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Luck be a Lady

Neatly dressed in a blue suit, he stood there conspicuously and patiently, his arms folded across his chest, a rolled up Racing Form in one hand. On either side of him, there was no line. He could have walked right up to a mutuel clerk and made his bet. But he chose to remain instead in this stalled furrow. From behind his wire-rimmed glasses, he stared intently at the back of the man holding things up, or, to be more precise, he stared at the back of a pomegranate-red Tommy Bahama shirt.

Oblivious to the inconvenience he caused, Mr. Pomegranate leaned into the window and called out his bets, seemingly for the entire day, handicapping and deciding as he went: "And in the fifth race, give me a two-dollar exacta box, 3-4-5. No, make that 2-4-5. And I want two dollars to win on the 7 and four dollars to show on the 10, and then I want a ten-cent superfecta. Box the 2-3-4-5-7-10. No, make that 2-3-4-5-7-9-and 10. In the Pick Three, give me 2,4,5 with 1,2,6,7 with 3, 5, 8, 9. And then in the sixth race. ..."

The guy should have been throttled. He went on and on, from race to race, from exactas to superfectas, from pick this to pick that, never fewer than four bets in a race. And directly behind him, the scholarly looking man waited, never taking so much as a step in the direction of another window. If he was annoyed, it showed only in the tapping of a foot. He waited, of course, because changing lines would have invited bad luck into his day. And at the racetrack, that's an invitation that guarantees anxiety.

More than most places, the racetrack incubates superstition. More than most endeavors, horse racing encourages credulity. In an instant, Lady Luck can do a pirouette. And so most horseplayers and even horsemen try not to tempt her fickleness.

Perhaps superstition is so widespread at the track because inexplicable events and outcomes are so common -- a horse losing because he jumped a shadow in deep stretch or because he looked sideways the instant the doors of the starting gate sprang open or because he had to alter course to avoid a punch, as in the Maryland Breeders' Cup Stakes of 1999. Superstition explains what otherwise can't be explained.

Back in 1989, at Turfway Park, jockey Brian Peck was cruising along on an easy lead with a horse named Top Booking. Peck had inherited the mount when Jack Neagle, who had been named to ride, couldn't get to the racetrack. It seemed a stroke of luck for Peck. And it was, but the luck, as it turned out, was unwelcome.

Top Booking led by two lengths, her ears up, and just as the jockey began to think this was going to be an easy victory, the inexplicable intervened. From the infield, where it had been hiding behind the tote board, a deer jumped onto the racetrack. Running ahead of the horses, the deer seemed determined to return to the nearby woodlands. But then, following the deer, there came a brown blur, a doe, that immediately collided with the leader. Launched into the air, Peck had a rough landing that left him seriously injured. Top Booking never raced again. Horseplayers that made the right choice and good bets nevertheless had to tear up their tickets. And everybody cursed his luck. How else could they explain what had just happened except by citing bad luck? After all, it was Friday the 13th.

And so superstition intrudes on most people's thinking at the racetrack. Don't change mutuel clerks if you're winning and especially don't change lines. Don't make a bet with a $50 bill. To be safe, don't even touch a $50 bill. Never eat peanuts at the racetrack. Although, to be fair to the peanut, some insist it's stepping on the shells that leads to bad luck. Research could settle the issue, but nobody's foolish enough to undertake a serious study. Most of all, in deference not just to the racing gods but to the god of counted chickens, never ever assume a race is won until the "official" lights up the tote board.

"We're a winner," Big Lou once shouted as a horse he and his buddies had bet on opened up a five-length advantage in mid-stretch. Before the words stopped ringing, the horse suddenly ducked in, hit the inside rail and unseated his rider.

Horsemen are notoriously susceptible to superstition. That's why Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg wore the same gray suit throughout the 1987 Triple Crown. Its luck, however, ran out in New York. Many trainers, you've probably noticed, don't want to burden a young horse with high expectations. But that, too, probably has a provenance in superstition. Just saying that a horse will or should win or that he'll become stakes winner can be, for many, a jinx.

Years ago, a former jockey named Walter Lee Taylor walked the mile or so from his apartment to the racetrack each and every race day to bet his lucky numbers in the Daily Double.

Although he rarely looked at a Racing Form or handicapped the races, he always bet a 4-6 Daily Double. When asked about this, he would explain that if this were indeed his lucky day, he wanted to know about it as early as possible. It would have been terrible to walk around all day not knowing.

Like most trainers, Bob Baffert bows to superstition. Black cats especially distress him, and for good reason. In 1998, he took Real Quiet to New York with a chance to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown. But at Belmont Park one morning, a black cat jumped into the horse's path. Baffert didn't think much about it at the time, but then, well, Real Quiet lost the Belmont in the last stride by a nose to Victory Gallop. And in 2001, Baffert brought a horse to Churchill Downs that he quietly thought possessed a very real chance to sweep the jewels, Point Given. But just days before the Derby, as Point Given walked to the racetrack for a routine gallop, a black cat jumped into his path. Point Given, of course, lost the Derby, but won both the Preakness and Belmont.

Having the best horse isn't always enough. In fact, it's rarely enough. The racing gods must be placated, the mojo invoked and the omens avoided. Why take chances? And so this year, when he brought American Pharoah to Kentucky, Baffert was determined to avoid black cats. Everything was going well and according to plan, with nary a black cat in the stable area; American Pharoah took to the track and trained sharply. And then one day, as Baffert was driving in Louisville, a black cat wandered into the street, just in front of the trainer's car. Baffert pounced on the brakes, made a U-turn and sped off in the opposite direction.

Some might say American Pharoah won the Triple Crown on June 6 in New York, where he completed an historic sweep with a romp in the Belmont Stakes. But the truly knowledgeable know American Pharoah won the Triple Crown on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, where his trainer made a pirouette that would have dazzled even Lady Luck and that averted potential disaster.