This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
“Sometimes, all you need to know is one thing,” says Louisville attorney J. D. Raine, an avid racing fan who has followed the Breeders’ Cup from its inception, and occasionally happened onto a very nice pick — such as hitting a very difficult-to-foresee exacta in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1988, the first time the Breeders’ Cup was run at Churchill Downs.
“If you recall, that was the Breeders’ Cup that it rained through the whole week and was going to rain on Saturday — and everybody knew it,” recalls Raine. “The track was going to be sloppy, and Gulch was the horse to beat. He was a top horse, loved the slop, plus he had Angel Cordero, who was about the best jock in the world then.”
Which gave Raine — and a whole lot of other people — half the exacta. Gulch would go off as the 5-1 second choice.
But for the other half of the exacta, well, that’s where you needed to know something others didn’t to find Play the King, a horse coming in from Canada that was almost a total unknown. Play the King ended up going off at 49-1, the longest-odds horse in the race.
“And I would never in the world have bet on Play the King if I hadn’t run into his groom at Phoenix Hill,” says Raine, referring to the popular Louisville nightspot that features live music. “It was Wednesday night and I was there to see Jerry Jeff Walker. After the concert is over everybody gets in the coat line and there’s a young guy standing in front of me waiting to get his girlfriend’s raincoat. He’s got on one of those nylon jackets that says ‘Molson Million,’ which is a big race at Woodbine, in Toronto, and it has all these different flags all over the back of it. I say, ‘You must be here for the Breeders’ Cup,’ and he tells me he takes care of Play the King, that’s here for the Sprint. Naturally, I ask him how the horse is going to do, and he says, ‘Oh, he’s training great. Looks great. Likes it down here.’
“Now, this is a horse that’s about 30 or 40 to one and I haven’t even looked at him. Haven’t heard one person say his name. So I asked the guy how the horse is going to like the mud. ‘Won’t bother him a bit. He loves mud.’ So I bet him to win, and wheel him on the bottom in the exacta. Plus, I boxed him with Gulch, who’s the one to beat.
“In the race, Gulch and Play the King both sit back in the pack early in the race, then come flying in the stretch, Play the King gets the lead, and then Gulch gets up to beat him by three-quarters of a length. Exacta: $582.40.
“A lot of these things,” says Raine, “are because you know one thing. Or because I ran into that kid at the bar.”
Of course, there’s a big asterisk that must be attached to stories of this kind: Most of the time, the inside information will get you an empty wallet. There was a big buzz, for example, for the Irish-bred horse Barathea when he flew into L.A. for the 1993 Mile at Santa Anita. But, alas, when he got to the first turn, Barathea went straight. One-mile races in Europe are generally contested on courses with long straightaways, but a mile at Santa Anita goes around two turns. (Barathea didn’t like that second left, either.)
So the next year when this Irish guy tells us (confidentially, of course) that Barathea is a “serious harse,” we figured it would probably be more of the same, with Churchill Downs’ turns configured the same as the course at Santa Anita. “They’ve been working with him on that,” we were reassured. “Yeah, well, no thanks,” we said — then cried a river when Dettori toured Barathea around both turns like he was driving a Ferrari. Missed out on a $22.80 win mutuel, $583 exacta and $3,526 trifecta. Plus a pick-3 payoff that wouldn’t fit on the tote board.
Later, we learned that owner Sheik Mohammed Al Maktoum, who can afford to do such things, had constructed a practice course in England that duplicated to the inch the exact arc of the Churchill Downs turns, and trainer Luca Cumani had run Barathea round and round the thing until the horse got it right.
Photo: Breeders Cup