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Spa day: All bets are on

  • Trainer Todd Pletcher's horse Sumner is led from the barn to the paddock to be saddled for the first race at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 8. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/CHIP AINSWORTH

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/CHIP AINSWORTHTrainer Todd Pletcher's horse Sumner is led from the barn to the paddock to be saddled for the first race at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 8.



For the Recorder
Tuesday, August 14, 2018

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. —  My annual three-day sojourn to Saratoga Race Course began with breakfast at the Blue Benn Diner in Bennington. I parked next to a Mercedes with a license plate that said “WRKD4IT” and opted for poached eggs and bacon instead of the grilled donut with ice cream.

In New York, the roads between Cambridge, Greenwich (home of the Witches) and Schuylerville wend between pastures and cornfields next to ripening apple orchards in the foothills of the Green Mountains.

On Union Avenue, I joined a long line of racegoers who’d come early to stake a claim to a picnic table under the shade of the maples and oaks. The guy next to me was in his 20s, holding a jug of water and wearing a Fitbit. He saw me open the Wall Street Journal and said, “Newspaper, huh? You don’t see that often.” 

“Umm,” I said.

“Journalists,” he snorted. “Don’t trust ‘em. I might even trust ‘em less than lawyers.”

“That so?” I said, and pulled out my notebook.

The Handicapper

Dave Gonzalez greeted me as planned at the back of the grandstand near a row of TV monitors and self-service betting machines. His sunglasses were propped on the visor of his NYRA baseball cap, and the table was barely big enough for his laptop and legal pad crammed with handwritten notes.

In September he’ll be driving a school bus — “Mostly for the health insurance” — but these six-and-a-half weeks of summer are what he lives for.

“I do tons of research,” said the 50-year-old native of nearby Mechanicville. “Various notes on certain horses and trainers, workout patterns, sire lines… It used to be only me, but now anyone can do it.”

But not everybody does do it, and that’s what makes him a professional handicapper.

Gonzalez uses resources like the Daily Racing Form to analyze each race, spending “seven, eight hours a night” crunching workout times and racing patterns until he can boil a race down to four horses he thinks will win.

He charges $5 for his “$ure Thing Selections” and splits the money with the NYRA — New York Racing Association. “Today I’ll sell maybe 20, but on weekends like the Travers (Stakes) I’ll put out 200. I’ve never sold 200, but that’s what I’ll put out.”

“Six days a week just wears you down,” he added. “I had a friend who tried this... he lasted one week and he was done.”

Tout sheets like Gonzalez’s offer racegoers an opportunity to bet a horse without doing the work it takes to have half-a-chance of winning.

It’s a daunting, eye-rubbing chore that involves studying every horse, its past performances, career earnings, the jockeys who rode them and the trainers who saddled them.

The website thoroughbredink.com has a 25-page tutorial called “Understanding Daily Racing Form Past Performances” that explains every symbol, abbreviation and speed figure — from what the dot in a box means (inner dirt track) to the lollipop graphic (dead heat) to the importance of Beyer Speed Figures and Tomlinson Turf Ratings.

Gonzelez knows it all and more. He showed me a loose-leaf binder with diagrams of every thoroughbred track in Europe for when overseas shippers land in a turf trainer’s barn at Saratoga. “Now I’ll know if he can handle this track,” he said.

What confused me, I told him, was the number of horses handicappers include in their tout sheets. “Today there’s nine races and you’ve got 37 picks here, so which one do I bet?”

He stared at me a few seconds and replied, “Personal choice. And bankroll. And pick your spots.”

On the back of his green-colored sheet, Gonzalez promises bettors their money back if he doesn’t show a profit: “We guarantee either our top picks will show a flat bet profit for the day, or that we will have at least two winners on top.”

As it turned out, Gonzalez’s pick yielded a net loss of $1.90, but his guarantee was covered when Therapist ($2.70) and Devil’s Halo ($9.30) won the second and third races and Merger of Banks ($4.10) won the ninth race.

It’s doubtful bettors ever ask for their money back, however, because any railbird worth his salt knows that losing’s part of the game.

“I have a fairly high IQ, and this game challenges your intellect,” he said. “Every race is a jigsaw puzzle. It’s harder to quantify than baseball. In baseball you can talk to a person, you can’t talk to a horse.”

The Winner

On Aug. 8, Sue Thompson was with her Greenfield friends, Jimmy and Sandy O’Sullivan, and Carol Bresciano and Bob Weiss. “Bobby’s with us,” she said, pointing to where she had spread her late husband’s ashes.

