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    By Brandon Quick
    Photo by Adam Mescan

    Sometime in my mid-20s, I resigned myself to the fate of being a horseplayer. It was the best decision I ever made. My parents tried to dissuade me from my newfound interest, and women I dated made ultimatums, but all of that was pretty much white noise to me. It didn’t matter how much money I won or lost, or how much time I invested — playing races made me happy.

    I’ve endured losing streaks that would send the average man searching for his soul, and enjoyed windfalls equal to a significant percentage of my annual salary. But horseplayers do not perceive money in the same manner as most people. Does this make us degenerates? I once jokingly asked an older horseplayer named Jim if I could borrow 100 bucks. In an instant he was reaching into his pocket. “You need it?” he asked.

    Cash is the confirmation, but not the destination. The track is a puzzle, an escape — even a worthwhile endeavor full of energy, optimism and creativity. It’s also beautiful, depressing, engaging, inspiring — a full sample of life arranged within the confines of quirky boundaries and populated by interesting characters.

    My escape started in 2006. Just before Derby, my mom — the least likely person to receive a racing tip — got word from a man who owned a funeral home on the south side of town. Jazil was going to wear the roses. I’d been to the track a handful of times, and my curiosity was piqued. I watched video of every race the horse had run up to that point and felt like I knew something the rest of the world didn’t when he entered the starting gate at gargantuan odds. He ran fourth and that was good enough for me to keep the faith. Five long weeks later, Jazil won the Belmont Stakes and I had $50 — an unthinkable sum for me to bet at the time — right on his nose. I got back $360 at the Churchill Downs window. With no more touts likely coming from the shadowy funeral home owner, I knew I’d have to learn something about this magnificent game. I never particularly enjoyed studying, but staring at the arcane script of a racing form proved to be intellectual labor that came naturally.

    Despite repeated warnings, I never reached the brink of disaster. I never joined Gamblers Anonymous. I never missed the rent. At the end of the day, I’m a rare breed — a (mostly) everyday horseplayer under 40 who maintains a full-time job.

    For a glimpse into my odd existence, here’s a truncated and unabashed account of how I spent 2017 in action.
     

    January

    The year started with the first of several racing road trips. How could I miss the richest horse race ever run on American soil? My girlfriend, who gradually learned about and likes racing, was receptive to the idea, so we booked a trip to Hallandale Beach, Florida, for the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.

    Gulfstream is a shoebox of a racetrack purposefully centered around retail and dining, giving it the strange feel of going to the track at an outlet mall on the beach. By the time the Pegasus rolled around, I’d had a poor betting day, but the elixir of the experience was doing more than its share to cushion the losses. After a few beers and a wave of sentimentality, I made a significant wager on 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome over Arrogate, in a race where the other 10 horses were afterthoughts. Just two months earlier, Arrogate, riding a meteoric ascent from unknown to superhorse, had narrowly defeated Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A Chrome win would have netted me over a grand, so I was out to atone for a previous loss. Further, it was to be Chrome’s final career start. Didn’t he deserve this?

    Unfortunately, the big chestnut ran uncharacteristically poor in his swan song and Arrogate breezed to victory unchallenged in the stretch. If racing repeatedly reinforces one thing, it’s that the now horse is the one that should get your money. We softened the blow with mojitos at Texas de Brazil.
     

    February

    As soon as I booked a flight to attend a work conference in California, I made plans to spend an afternoon at my favorite racetrack, Santa Anita (while trying not to get myself fired in the process). I crammed in as much conference as I could handle Monday through Thursday and did enough of the Friday morning sessions to call it a legitimate work week. Then I disappeared into the California mountains in an Uber, arriving at the track just in time to order a drink and hear the bugle call for first post. Most serious horseplayers I’ve ever met are loners to some extent, and I have to acknowledge the ineffable joy I felt walking down the sidewalk in Arcadia, free as a man could ever be. No one in the world knew my whimsy or my whereabouts.
     

    March

    There are a lot of things you can call waking up to the Daily Racing Form and enjoying a bloody Mary, but I like to call it Saturday morning. The best and most festive racing day in March is easily the Dubai World Cup at the end of the month. Dubai is eight hours ahead of those of us in the Eastern Time Zone, so the action starts early. You can lie in bed while betting on some of the best horses in the world, or head over to Churchill at daybreak to catch the simulcast action — something I used to enjoy until they inexplicably 86’ed the breakfast. Pretty soon after that, the advent of apps like BetAmerica and iPhones made online betting too ridiculously easy and convenient to justify off-track/simulcast betting. I do miss some of the camaraderie of the Churchill simulcast parlor, so when I’m feeling nostalgic, sometimes I’ll overcharge myself for beer, shout obscenities at my TV screen and invite over a smoker.

    Arrogate struck again in the Dubai World Cup, and I got goosebumps watching from home as the track announcer eloquently exclaimed, “Here comes the Big A! A is for Arrogate! A is for absolute superstar! A is for anointed!” It’s hard to believe this as I write it now, but Arrogate lost his next three starts before being retired to stud. Success in this game — horse or human — is always fleeting.
     

    April

    There’s nothing like spring in Kentucky for horseplayers. In 2017, I made my usual visits to Keeneland and capped the month with opening night and Derby Week at Churchill. If it was a weekend in April, I was either at the track, intently studying the races at home or betting them from a local watering hole. April is one of the few times of the year when handicapping the races seems closer to a mainstream hobby. People don’t seem to look at me quite as critically when they see me in a restaurant studying the Daily Racing Form.
     

