THE 2018 KENTUCKY DERBY presented a conflict: What’s known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” was taking place on the afternoon of my 11-year-old’s birthday party, and I wanted to watch the race.
Believing that when life hands you lemons, you make a gambling opportunity, I called all 10 kids into the living room and slapped $10 on the coffee table. I instructed each of them to pick two horses in the 20-thoroughbred field, and the winner would get the cash. Five minutes later, children who had never watched a horse race were screaming at the TV screen. I’ll never forget sweet, red-haired Maggie wearing a fiery expression and yelling “Go, Free Drop Billllllllly!” But a horse named Justify crossed the wire first, and it was Meha who crowed as she pocketed the $10.
I enjoy horse racing and adore an afternoon at the track, particularly if it’s Santa Anita Park, with the San Gabriel Mountains majestic in the back- ground. My father took me to the Laurel Park race course in Maryland when I was young, and I have done the same with my kids, pairing an afternoon of equine entertainment and ice cream cones with instructions on parimutuel betting. I give each youngster $2 a race to wager, often with surprising results. When we visited Santa Anita before the pandemic, my oldest perused the Daily Racing Form, seeking to decipher the hieroglyphics of split times and weight allowances, and picked near favorites, hoping to make a slight profit.
My youngest, however, would throw his $2 on the long shot every race.
I tried to reason with him. “The horse has 50- to-1 odds,” I said. “He’ll probably come in last.”
To which my son countered, “But if he wins, I get $100.”
And, well, that was not wrong.
To be clear, I’m no grizzled gambler. The track is only about a once-a-year occurrence for us, and I know just enough to be stupid. I’ll read the Racing Form, searching for a horse with high odds who ran strong recently, or who has dropped in class seeking easier competition. I regularly skip simple bets in favor of trying to peg exotics with bigger payouts, combining my wagers in a trifecta box to nail the exact first, second and third place finishers.
It’s probably clear, but when someone asks how I did, I usually shake my head and mutter, “Bad day at the track.”
This is relative. I’m too wimpy to really put much at risk. I rarely bet more than $10 a race, or lose more than $50 in an afternoon. It’s the price of entertainment for a few hours, more than a movie but much less than Disneyland, and we get the thrill of watching awe-inspiring animals.
About those animals: I understand that some people think horse racing is barbaric, that forcing horses to sprint for a mile on thin legs for the entertainment of gamblers borders on, or even constitutes, animal abuse. Add in the heartbreaking deaths: Medina Spirit, who won last year’s Kentucky Derby and then failed a post-race drug test, died of an apparent heart attack while training at Santa Anita in December. This followed the 2018-19 racing season, when 37 horses died just at that track. No clear reason for the fatalities was ever identified.
Horse deaths at Santa Anita have decreased since then, but they do continue. Some people won’t ever watch a race again. I can’t argue with their view.
Maybe that is partly why, on a gorgeous Saturday in February, Santa Anita feels like a ghost town, about 25% as crowded as before the pandemic. Many of the once-bustling food spots are closed, and lines are short at the betting windows. I don’t know if this is because of changing attitudes, lingering COVID concerns, the rise of gambling by phone and computer or something else.
Still, the day is wonderful. Before each race, my son and I watch the horses in the warm-up area, the tote board with betting odds in the distance. We arrive just before Race Three, 6 1⁄2 furlongs for fillies and mares, and I tell my son that almost no one is betting on No. 4, Ever Smart, and that her odds are 22-to-1.
“I feel bad for Ever Smart. I’ll bet on her,” he says, and when I say there’s a reason Ever Smart is the long shot, he doesn’t want to hear it.
We walk to the window and place the bet. A few minutes later, somehow, Ever Smart hits the tape first. Her odds have dropped, but my son’s $2 blossoms into $31.40. He beams knowingly.
It’s a good day at the track.