Saratoga was one of Bobby Thompson’s favorite destinations, and his wish was for Sue to spread some of his ashes where they’d had fun together.

They left after the fifth race when the skies opened and the wind whipped through the trees. A branch snapped over a nearby picnic table, and the group of jovial beer drinkers moved over to my table.

They told me they worked at the Brockton Post Office and each year rented a house in Saratoga for a week. This year’s place cost $2,500 and was close to Pennell’s Restaurant on Jefferson Street. Two of them, Kevin and Tom, wore Red Sox garb and their buddy Dick wore a blue T-shirt with the U.S. Postal Service logo over the breast pocket.

“Dick was a pilot in Vietnam,” said Kevin.

“What’d you fly?” I asked him.

“An F-100, and later an A-10,” he said, referring to the Super Sabre aircraft that flew missions over North Vietnam and Warthogs that are used today against the Taliban and ISIS.

Another member of the group, Brendan, had wavy dark hair, bright blue eyes and spoke with a brogue that belied his Irish heritage. “Brendan’s from Quincy-Dublin,” laughed Kevin.

“Two things I’ve never been accused of are being good looking and being nice,” said Brendan, whom I surmised had more beer in his belly than cash in his pockets. “If I’ve got $20,000 in one pocket and $5,000 in the other, what’ve I got?” Before anyone could answer he saluted the crowd and yelled, “Someone else’s pants on!”

When I mentioned gambling addiction he said, “It’s a bad bug. Of course you don’t look like a junkie, you look normal.” 

Tom, who resembles actor J.K. Simmons, had left to make a bet. When he returned the favorite was leading and appeared unbeatable until a long shot named Tiznow’s Smile surged past her and won by a nose.

“Who’s the greatest?! Who had the five?!” yelled Tom,  who was standing in a downpour holding a beer and flashing the victory sign. “Who’s the greatest!?” he repeated.

His $5 exacta paid $390. He returned holding a wad of cash and gave each of his buddies $20.

“Who do you like in this race, Brendan?” asked Kevin.

“The nine,” he said, reaching into the cooler for another beer.

Later that afternoon, five women stood behind a white rail fence and watched the horses parade around the paddock. After they each chose a different horse, they reached into their purses for a dollar bill. “How are we going to bet?” asked one of them.

“We’ll figure it out,” said another.

Go ask Brendan, I felt like saying.

The Hunch Play

John Dobrydnio has been friends with trainer Steve Klesaris since they claimed horses together at Suffolk Downs. Ten years ago at Gulfstream Park in Florida, Turners Falls’ George Bush hung around Klesaris often enough that Klesaris claimed a horse named Turner Falls. “He took it as an omen” said Dobrydnio.

It was a bad omen. Turner Falls never won a race for Klesaris.

In the summer, Klesaris races at Monmouth Park, but on Wednesday he had a shipper in the third race named Kid Croft and leading jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. was in the irons.

“Think he’ll do anything?” I asked Dobrydnio.

“He wouldn’t be sending him up there if he couldn’t!” said Dobrydnio.

“Is Klesaris gonna be there?” I asked.

“No. He’s staying in New Jersey.”

I was standing near the cigar stand looking at the odds.

The vendor told me they sell between 800 and 1,000 cigars on weekends, the most popular being Arturo Fuente at $20 a pop.

Suddenly it was post time and I blew past Jimmy O’Sullivan who was wandering around looking for our table. I put $20 on Kid Croft at 3-1 odds, but the 3-year-old filly weakened and finished fourth.

Later that evening I called Dobrydnio and said, “I put a loyalty bet on Klesaris’s horse but he didn’t do anything.”

“I told ya Stevie wasn’t goin’ up there!” shouted Dobrydnio.

At Saratoga my biggest wager is $25. If I win it’s because I studied the program and went against my gut feeling. The previous week I’d wagered $10 to win on an 8-1 shot, then went back and bet $25 on the 5-2 favorite that won by eight lengths.

Afterward I stuck around and listened to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” on the PA system. A few others were doing the same, lazing on the benches watching the flags gently wave between the tote boards. 

In 1937, Frank Capra directed a movie called Lost Horizon, about a plane that goes down in Tibet. The survivors stumble into a place called Shangri La where the villagers are happy and content. If Capra had needed a racetrack for his movie he’d have chosen Saratoga, because summer at the Spa is indeed Shangri La.