    May

    I’ve had successful Oaks and Derby days, but I’ve never had really successful versions of either. Racing is largely a game of almost, not quite and what-if? — sentiments always amplified on the biggest stage. In 2010, the Pick 6 that concluded with the Oaks (meaning the Oaks would have been the sixth race in a row picking the winner) was one where my younger brother and I closely considered and debated the merits of adding an additional horse (Unrivaled Belle) to our shared ticket before deciding against it. Of course, Unrivaled Belle went on to upset superstar Rachel Alexandra in the La Troienne Stakes. Adding the horse would have doubled our cost, but instead of splitting the $676 payout for 5 of 6, we’d have taken down the entire pool of $253,794.

    Years of experience may sharpen the gambling wit, but as anyone who bets horses can attest, you’ll die a thousand deaths from similar types of errors in this game regardless of what you do. On my main ticket, I will emphasize the horses I have the strongest opinions about. On backup tickets — of which there are often multiple — I’ll try to catch the horses I think could win at longer odds. It’s a truly recursive and obsessive task that dominates my thoughts on race days. Long story short, the same brother and I (my older brother is too smart to gamble) had at least two hours worth of texts and conversation about I’ll Have Another and our shared Pick 4 ticket for the 2017 Derby. I wrote down the eventual winning combo we’d discussed on a scratch piece of paper. The ticket paid $6,882.80, but neither of us actually played it.

    I got drenched on Oaks Day last year in one of the worst weather fiascos imaginable. I woke up Derby Day with a slight hangover and an incredibly sore right foot. Had I run in the mud too? Much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, who has never been to a Derby, I abruptly canceled our plans to attend, and instead we stayed holed up in the condo where more betting travesties occurred. She eventually forgave me and was even able to get a full refund on her hat. At the end of the month, we got to visit California Chrome at Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky. I fed the champ a cookie and forgave him for the Gulfstream Park episode.
     

    June

    After the Derby and Triple Crown season ends, some horseplayers are ready for a mental break for reasons I can’t pretend to understand. Locally, June is a great time to visit Churchill, and I did it with great gusto. Thursday nights, I was betting the races that started at 5 p.m., and Friday nights I studied the Saturday races.
     

    July

    Just as some women prefer to shop at boutiques, some horseplayers prefer to bet races and racetracks that are off the beaten path. Professional horseplayer Mike Maloney once told me that betting the Derby was like trying to make money buying large-cap stocks — tougher to do with so many analysts scrutinizing every move. I like big days and big bets, but I also like small days and modest bets. 2017 will go down as the year I discovered Presque Isle Downs, a newer, small track in Erie, Pennsylvania, that runs Sunday through Thursday evenings during the summer and early fall months. I came to look forward to nightly action at Presque, routinely turning a $50 bankroll into a couple hundred bucks. I even convinced my girlfriend to join me on a trip to Erie, which ended up being a peaceful respite in a quiet town.
     

    August/September

    Summer racing pretty much means Saratoga in New York in the afternoon and Del Mar in California in the evening. For a horseplayer and baseball fan like me, nothing beats late summer. It’s like traveling back to a bygone era, when the two sports were dominant interests in this country. Like most horse guys, Saratoga is a place I’m going to have to see once before I die. It’s the oldest sporting venue in the nation and a piece of horseracing heaven, only according to everyone who’s ever been. When I do finally make the trip, I think it will make me fully appreciate moments like one from last summer, when I distinctly remember playing Saratoga from an exam room at the doctor’s office. On another occasion, I was following a Pick 4 at Del Mar from the reception of my friend’s wedding, where I was tabbed to deliver the best-man speech. I grabbed the mic and pulled out some notes, which a high school buddy in the audience suggested were actually “tomorrow’s racing form.” That was in my other pocket.
     

    October

    Fall racing at Keeneland is spectacular, but I always find myself slightly and pleasantly distracted by college football. There’s also the inconvenience and overhead of spending a day shoulder-to-shoulder among drunken college kids while paying $7 for beers. I made two unsuccessful trips to Keeneland last October and convinced myself I’d have fared better playing online. This may or may not have been true, but bettors are gripped with enough tough decisions without adding sensory overload. One of my evolvements as a horseplayer in 2017 was to separate my casual enjoyment of the sport when at the track from my ruthless dedication to the business of betting while away from it.
     

    November

    I’ve always thought of the Breeders’ Cup as New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day for horseplayers. The Breeders’ Cup was at Del Mar in 2017 (it returns to Churchill this year), and I made reservations for one of the dining rooms at Churchill and enjoyed the buffet, booze and onslaught of championship racing action. The Breeders’ Cup Classic ended with my group of three splitting $2,700 and change worth of the Pick 4. Not life-changing cash, but a satisfying hit. Winning with friends is always better.
     

    December

    Tampa Downs isn’t exactly the Saratoga of the south, but for a racetrack junkie looking for a break from the cold weather and the drudgeries of full-time employment, it was close enough. I went on a Friday afternoon and it was possibly the most laid-back racetrack setting I’ve experienced. The place was mostly full of retired New Yorkers snowbirding their way through the golden years. People were drinking beer from their own coolers.

    In my early years, my mom would say that I saw life as the “ultimate absurd circus,” a statement as prophetic as it was accurate. In my mind, observing horses running in circles is no less significant than most other human pursuits, and perhaps even more predictable. It’s possible that one day I could get tired of horsing around, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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