Ice water in their veins

Somebody wrote in this week to ask if cold weather handicapping was different.

That's an excellent question. I assume the reader meant cold-weather racing, cold weather running, not cold weather betting. My wagering patterns tend to run pretty much the same no matter the temperature.

The other day at the races, I came across some cheap speed that always quit. Amazing, isn't it, the way racing styles become ingrained in a horse's personality, oftentimes to its detriment. On numerous occasions I have leaned across the rails at paddocks or home stretches to shout instructions: Will you please get the horse out of the gate for a change!

Guess what. Some connections want their horses to break quickly from the gate as much as we do. Oftentimes, all you can do is play to their nature, which is to find the distance most suitable to their profile. At some of the smaller tracks, you get yelled back at.

When last I said, "Get him out of the gate," the jockey looked at me and said, "You want to ride him, big-mouth?"

The answer was I neither wanted to ride nor bet him.

This time, the cheap speed was at least stretching out from a sprint to a mile. Cheap and brief speed short, you can usually hear hoofs back there, ready to come to get you. Speed that can be claimed for a pittance going longer, your lead will be that much more substantial. True, your cheap speed, if you choose to invest in it, will have father to coast at a mile, or wobble. But who knows, nobody thundering by him at the usual spot, it could give the horse the courage to weave on.

In these-here parts, I have made some good money on quarter horses going long. That's right, it's a common occurrence to see quarter horses move smartly yet erratically from 350-yard races to 880-yard races; may the track rise up to meet you, have a safe ride, Amen. Talk about dangerous. Quarter horses (and jockeys) going around a turn for the first time can be a sight to behold. Sometimes they wouldn't make a left for two apple pies. I have seen with my own eyes a quarter horse going longer for the first time break to such an enormous lead against thoroughbred types that it could stop at the turn and ask for directions and still have a chance to start up once more and win by half a nose.

This time, the brief speed going a mile was the only speed in the race. Sure, it hadn't won in ages. Of course, it always stopped. But who cared: It had never run against a group this late. The remainder of the field would break about as quickly as the Rockettes, kicking their way upstage together; maybe not even that swiftly. The only speed at a mile could walk the last 50 yards and have a shot at the show. Trotting, we had to be in the chase for second at good odds. It was like counting cards. It was why one takes lunch at a simulcast joint amongst certain reprobates. It's why you play the game.

When the gate opened and we shot to the lead (an illusion, as everybody else stepped out), I thought: Oh no, it's going to win. I hadn't bet it to win. I had it second with all the rest.

Races like this are tough to watch. You're like a puppeteer, getting the speed way out (but not too far); trying to weave the longest price through the crowd and toward clear-sailing. Keying one second and hoping for a long one first, you cheer like this: Go, no, wait, faster, catch him, stop, hurry, not you!

The speed quit. Oh did it quit. It was as though the horse had chosen an up ramp on the freeway as it headed for the wire. The second favorite passed us with such vigor, I thought my horse actually moved slightly sideways in the breeze, like a Mini Motor would when throttled and passed by a semi on the interstate.

But we continued to hang for second.

Had they moved the wire?

The winner won by so much that those backing it bumped into me while turning to go collect as I stood waiting for second.

How we won the Photo for the place was impossible to detail. We did not appear to be moving forward with enough force to trigger a picture. But there it was: We were second, six inches past the wire, a thoroughly pooped third.

What does winning ugly have to do with cold weather racing?

I'm not sure. I was going to tell you this good story no matter what somebody asked.

But it could be that inexpensive speed carries farther when it's freezing out there. There's only one way to find out. You keep watching.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com