Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

One More Furlong

It was always about being on the right horse in the right race when everyone else was jumping all over the favorite or the second choice in a large field where anyone that didn’t know any better would swear that anything could happen. And anything could have happened, certainly so, but often enough the patient discipline paid off in so many ways. The race book near Calle Siete next to the jai alai building unlocked the doors at eight in the morning and Robert and me would open it, notebooks full of notes and books full of information that no one else seemed to care about. The place was empty, save for Robert and me and the waiters and a bartender with little to do until ten in the morning when they could begin to sell booze. We all waited for one thing or another.

Upstairs, there is a balcony-like overhang and one particular table that is by far the best place to spend the day in that race book, with some wooden counters and chairs off to the left facing a bank of smaller monitors, and another overhang to the right facing other monitors displaying mostly other sports like football and baseball. In the middle our table waited if we were early, and we faced the six large monitors devoted to horse racing. Cesar was our waiter, he would deliver our coffee without even asking, a weak but hot small plastic carafe with a paper lid. At ten in the morning, the New York track would begin racing, either at Aqueduct or Belmont or in the deep summer at Saratoga. Also at that time there was a Florida track, either Gulfstream or Calder or Hialeah before they closed it down. I had a good flat-bet profit at Gulfstream and Calder, with only marginal success at the New York circuit.

"Those New York bettors are smart," Robert would often say, as he had handicapped a maiden race with a seven-to-one shot bet down to three-to-one. "They know. They’re not going to let an overlay(1) go off at a price." And Robert would not bet, taking notes instead. We both took a lot of notes, cataloging horses that outran their odds, hoping for a play on them the next time they ran. We waited some more. By then, some of the locals began to show up, two-dollar quinella(2) bettors mostly, and they would bet anything and everything, even the dog races. If the track didn’t offer quinella wagering, then the race book would make it a mutual bet(3), and the locals didn’t care; it was all about numbers for them, all about dumb blind luck.

* * * *

I find it amazing to consider and to examine that I’ve lived here in Baja for so long that there is plenty that I now miss from so many years gone by. I miss Robert, my second and last mentor in thoroughbred horse racing, and I miss the weekends spent in that race book. I miss the Perico back when it still had that gaudy black and white ceramic tile everywhere, and I miss my friend Charlie who died over two years ago from a brain aneurysm. I miss one-dollar caguamas(4) from the gay bar in the diagonal corridor between Revolución and Constitución, and the Canadian old man that ran the place and was stunned that I had no idea it was a gay bar until he told me. I miss the pretty, large-breasted cantinera that used to work days in the Dandy del Sur, because not only was she tacos para los ojos(5), she was the sweetest bartender ever.

But I reckon that I miss Robert and horse racing most of all. Early Saturday and Sunday morning while Rocio slept, I would shower and dress and gather my gear. I felt like a warrior preparing for battle. At seven in the morning I would take a cab down the hill and another to downtown, going over my notes from the night before. Those warrior days are behind me now and there are other, less glorious but equally difficult challenges now. Paying the electric bill, for example, is something I never had to do until the other day.

Of course I took Anna. My eyes aren’t what they once were, and precisely where and how we were to accomplish paying the electric bill were not familiar to me. Anna has been there. Anna led the way. After a walk of about a mile, we arrived at the facility, what appeared to be a substation with both drive-through and walk-up accommodations for those who need to pay their bill on time. According to Rocio, you can pay over the internet now, if you pay more than three days before the bill is due. Or, any number of convenience stores and even the supermarkets can let you pay there, so long as it isn’t less than three days before the bill is due. For the rest of us – Mexicans and this certain gringo put some tasks off until the last minute – you go to the source.

The walk-up booths weren’t crowded, although the drive-through had a line that would make Burger King(6) jealous. Anna had to punch the account into the machine, my eyes couldn’t find it. We had converted some dollars into pesos before arriving because the machines don’t take dollars. The appropriate slot sucked up the peso notes like a baby attacking spoonfuls of creamed bananas. A receipt was spit out of another slot, and we were done. Somehow it didn’t have the same thrill as cashing a winning ticket at the race book. Nothing will, I reckon.

