(Second of two parts)
It was 10 minutes before the fourth race at Saratoga on Aug. 9. Six fillies — maidens all — had been called from paddock to post. They entered onto the track single file, their jockeys tugging reins leftward toward the railbirds standing elbow to elbow on the track apron, leaning over the fence searching for a clue. Somebody hollered to Irad Ortiz Jr. who was riding the No. 2 horse, Saratoga Miss. The 20-year-old jockey turned in the saddle, locked eyes and smiled. He raised his right hand with index and pinkie fingers extended and rolled his wrist back and forth.
“That’s a good sign!” yelled a John Belushi sort who was over his beer quota. “THAT’S A GOOD SIGN!!!”
Superstitions abound at the track. A horse winks, bet the gray, use the colt named after a mobster — Barzini — and hope that track announcer Tom Durkin will proclaim, “It was Barzini all along!” (It wasn’t).
I went with the secret hand signal: “Six to win and six to place on the twelve,” I told the mutuels clerk with a false air of assuredness.
“There is no twelve,” he replied.
“I mean the two.”
He punched some buttons and out from the tote machines whisked a 3x3-inch square piece of white paper with black print that had the date, the race, the type of bets, a bar code and the amount wagered. On the back it read, “Winning wagers and refunds must be presented for payment on or before March 31 of the year following the year of purchase.”
That’s any time before April Fool’s Day, 2014. Or is it 2015?
I walked to the rail and waited with quiet anticipation until the betting windows closed, bells rang and the starting gate burst open. “They’re off!” cried Durkin.
It was a five-and-a-half furlong race on the nine-furlong track, and thus the starting gate was on the other side of the oval, far in the distance. Durkin would be our eyes and as they raced down the backstretch he reeled off the horses’ names from first to last. The front-runner was Forbidden Talent, ahead of Johnny Meatballs. Then came L’S Escalator, Sheered and Crystal Rocket.
“Saratoga Miss,” Durkin exclaimed, “is going in the wrong direction.”
No need to wait till the finish, I turned and deposited my losing ticket in the trash and went to the well, the Big Red Spring out of which people have drank since 1859, tucked away in the rear of the picnic area and tended to by Rayce Tucker, a college-aged kid who was handing out drinking cups and sips of legend.
“It’s good for you, it brings good luck and it’s delicious,” he cracked. “And that’s all true except the last part. It tastes like you’re throwing a handful of pennies in your mouth.”
“It’s awful,” agreed John Connelly, a 66-year-old marathoner from D.C. “It’s disgusting.”
With cup in hand I walked under the gazebo where water from three long-stemmed spouts was splashing into what resembled a large round birdbath. “It’s good,” said Saratogan Marty Sherman, who told me he was the chairman of the New York High School Wrestling Association. “After having done it for 60 years I’m used to it. Drink it straight down, don’t sip it.”
And so I did. It was cold and had a heavy, snarky sulfur taste, but it was better than some of those god-awful tasting concoctions at health food stores. I gulped another and returned to the track and hit a $58 exacta.
A few races and several trips back to the well later, I realized the good luck part is a one-time deal.
Even the pros can’t pick ’em at the Spa, or so I’ve thought, nor can the street hustlers waving tout sheets in peoples’ faces like the guy with the captive audience at the corner of Union and East avenues.
He was short with a blonde pony tail that crept out from under his straw hat that was festooned with horse buttons. “All the top picks! Right here folks. Free money. They’re giving money away inside. Like shooting ducks at Coney Island!”
Inside the track I groused to the program vendor about the ubiquitous, noisy, phony fortune tellers that were begging to be believed. He pointed to an olive-colored tout sheet called Sure Thing Selections next to the Racing Forms and said, “Some of these guys are real handicappers. This guy has a following. It’s his business. He does it for a living.”
Realizing my own handicapping strategies were devoid of actual skill, I handed him $5 and unfolded the sheet to read handicapper Dave Gonzalez’s money-back guarantee. Gonzalez would refund my money if he didn’t pick at least three winners on the card, or if his top selection in each race didn’t return a net profit.
Determined to follow his advice, I wagered $5 across the board on his top pick in the first race and it won. I put $6 across on his horse in the next race and it won. I looked at the Racing Form to see how the horses I’d handicapped had fared and both had finished out of the money.
At the end of the day, I was ahead $150. On the way out, I handed the program vendor 10 dollars and told him, “It was the best advice I got all day.”
The next morning I bought another of Gonzalez’s Sure Thing Selections. “My man,” said the vendor.
Seated near the footpath separating the paddock from the picnic area were hometown friends Bill and Candy Johnson and I offered him the tout sheet to jot down Gonzalez’s picks. I don’t know how Johnson fared that afternoon, but Gonzalez picked four winners from 10 races (with one scratch) and a $2 flat bet on all 10 would’ve netted him an $11.60 profit. A $20 bet would’ve netted $116, and so on.
It was hot and crowded and interlopers had seized my picnic table. I’d broken even in four days and seen beautiful women in fancy hats and watched carefree frat boys firing up $25 cigars. It was time to get in the car, drive home and listen to the Red Sox.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.