribute, a better name than most, one of those subtleties in cheap racing that suggests the one naming the animal had something of a creative spark.

The trainer for Tribute was 2 for 88. Imagine for a moment just how difficult it might be to win only twice in almost a hundred tries.

Almost impossible.

The jockey was 9 for 158.

What's that, six percent winners?

They could strap me to the backs of $5k claimers and I would win 7 percent of the time.

Tribute showed the hoof prints of a well intended horse destined for the also-ran ranks. It started out in maiden specials and then went in a downward spiral to a maiden $7,500 claiming win, then a second victory in a non-winners of two at $5,000.

The race Jan. 3 was at six furlongs.

Tribute had the ten post, not so hot.

It's last three were at a mile or more.

Tribute was two for 12, not bad at all. Its best Beyer was 58, decent enough for a $5k horse. As it had never been more than 17-1 in any of its 12 races, I gave serious consideration to playing the horse in some cheap bets. It had a competitive stalking style. Against a lot like this, who could pretend to know anything for sure.

Tribute was listed at 20-1 in the morning line. And then it was 30-1, 40-1, 50-1, and right on up the chart reserved for likely losers.

I clearly thought: If the people who have the horse don't think enough of it to bet a little something on it, how could I?

Sixty to one, 70-1, 80-1, 82-1, they were off and running.

I didn't give Tribute another thought until I heard its name called feverishly by a track announcer who himself sounded like he had just seen a ghost. As the one that was trying so hard to bring me the big money strained for the wire, the announcer called correctly and excitedly that Tribute was splitting them, was coming on with a surprising surge and was about to light up the tote board at a million to one, or thereabouts. And that he did, winning easily, paying a million dollars on the win, or thereabouts, bringing the jockey's and trainer's stats to a combined 11-246. Make it a quadruple bartender.

Had Tribute been 30-1, I would have probably put something on it.

Such are the sometimes tangled brainwaves of horse handicapping.

So listen, if you have a horse that could win at a big figure, go ahead and put a little something on its good old nose.

We're the ones out here keeping the game going.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.