The Making of a Racing Fan
Monday, July 10, 2017
by Paul Hundley
I don’t remember the exact date, or even the exact year (1975 if I had to guess). I don’t remember the channel it came on, though this was before cable, so living where we lived, it was one of the 4-5 channels we could pick up. I don’t remember the track, though I’m guessing it had to be a replay show from one of the Maryland tracks. The one thing I do remember when I saw my first horse race was trying to figure out who was going to win. Granted, I didn’t have a past performance, no knowledge of assessing a horse’s physical stature, and no inside information , so I was caveman handicapping a number that came to mind or which horse was best looking.
I remember my mom being in the same room, seemingly amused at me while I rooted for the horse I had picked. My dad, however, was not in the least happy about it, which wasn’t a surprise. There were only 4 things in life that made my dad happy; alcohol, cigarettes, money, and arguing. This new thing I had just discovered apparently didn’t belong to any of these 4 (although in a way, all 4 can be involved) “Cut that $#!t off” he told me, and of course I did. I would see it on a few times the next few weeks and months after, but I had to be careful for my father not to see it on. Much later in life I would find out his older brother, my uncle, lost his inheritance through, among other things, gambling, so this may have explained the extra hostility towards it.
I don’t remember any other interaction with horse racing until the 1977 Kentucky Derby. I was in 4th grade and my mind was preoccupied with NFL Football, Major League Baseball and Professional Wrestling (The similarities between Horse Racing and Wrestling are another column waiting to be written). For whatever reason the TV at home happened to be on the Run For The Roses that 1st Saturday in May. I had not watched the Derby before, so I didn’t even know what it was, much less a Triple Crown. Of course Seattle Slew won it that year and went on to win the Triple Crown, becoming the first and only undefeated horse to do so. To me, he was incredible, magnificent, and whatever superlative you can come up with. He became right then and still is to this day my all-time favorite race horse. Probably surprising that a Virginia native would not have Secretariat as their numero uno, but I’ve only saw him run on video since he was before I remember seeing my first race.
The next year, not realizing the Kentucky Derby was only open to 3 year olds, I was very disappointed to see my beloved Seattle Slew was not in the race this time. Some horse named Affirmed won it, then won the Preakness as well. I took an instant dislike to this Affirmed. I didn’t want anyone matching what Slew had done just a year earlier. This resentment I felt lead me to take a rooting interest for another horse named Alydar, who had finished 2nd to Affirmed in the Derby and Preakness, and would try him once again in the Belmont Stakes. This also led to a spirited debate with my best friend at the time Tim Zilkowski, who was on the Affirmed bandwagon. Of course I was not so much pro-Alydar, as I was just so anti-Affirmed! The Belmont result was the same, with Affirmed defeating Alydar to claim the race and Triple Crown.
While I was upset that Affirmed had accomplished the same feat as Slew did the previous year, it quickly faded from the forefront of things for me as I turned my attention back to my other passions (which unfortunately, none were doing homework). Soon it was 1979 and I somehow found my not quite 12 year old self in front of the television once again to watch that’s year’s edition of The Derby. Once again The Derby Winner, Spectacular Bid, would go on to win the Preakness, setting up possibly a third straight Triple Crown Winner. While I didn’t really root for him in the Derby or Preakness, I definitely wanted to see him win The Belmont Stakes because even with my almost non existent knowledge of racing I could see this was a special horse. Of course pretty much everyone reading this knows what happened in the Belmont that year, and for the second straight Belmont the result left me upset.
The next year saw something different for me about the Derby, a filly was running. I must admit I had no idea what that meant until they referred to Genuine Risk as “she”. A female running in the Derby versus males? I didn’t give her much of a shot but rooted for her anyways because who doesn’t love an underdog? Well a little over 2 minutes after the race started, she was no longer an underdog, she was the newest Kentucky Derby winner! That was to this day one the most thrilling things I’ve ever watched because, in my mind, it was so unexpected.
I’m betting if you’ve read up to this point you’re thinking from this point on my passion and interest in Horse Racing grew and grew. Well, the irony is the 1980 Kentucky Derby was the last horse race I remember watching for almost two decades. What happened, you’re asking? Well, to use the title of a not so famous country song, Life Happened. I would enter High School the next year, move twice in a 6 month period, then endure both my parents dying less than a year apart around the age of 18. After graduating High School I started full time work, and I sort of just forgot about racing. Before starting full time work I had a part-time job a couple of days a week cleaning horse stalls at a nearby farm. This lasted for about 3 years. Unfortunately I didn’t really learn anything about horses in this time except that their hooves hurt if they step on you and that Lyme to the eyes hurts even worse.
In the late 80’s Virginia voters decided on Pari-mutuel betting in the state on a November referendum, which meant Horse Racing and wagering on it would now be legal. Colonial Downs in New Kent County, a half hour away from me, would become the end product of this vote by opening in September of 1997. While this development piqued my interest once again in Horse Racing, it would be almost 2 years before I would actually attend my first live racing event. It started looking at the results of the harness races the previous day in my local newspaper, then after a couple of days of looking at these I would look at the entries section for the current day of racing to see who I thought would win, basing it purely on what driver/trainers had been doing the bulk of the winning. Despite the fact this really wasn’t handicapping, the results of this method were surprisingly good. I would often pick 2-3 winners at least everyday and sometimes more, which impressed my co-workers at the lunch table. They would tell me I needed to go to the track and bet my picks. It was intriguing but I was scared to go and find out I may not know a damn thing, not to mention risk my money!
The day after the 4th of July was brutally hot, so much so that we shut down at noon for work. My boss suggested we go to Colonial Downs, I thought he was joking but of course he wasn’t. So on July 5, 1999 I attended my first horse racing event. Granted, it was Harness Racing in the middle of a hot, steamy day on a Tuesday, and there was probably 100 people there total, but I had never seen anything like this. We bought a Colonial Downs program book by the door, then I walked in and saw not only Colonial on monitors, but other tracks as well. I asked my boss what was going on and he told me that you could bet on those tracks from right where we were. He said it was a simulcast. Honestly, it blew my mind! We didn’t bet any other tracks that day other than Colonial, well I didn’t, my boss may have, and we about broke even when you factored in beer and food, but it was awesome! I couldn’t wait to come back, and I definitely would be, a lot I said to myself.