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Valley of All the Pretty Horses 

Dog Bites, a track neophyte, learns the secret to betting on the ponies: hunches

Wednesday, May 25 2005
It's opening day at Golden Gate Fields, and we're faced with our first gamble: Are we going to pay $7 for valet parking and be a big shot? Or are we going to get back on the freeway and drive to the $4 economy lot at the next exit, as instructed by this ridiculous sign at the entrance? We make a U-turn and merge into jammed traffic. We're here to spend our paycheck on the horses.

We park and file through the gates. There is much tottering and shuffling and pausing for rests as AC Transit-loads of regulars cross the hot concrete, afflicted with what appear to be correctable-but-for-lack-of-insurance ailments. It's just after noon on a Wednesday, and the grandstand is quiet. Today's are all claiming races -- you can bet on a horse or buy it whole -- and people don't make a fuss about the underperforming beasts. During the day we hear no shouting, except in disgust, and no one waves his rolled-up program at the horses rounding the clubhouse bend. Few bother to lean expectantly against the outside rail, as we do. The most iconographic moment occurs when a man tosses his tickets while muttering, "Motherfucker," the tissue-thin slips fluttering to the ground in a Depression-era image drowning in portent, which we ignore.

We're here to make money, not pine for a lost era or search for the soul of America, unless we can find it in a $5 trifecta. (We've recently learned and cannot stop saying cool betting terms like "trifecta," "exacta," "quinella," "superfecta" -- who knew?) Being a track neophyte, we purchase the Daily Racing Form, but we're also armed with Web printouts from Today's Racing Digest. Our plan is to put ourself in the hands of horse pickers such as Steve Fierro, Tim Osterman, and Chuck Dybdal.

This proves to be a bad idea.

We start slow with a $5 box exacta, carefully researched and deliberated from a handful of favorites. We lose. We do the same for the second race, and lose. Race three feels like our race, and we bet with abandon and lose. Race four is practically a gimme with two horses all but fated to finish strong, and we lose. By the fifth race we're ready to kill Tim Osterman.

We've crumpled our newspapers into sweaty wads, which we carry around in our fists as we aimlessly search for a hot dog. Horse racing sucks. We're afraid to calculate how much we've lost, but the clump of losing tickets in our shirt pocket makes us list to port. We get a little crazy at the betting kiosk for race five, punching in a total of eight low-dollar bets in nearly every possible permutation of the favorites, except one that hits. It seems like a good idea to do the same for race six.

We leave shellshocked, our wallet empty. How do people do this?

"Bet on any horse with 'valley' in his name," our companion mutters three days later, while we're stuck in a line of cars waiting to be valet parked for the $150,000 Golden Bear Breeders' Cup. At the nearby Berkeley Marina, heavy winds loft disconcertedly large crab-shaped kites skyward (when did those happen?). Our companion is working out a hunch, and after a quick glance around to confirm the absence of valleys we go back to mentally lining up box exactas based on start times, speed over distance, ground condition, win records, etc.

"Any horse called 'valley,'" she instructs.

Solid plan, we think. How could there not be such a horse?

But first we must pay homage to a Bay Area great. We park and rush to the post parade area for race three, where we adjust ourselves for a moment of racing history. In walks the miracle horse Lost in the Fog, who has never lost a race. Owned by 85-year-old Harry Aleo of San Francisco, the 3-year-old colt is five for five, winning by an average of seven lengths and making Aleo a sudden figure in thoroughbred racing. The horse calmly circles the hay, decidedly at ease. The trainer yanks on the harness and pets a flank. The atmosphere takes on a dim, early-20th-century cinematic hue, which we recognize from Seabiscuit.

In walks Russell Baze, Lost in the Fog's jockey, who's won more than 8,800 races in 29 years, making him the second winningest jockey in history, a record better than Bill Shoemaker's. In 1992, Baze won seven races in one day at this very track. He's 46 years old. He led the nation in wins for nine years. No video game bears his name.

Baze wears a grin. His lined face, sharp and angular, exudes confidence as he watches his horse trot with the only competitors in this race, Wind Water and Olympic Miler, both 3-year-olds with a few wins each. The scene pacifies bettors, and Lost remains the solid favorite at 1-20.

Of course, we bet against him. But we also bet for him. We make all kinds of stupid bets -- exactas, trifectas, a smattering to win, place, and show. We need to taste victory, and since there are only three horses, we can't lose. Literally.

At the post, Lost in the Fog leaps to the front. He's two lengths ahead, then six lengths, and when he chugs past us he perks his ears expectantly, wondering when his jockey is going to tell him to start racing. Baze never does; his whip stays put. The horse wins by 10 lengths, a track record at 1:07.32, and we win $1.50 in cold hard cash. We consider putting our winnings toward a small Coke.

"There's a horse called Valley in race five!" our companion declares. "Dusty Valley."

"Yeah?" we mutter. We're trying to decipher the fractal workout times of the favorites over the last few months. At least that's what we think we're supposed to be doing. "So that's your hunch, right?"

"It's more than a hunch. It's like the word of God."

We head over to the post parade to have a look at Dusty Valley. What a horse! His gray, silky coat just begs to be scratched, and Baze is the jockey, but the odds aren't with him, and we're not ready to play someone else's hunches. Our friend Jessie suggested earlier that Left 'Em Burning looked good on paper, and in the flesh the horse looks good, too, we suppose, but no one else thinks so. The odds are 14-1.

"I'll put him second on an exacta with Dusty Valley," our companion decides.

We're taken aback. This is serious faith-based gambling, this doubling up on hunches.

The announcer calls the start, and amid the din of his mostly incomprehensible chatter we hear him say "Left 'Em Burning" and "lead" far too often to be mere coincidence. By the time we can actually make out the horses at the first corner, it's clear: Burning is alone in front. But isn't that our Dusty Valley sweeping up from the rear? The horse eases next to the leader, winks at us, and with a jaunty flick of his tail rockets to the lead as Baze tips his helmet our way. (Our notes on this event are somewhat illegible.) The two horses whip past the electric eye at the finish line in our exacta formation as the crowd roars.

We fast-walk to the self-service kiosk and drop in the ticket. "$500" pops up on the screen, which we stare at blankly, looking for the decimal point. A pixel could be missing. We stand there dumbfounded -- we may as well be holding a sign announcing, "We don't deserve this!" -- before it finally sinks in: We've won $500. At the races. Or rather, our companion has, but we are on very good terms with our companion, matrimonially speaking. It's time for us to smile and carry on, and we do, first like fools, laughing and pointing at the ticket, and then like track veterans, soberly pocketing the slip and gazing over the track like we've conquered something. Then we're back to acting like fools. (Michael Leaverton)

About The Author

John Mecklin


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