Lots of bad stuff can happen at the horse races.
There's bad luck. Depending on how long a handicapper lives, bad luck can even out. A hundred and one years of age is about when that happens. Bad luck is out of a horse player's control: A terrible decision by a jockey; a terrible call by the stewards; losing a photo by an inch; trouble; injury; the inexplicable.
There's bad handicapping. An example of bad handicapping is letting one horse beat you -- having all but one capable horse covered in an exotic wager, and then watching dumbly as that one takes the money. An experience like that can reappear in your mind's eye at such times as six months later when you're giving a speech in front of hundreds of people and see a color or a name that reminds you of the time when you let all that money slip through your pockets when you didn't take fifty bucks to cover the only one that could beat you.
An example of bad handicapping is having all but one capable horse covered in an exotic wager, and then watching dumbly as that one takes the money.
Bad handicapping can be justified with odds in your favor that can shove an event into the bad luck category. But some bad race track experiences stand alone. As the near-perfect Robert De Niro said in "The Deer Hunter," explaining the reality of a moment to some Pennsylvania steel town pals, "This is this." De Niro was getting ready to go to Vietnam. His chums were getting ready to go back to town to chase some women.
At the horse races, bad is bad.
One recent day, I put together a pick four ticket that cost around a hundred bucks and had most things that a halfway decent horse player could hope for: a single that could defeat its field on the worst day it ever had. Another of the races was a turf sprint, with most of the entries having only eaten grass before. Only a couple had run competitively on the turf. Another Pick Four race featured a favorite that had been off more than two years. And there was a cheap claiming race held together by tape with half a dozen having a chance to win.
And, as can happen when life is good, when the weather is fair, when the company is good, and when the short shorts are out and the good times are rolling, I forgot about the races. I didn't put in the Pick Four ticket.
And then came one of the toughest questions in all of horse race wagering: Should I see what had happened to all those horses that I should have bet?
What if the only speed in the turf sprint won after an overly generous double-figure morning line? What if, as had been the case a million times before, an open plodder sprang the upset on the thinly disguised state bred gang of pretenders? Had the horse off two years needed a race and a different trainer? Had the one that couldn't lose won by 10?
Had I saved the hundred bucks that I had forgotten to bet?
Did I really need to know what had happened?
This wasn't like passing on a race. Passing on a race meant you hadn't liked much of anything. This could have been bad.
So here's what I did.
S-l-o-w-l-y, and with shallow breathing and nervous fingers, I pulled up the first race, covering with a card on the computer screen the prices paid by the winner, thinking: please miss.
Everything hit at generous prices, one of the rare times that I can recall having thought that about horses I had liked.
Imagine how much fun some people must have had rooting home the winner of the second Pick Four race, the one where the horse rallied on the outside to pay a handsome amount.
All I was able to accomplish on this day was refraining from looking at the Pick Four payoff. Maybe it wasn't thousands. Seeing the individual winners was bad enough.