And They're Off

Professional horse racing, "The Sport of Kings," is as popular as ever today, even though kings are not. I think they should rename it "The Sport of Chain Smokers in Loud Jackets." But you don't need tobacco or a free-association wardrobe to play the ponies; all you need is a few dollars and a little help from Lady Luck, who is really no lady at all. She is a malevolent shrew who's still bitter that her older sister, Mother Nature, got the plum job of frolicking through forests full of cute woodland creatures, while Lady Luck is forced to frequent smoky casinos, basement poker games, and crowded race tracks, her only joy coming from instilling false hopes and making your cash disappear like free beer at a tractor pull. She is that faint chuckling you hear just after you drop a wad on a "sure thing."

But don't be discouraged. Someone has to win; it could be you. But first, you need to learn some horse track "lingo" so that when you're "talkin' turf" at the "equine oval" you won't sound like a "dork". There are several terms for horses, such as "gelding", "colt", "filly", "mashie niblik", "quisling", "fiduciary", and "@#$&%!". These terms are pretty much synonymous; sprinkle them in your speech whenever possible.

The next thing you should learn is how to read the racing form. The racing form, despite looking like proof that typesetting machines vomit, contains every atom of information about the horses racing that day. Study this example racing form entry closely:

Future Glue   8f  47  33  2h  1#  *
El Lame-O    1&  11  /^   8@
Write Off      9perp.b   19   6  ?~    47789993

Any questions? Good. You'd better make money on your first wager because you're already in the hole $4.50 for the racing form, and another $3 for the official program, which is indispensable because it contains the Clocker's Selections for each race. The clocker is a person who has officially timed the horses in an official workout run and therefore can give you accurate information about which horse should win a particular race, but if he really knew who would win, he wouldn't have to get up at the crack of dawn every day to watch horses sweat, so pay no attention to the Clocker's Selections. However, do buy a tip sheet from one of the many shifty characters selling this priceless inside information, if you want to look like a total geek.

Which brings up our next topic: placing your bet. There are two basic strategies:

Betting made easy: Throw $100 through a sewer grate.

Betting made hard: Fret and stew while poring over your racing form, which you are probably holding upside down, before you stand in line at the pari-mutuel (Latin for "queue of fools") window, where you blurt that you want to bet $5 to win on #2 in the 7th, when what you really meant was $2 to win on #7 in the 5th, but when #7 does indeed win in the 5th, you are spared the embarrassment of trying to cash your incorrect ticket because while you were trying to fold back your racing form and move your program to the hand without the pencil and cup of beer, you dropped it. Repeat for each race or until your money is gone.

Before the race can start, the horses must be loaded into the starting gate. Sometimes a horse will refuse to enter his gate, usually because he is a genius horse and it has just dawned on him that if he avoids entering the starting gate, the midget on his back won't hit him with a stick to make him run until he coughs up blood or breaks a bone. Horses with merely well-above-average intelligence will sometimes not have this thought until during a race; that is when you see jockeys flung to the ground. When all the horses have been loaded into the starting gate, the horses make a mad dash for the first turn, bonking their heads because the starting gate has not opened yet. But then it opens, dirt flies, and the track announcer delivers his colorful staccato race call:

"And they're off... Bad Brakes takes the early lead along the RAYel followed by Tax Dodge on the OUTside with Waste O' Hay in between by a length, then Lettuce Win, Running Sore, and Cash Pit bunched along the RAYel with Stall Wart the trailer. Heading IN to the turn it's Bad Brakes by two, then Cash Pit, Running Sore, Tax Dodge, Stall Wart coming hard on the OUTside, followed by Lettuce Win. A light bulb has come on over Waste O' Hay's head and he has flung his jockey to the ground. Coming out of the turn, Running Sore breaks very wide, trampling many first row patrons, while Cash Pit's jockey jumps onto the riderless Waste O' Hay. Down the stretch now it's Lettuce by a head, then Tax Dodge, with Bad Brakes fading. Lettuce Win--Tax Dodge! Lettuce Win--Tax Dodge! It's Lettuce Win, Tax Dodge, Stall Wart and [your horse here]!"

Don't dwell on your losses. So what if you lost $5; that won't even buy a hot dog here. Instead, start dwelling on your choices for the Quint-a-fect-o-zacta, a Specialty Wager that could pay over $100,000 to the race fan who predicts the first-through-fifth place finishers in the next six races at randomly selected tracks throughout North America, and names each fourth place jockey's favorite color. While you do that, I'll tell you about some of my ideas for making horse racing even more popular.

Idea 1. Let's go all out for speed, by which I mean Formula 1 style aerodynamic technology. Young horses could be raised wearing lightweight fiberglass fairings. Soon, horses would not balk at spoilers, or front air dams. Perhaps fully enclosed body work. For further wind cheating, the jockey could be strapped under the horse. Dragster-type parachutes would add a colorful ending to each race. And did somebody mention safety? No? Good.

Idea 2. Horse Motocross. Similar to steeplechase, but with more wheelies.

Idea 3. No jockeys. Dog races don't have them, nor do marathons, nor any track and field event. They're just excess baggage that can be influenced by mobsters. Think how much more fun it would be to simply open the starting gate and have jockeyless horses proceed at their own pace toward the finish line, or toward an attractive horse of the opposite sex. A bettor would be allowed to coax his horse in the right direction without actually touching him, perhaps by waving a can of dog food and raising an eyebrow in a "do you get my drift?" expression.

Idea 4. Teams. Already there are dual entries, where two horses enter as one (1a and 1b, for example); if either horse wins, that entry wins. The logical extension is to have three or four multi-horse teams in a race. They could box-in competitors, or throw cross-body blocks for each other, while the team leader breaks free or slingshots a teammate ahead. The thrill of roller derby, without the phony theatrics.

Idea 5. Gran-Prix-style starts, where the jockeys have to run to their horses and mount them when the race starts. Better still, a biathlon in which the jockeys first run the race distance, say five furlongs (go on-- say it), before mounting their steeds (or getting on the horse, whichever they prefer). They would still be allowed to use their sticks in the jockeys-only portion of the race. Would we be entertained by fast horses lapping slow jockeys? You can bet on it.

A furlong equals eight geldings and sixpence.