The Fish Feed the Sharks

The cards stick to the table a bit when I pull up the plastic corner of one and see the ace of hearts. I try to keep my blood pressure in check not to get my face the slightest shade of red. I know the others are watching all the while pretending I’m not there. I just know my other card is an ace, but I cannot reveal the card to myself or the other sharks will smell fresh blood. The betting is easy as it’s just money, but it’s the way we keep score. Knowing what to do with a good hand is easier, you just play in turn and hope for the best. But the real challenge is in the deception. If you act soft, you’ll be telling the others the other ace is in the hole. If you’re shooting for the wall with swing-a-way action. You might as well wear a sign proclaiming you’re stacked. So what’s a player to do?

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the human condition. I guess it can be traced back to the first day of school when your chums had your books hidden, and they watched in cool calculated enjoyment with the “who me?” response when you turn to them and ask if they had them. Or maybe it was the first time a girl acted like she didn’t want me to sit at the library table with her, but I noticed she had my initials scribbled on the back of her binder. Either way, I have loved the chase and the solving of the puzzle. If you’ve been watching the road to the Belmont, you’ve seen some of the best cat and mouse in years. If you doubt my words, just think about three players at the table. They are loosely holding cards in their left hand while shuffling their checks with their right. All the while trying not to show too much, or you’ll have them cornered before the starting gate bell rings.


Bob Baffert = I came upon Mr. Baffert years ago at Turfway Park. We had an incredible September program called the “Kentucky Cup Day of Champions.” The best of the best would roll through Florence, Kentucky on their way to Keeneland and all points elsewhere accumulating money for the Breeders’ Cup. He had some real talent in his barn, and his owners were the stuff that dreams are made from. He would act the fool all week long as the gals on the notes team would fall in love with the magical “white-haired-wonder.” The words rolled off his golden tongue and believers he made by the thousands. If you doubted his efforts, you were found tearing up tickets kicking the trash can in disgust. If you played his (3-5) shot, you were suckered in by his (10-1) runner who was in the same race. Oh, this man had the goods. Cool as a cucumber and Teflon to the touch. He had a heart episode a while back. He has become a kinder, gentler player. His words are soft and his actions are filled with truth. For the first time since those long lost days at Turfway, he looks to be here for the right reason. American Pharoah looks like an absolute monster. But, has the Triple Crown run been too taxing for the fire-breathing monster? I think he has the other ace in the hole, but is relaxing and enjoying the moment. Once upon a time he would have had the trophy on his head, tossing the roses in the air, while keeping his eyes shaded away with his tinted glasses so you couldn’t see into his gambling soul.


Kiaran McLaughlin = He is the trainer of Godolphin Racing’s hopeful charge Frosted. This man has been the player you always root for. His credentials are rich. He came under the tutelage of the masterful D. Wayne Lukas in 1985, became a jockey agent for Chris Antley in 1992, and signed on as trainer for the ultra-powerful Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai. In 1998 he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and never wavered once about speaking openly about living with his disease, and not allowing it to define his life. I guess he must have a couple of aces in the hole as he talking about his runner and how he’ll need his A+ game. “We’re as close to the paddock as anyone, and we’re just glad to be here.” This is the kind of player who takes all of your bankroll, and offers to buy you breakfast on the way home.


Michael de Kock = The South African trainer has been a breath of fresh air. He is open and honest with the media, and sticks to his old fashioned training of a horse with natural tactics. His accomplishments are so many he would have to build an extra wing on his home. He has been quoted as saying American Pharoah is a “super-horse,” and he moves like a monorail with great ease. But what he doesn’t drive home is that he has a Irish-bred killer who can put out your lights if given an inch. Following the Derby, he immediately shipped Mubtaahij to Belmont. This is a man who doesn’t stand on ceremony. He is not here to catch a Yankees game. He would be more comfortable in Europe, or Dubai winning G-1 races and watching them weigh his money at the bank. His runner is taking to the track and has been quoted as saying he’ll be on the outside of AP. If you need subtitles, this means he’ll move sooner and apply pressure on his flank. “I don’t think it will be easy, and please American Pharoah stay away and don’t bring your guns town.” He couldn’t care less what the other guys are holding, he has all the aces in the hole and waits with patient care as you put the nooses around your own neck.


The cards are still sticking to the table, probably from the sweat on my hand easing down my arm to my palms. I can taste the money and the glory in my spit, but have to wait it out just a little longer. – I keep hearing this voice in my head. It sounds so familiar, and it keeps getting louder. Can you hear it?