One of the most dramatic moments in horse racing can take place anywhere from 15 minutes to the post, to the time when they begin loading animals into the starting gate.
It is an occasion of extreme nervous energy.
Your heart rate accelerates.
Your mouth gets dry.
It's difficult to stand in one place.
One day recently, two friends and I went in on a pick three ticket, each kicking in fifty bucks. One of the key races was being broadcast on national television. We had two horses in the race, one short, one medium-priced.
Playing an exotic ticket involving a nationally televised race has become one of the most stressful endeavors in all of thoroughbred racing, with most of the tension occurring before the gates open. It's not the walk in from the barn that causes your breathing to become shallow, not the saddling, not even the post parade.
Here's what can make your heart seem to crawl right up into your throat: Picks from the TV experts.
Having certain of the TV handicappers pick a horse you like, only minutes before the post, can create a sensation similar to having the wind punched from your lungs. There's one person whose pick can leave you as speechless as a scene from a chainsaw movie.
First, some words in defense of TV pickers, both on a national scale, and the guys and gals who pick before races for simulcast broadcasts: it's the hardest great job in sports.
In a world of anonymous internet chickens pecking in hindsight, enormous credit must be given to anybody putting a face or a name on a pick. Expert TV pickers are lucky to run at a .500 pace predicting football games, where starting gates contain only two entrants. Put ten horses of similar form to a test, and hitting the first two or three is not dissimilar to hitting a five or six-team team football parlay card.
The expert picker does not select horses for a national audience in any manner resembling the way he or she wagers at the windows. The pressure to pick on a national scale is such that it is better to lose on a short-priced horse, for all the company you will have, than it is to take a chance on a price. It is every picker's fear that somebody will bet his or her last $900 on a 15-1 shot that you profess to love.
That said, some national TV or print pickers, for whatever reason, and despite the fact that they might be alive on the Pick Six at Caliente, and even though they've been cleaning up off camera, are really unlucky.
What pickers on a lousy streak fail to realize is that they are providing a valuable service by eliminating favorites from contention in small fields. Putting the whammy on a 6-5 horse in a six-horse field, are you kidding? Don't go changing; that's money. If you couldn't find a $20 horse using somebody else's cash, keep those losers coming. Everybody understands how the heat from the TV lights or national website can give a person a chalky complexion. Whatever you do, please, don't pick a 5-1 horse I like; but if you must, pick it ten or more minutes before the post.
The way you use a tainted TV pick is as follows.
If a slumping expert tabs a horse you haven't bet, bottoms up. But if the picker is on a sorry enough streak, and selects one of yours, you really should do something.
On the occasion of the race and pick mentioned at the top of this piece, the reeling TV expert picked one of our selections to win the race. Chaos ensued. Blessedly we were at the simulcast joint. If you have trouble actually dropping a horse from your ticket simply because of another's choice, fine; just add some bets; because when a national picker is picking from inside the box, the jack-in-the-box, bad streaks are hard to rate.
After hearing that one of our horses had been awarded the scarlet letter, we added all manner of wacky savers, clinchers, guessers and losers. The horse picked by the TV expert ran closer to the back of the field than the front. Thanks to our keen eye, and ear, we lost only about half as much as we would have lost had we let the original ticket ride.
As the carny says, there's a winner every time. Frequently it's the carny.
And sometimes winning is not losing as much.
Write to Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org.