* * * *

Robert and me would sit there and occasionally discuss this race or that one, so many years ago, probably sounding like nonsense to anyone within earshot. After the New York tracks started, the Midwest tracks would gear up and go. Then, the West coast, where we were both in our exact element. In the early afternoon, we would be talking ourselves into and out of betting certain races.

"This maiden(7) race, there’s a Mt. Livermore(8) with a great works(9) pattern, he’s fifteen to one."

"The favorite(10) looks too tough."

"Maybe. But fifteen to one. Big overlay."

"I’m waiting for the seventh at Keenland, a twelve to one shot Danzig(11) filly(12), first time on turf(13)."

"Yeah, but she’s never been past seven furlongs(14), what makes you think she can go a mile and an eighth?"

And so on. The Mexicans would look at us as if we spoke neither English nor Spanish, but some other language, that we lived in some other world. But they did approach us sometimes, either me or Robert, and they would ask us which horse we liked. They saw that we cashed tickets. Mostly, we told them that we were passing the race, but if we did approach the window, we would tell them. And the results were almost always the same.

"Who do you like in the fifth?"

"The four."

"But he’s twenty to one!"


And the race would go off and the four would win. And they would pass by, dejected. Trusting the betting public more than our hard work at handicapping, they couldn’t just bet the number four horse to win, they had to bet it in a quinella with the favorite, and the favorite would run out of the money(15). For them, it was live by the quinella and apparently die by it as well. After all, the favorite wins less than a third of the time. And often they would say this: "If he only had one more furlong!"

That could be anyone’s mantra for almost anything: If I only had one more furlong.

Robert and me would continue into the evening, and I especially enjoyed the summertime when the New Jersey tracks would run at night. Garden State Park and Atlantic City, neither of which run thoroughbreds anymore, would begin at about five in our afternoon and even though most of the races were not good for betting, we would find one occasionally. And when we did, they sure paid off.

Occasionally, there would be a race at one of those New Jersey tracks, a maiden race only for New Jersey bred horses. Looking at the past races of these horses, not one of them would have finished any race they’d ever ran less than twenty lengths behind the winner. On paper, it looked as if none of the horses had a chance. But one horse had to win. The betting public would most often go with the horse that had come the closest, but that strategy didn’t always pay off. One evening, such a race presented itself, except that the race was to be run on the turf, and several of the horses had yet to ever try the surface. This was my specialty. At least, I had a good idea based on breeding which horses were most likely to do well on turf.

I had been waiting for the race all day, and I tried to talk Robert into it but he wasn’t interested in betting the race. I narrowed it down to two horses, and as luck would have it, one was twenty to one and the other was fifty to one. I bet both horses, six dollars to win on each one. We watched the race unfold and the result was anti-climactic, the fifty to one horse won by several lengths and I was silently elated with a three hundred dollar profit. Then Robert pointed to the screen in front of us, drawing my attention to the full order of finish and the pay-outs. My winning horse paid one hundred and seven to win. But, the second place horse was the twenty to one shot that I had also bet. For four extra dollars I could have boxed them in an exacta(16). The exacta paid over ten thousand dollars.

This is what happens.

* * * *

Normally, on a day where the combined tracks would offer perhaps eighty total races, Robert and me might have had between five and eight races of interest, where if the odds held and everything looked right, we would wager. Mostly everyone else wanted action in every race, they were stabbing at the game, trying to get lucky. We had our bad days too. Sometimes we could go a couple of weeks without a winner. Other days it seemed like we couldn’t miss. But overall, we made money. We kept track of everything, every wager, every result, and we knew where we stood.

But there were days that were stellar, too, days that made up for that exacta box I didn’t bet at Garden State Park. There are three lots of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean, paid for in full, waiting for some future date when Mexico decides to run electricity up there. Soon, I hope. I’ll build a big house on that land. And while I did have some money saved up to buy a stake in Mexico, I have to thank horse racing for a leg-up on finally getting there.

