Horse players can always tell you about their first big score. Whether it was a claimer, or the Kentucky Derby. They can always recall the sweetness of cashing that first ticket, or watching an equine athlete that made the hair stand up on their neck.
My first big winner was a daily double. I was attending Latonia race course in 1978, and I nailed my first DD in back-to-back five horse fields. Both ends were ridden by Carl Falconer. He was a blue-collar rider who worked as a fireman and EMT in Louisville. The double paid a whopping $12, and the very next day the blizzard of 78′ hit with a fury. I had $12 burning a hole in my pocket, and had to wait it out until the snow and freezing temperatures disappeared. Not bad for a youngster who was tagging along with dad to the races.
My first venture into the world of wagering with a bookie (through my dad) was in eighth grade. I was allowed to make some $2 bets as long as my grades were good and I didn’t get in trouble. These were easy rules, and my love for racing grew by each we watched. The race was at Oaklawn Park, and the name of the runner was Lt. Bert. When I awoke for school my dad had folded open the newspaper on the kitchen table. When I sat down for breakfast, I immediately saw that I was $20 richer. The betting bug had bitten me good.
The Triple Crown did not receive the all-day coverage that it has now. There was the big race, and it would be shown on TV for a half an hour. My first Derby winner was Pleasant Colony in 1981, and I wagered $2 to win and place. Jorge Velasquez rode into my heart forever. My first Preakness victory came one year earlier when Codex and Angel Cordero won in Maryland. The Belmont took a bit longer to get my first victory, and it finally happened in 1984 with Swale and Laffit Pincay in the irons.
My first bad beat was at Beulah Park. Once again, my dad and I were in attendance at the little track. I had the exacta, and then the ugly inquiry sign lit up to have the top four finishers blinking. Actually, I had boxed the top three runners, and the eternal words of my old man echo to this day. “Don’t worry, they will keep up two of your horses. You’ll be fine.” Well, when the tote board goes dark, you can hear the breath of the track draw a deep sigh. The stewards DQ’ed the top four finishers, and my exacta ticket turned into expensive stationary.
Irony is a great part of gambling, and Arlington Park is where I cashed one of my first big payoffs, and received my worst beat to this day. In 1985, Tony Ives guided Teleprompter to win narrowly and pay over $30 dollars. It was a fine score indeed, and I watched it on black-and-white ancient screens at River Downs. This was one of the first ventures into simulcasting in my area, and the future looked bright ahead.
My worst beat to this day came in 2003 with Storming Home. I was on-fire all day long. I had every race leading up to the Arlington Million. I had pick-threes, fours, exacta and trifecta action ending in this race. I had a huge win money bet, and my favorite jockey Gary Stevens was aboard. It felt as if Babe Ruth had pointed to the center field wall, and my home-run was coming soon. When Storming Home opened up a bit down the lane, and Stevens looked home free. His mount bolted right at the wire tossing the rider to the ground. I was sure they had passed the fininsh line, and I was hoping that the rider would pop-up unscathed. Well, when the jumbo-tron showed it happened right at the wire, the inquiry sign immediately started flashing. I was still sure my runner hit the wire, but doubts were looming as I watched the replay over ten times. This was the longest ten minutes of my gambling life, and it stood to be the biggest hit for me. When the board went dark, I knew it was going to be a long ride home to Kentucky.
As I made my way into racing as a career, I found there were stories and characters that would captivate my gambling blood. The odd-ball players with excuses, and the throw-back gamblers to old Newport where gambling was king. The professional players, and the celebrity punters that I knew on a first name basis. This was my first of getting to know the lifeblood of the track. For me, it was an exciting time. I was doing what I loved, and getting to see what was behind the magic curtain was a dream come true. It is fair to say I will remember my firsts. There have been so many wonderful people, and the memories will last a lifetime.
Looking back, can you remember your first? A big score, a bad beat, or the person who became one of your best friends? The track is the melting pot of gamblers. It is the only place where I can say I have seen the Queen of England, and a man rifle through a garbage can for a program on the same day. I have been blessed to have met so many colorful people. It is they who make the game, and it is they who will pass the torch to the next generation of players.