June 16, 2011

Belmont Park

Belmont Park

Ray was talking up the Belmont all last week, so when race day came on Saturday, I was of a mind to put $100 on his pick. Ray’s trifecta was Santiva, Brilliant Speed, and Master of Hounds. I would have just bet a hundred on Santiva to win. Trifectas look like a sure way to lose money.

I never made it to the bookie. Just as well: Santiva placed 8th in a field of twelve. Master of Hounds did even worse at 10th, though Brilliant Speed managed third place. The winners were long shots; the trifecta payout on a one-dollar bet was $8,268.

It’s been like this all year. “Where have all the favorites gone? Lost to long shots every one,” keened Ray’s colleague Ed Fountaine. Ray himself was scathing:

What’s the story? The simple answer may be that this year’s crop of three-year-olds is a bunch of mediocre horses.

So much for those fabulous bloodlines. Don’t feel bad, Ray. It’s often the same with humans, as H. M. Queen Elizabeth the Second—a world-class authority on horse breeding—could tell you.

I’d like to feel more of the pain Ed and Ray are feeling, but I don’t really care much about horseracing. As a conservative, I approve of it in a general sort of way. It’s been around forever and is knitted into Anglosphere culture, with novelists, artists, and movies to its credit. In the England of my youth it was considered unpatriotic not to have a bet on the Grand National. My grandfather supplemented his coal-miner’s wages—or more often, I am told, lost them—by following the horses. His betting books survive in my virtual attic; and among my earliest, remotest memories there is granddad bent over his staticky old radio to catch the racing results. Part of my life, part of our world.

A fading part, some say. “The thoroughbred racing industry is in a downward spiral,” rumbles The New York Times. If so, someone forgot to tell the Belmont punters: This year’s gate was up 23 percent on last year, according to Ray—and that, in bad weather. Like boxing, goes the line, horseracing has an aging fan base and has drifted out of line with common feelings about how we ought to treat animals—or in boxing’s case, each other.

Phooey. Riding horses to exhaustion and punching each other in the face under agreed rules are worthwhile and manly pastimes, far better pedigreed and infinitely more exciting than hitting balls with sticks, tossing leather bags across a field, or chasing a puck around on ice. Now I’m wishing I’d placed a bet—just to help keep the owners, trainers, jockeys, and bookmakers in business.



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