One fall, many years ago, I had taken notes on a certain filly and I was waiting on her to run again; I saw something in her that I didn’t think many others did. That day finally came on Breeder’s Cup Day(17). The filly, which went off at odds of over thirty to one, didn’t win, she came up a nose short. But the trifecta paid thousands of dollars. I let Rocio cash the ticket a few days later since the land would be in her name. I can’t say that I only miss cashing those tickets, even though I do – but I sure miss Robert(18) and I sure miss being a warrior.

If I only had one more furlong.



(1) An overlay in betting is a wager or proposition that the bettor considers to be undervalued. For example, if the bettor believes that a horse should be 3-1 to win a certain race (that in winning the horse should return $3 for every dollar wagered), and the horse is actually 5-1 or 6-1 or more, then the horse is considered by the bettor to be an overlay.

(2) A quinella wager pays off successfully when the wager includes the first and second place finishers in any order.

(3) Track wagers are placed into track parimutual pools for the specific type of bet, and after the take-out (a large percentage for the State and a small percentage for the track), the wagers are paid out in accordance with the odds at the close of wagering. A mutual quinella, or house quinella is sometimes offered in sports books where the track does not offer parimutual quinella wagering. The house quinella is calculated by taking the pay-out for the winning horse multiplied by half the pay-out for the second place horse, then multiplying that number by half of the amount wagered.

(4) Caguamas are one-liter bottles of beer.

(5) Tacos para los ojos is tacos for the eyes. In other words, tacos are considered wonderful and yummy meal-wise, so tacos for the eyes would be akin the French saying, sucre d'oeil, or sweets for the eyes.

(6) They actually have Burger King here. And McDonald’s. And Carl’s Jr. And Kentucky Fried Chicken. Someone should pass a law.

(7) Maidens are horses that have yet to win their first race.

(8) Mt. Livermore was a prolific sire (father) whose progeny had an unusual tendency toward winning their first race.

(9) Works are work-outs, published with dates and times and distances. The patterns of the workouts (spacing between works and distances) are often more important than the times of the works.

(10) The favorite is the morning-line horse with the best odds, which normally holds true up to the beginning of the race.

(11) Danzig was a sire with progeny known for both speed and a liking for turf (q.v.).

(12) Horses are horses much as dogs are dogs, but when breaking down horses into age and gender, the following nomenclature applies to race horses: Weanling – A horse of either gender less than one year old. Yearling – A horse of either gender between one and two years old. Colt – A male horse between two and four years old. Filly – A female horse between two and four years old. Gelding – A male horse that has been gelded. Mare – A female horse five years or older. Horse – A male horse (not gelded) five years or older. Ridgling – A male horse with only one testicle distended (males are born with testicles distended, then they contract up into the pelvic cavity within a few months, and then drop again, except that only when only one drops the horse is called a ridgling; ridglings sometimes race, but are more often used as teasers to see if a mare is in heat, as ridglings are almost always sterile). It is interesting to note that all horses in the Northern Hemisphere share the same birthdate of January 1st, regardless of the actually date after January 1st that they were born. In the Southern Hemisphere, that date is June 1st. The gestation period of a mare is eleven months.

(13) Turf is grass. Racing surfaces include dirt, grass or turf, and synthetic surfaces (there are various types of synthetic surfaces, mostly on the West Coast, including Cushion, Pro-Ride, Polytrack, and Tapeta).

(14) One furlong equals 1/8 mile.

(15) Running out of the money is to finish out of the top three. Except in superfecta wagering (q.v.), it means that the horse does not figure into any pay-out.

(16) Straight bets, costing a minimum of two dollars, are win, place (2nd) and show (3rd). Other wagers, sometimes referred to as exotic bets, include quinella, exacta (1st and 2nd place in order), trifecta (1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in order), and superfecta (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in order). Boxing any exotic wager is the act of paying more money to ensure that the horses could possibly run in any order, or, in a certain combination.

(17) Breeder’s Cup is now a two-day event where the best horses in the world at specialized distances, surfaces, and age groups, run races to determine the best at their specialty. It is a heavily wagered event.

(18) Many years ago, Robert moved to Las Vegas. Last I heard, he was somewhere between there and here.