The Making of a Racing Fan
Monday, July 17, 2017
by Paul Hundley
If you missed part 1 of Paul’s story last week, check it out here.
Again, you’re probably thinking that the first trip to Colonial Downs is where it all started snowballing for me, but again that would be incorrect. Life has funny ways sometimes of throwing things at you when least expect or want it to. About 2-3 weeks after my first trip to the races, I got a call early in the morning that I instantly knew couldn’t be good. My brother Robert had suffered a major stroke. Now, between my parents previous marriages and the kids they had together, I had 12 older brothers and sisters (I’m the youngest) but in my mind, I really only had the four older brothers I grew up in the same house with.
Robert was the oldest of us five, and certainly the most fun of all. Though there was a 12-year age difference, I grew closest to Robert than the others, eventually sharing a place together in between his two marriages. While Robert was no athlete, he was incredibly talented and excelled at almost everything he tried. Billiards, Bowling, Horseshoes, card games, chess, he was better than most around him. While I’m almost positive he never attended a race track, I have no doubt had he gotten into it he would have become a far superior handicapper than I could ever hope to be (I’m not implying I’m great or anything).
Robert would survive the stroke, but never would be the same. The stroke had shut down his kidneys and paralyzed him on his right side completely. He spent the next three years of his life in convalescent centers and doing Dialysis 3-4 times a week because of the damage done to his kidneys. On Monday July 1, 2002, I went to work that morning like any other. I was back working with my family then so when I got to work a few minutes late I noticed the mood was strange. I asked one of the guys working there what was going on? He just kinda put his head down, shaking it and pointed towards my brother Richard, who owned the company. I went to ask what was going on, and he simply told me our brother Robert had died earlier that morning.
I was stunned, though I shouldn’t have been. I had always held out hope he may resume a somewhat normal life someday if he would make the effort to go through the rehabilitation process, but my head told me a different ending. Still, I wasn’t prepared for this, the family member I had always been closest to and one of my best friends was gone forever. After the funeral 2 days later, I think the next week to ten days I functioned on instinct. I wasn’t sad, angry or pissed off at the world. I wasn’t…. anything. I had generally wore my emotions on my sleeve, but I felt numb. I had lost both my parents yet their deaths I had time to prepare for, this one I never did because I wanted to believe it would get better.
Certainly this wasn’t the only reason why it had taken me so long to get back to Horse Racing, but his condition set off a chain reaction of events the next few years that had me headed down a bad path. Things had just started turning around right before his death, and I knew if I let this funk consume me I would probably be in the same situations I was before, or worse.
I remember looking in my local paper and seeing an advertisement for Colonial Downs racing that coming weekend. At first I didn’t think twice about it, but for whatever reason I became more intrigued and decided maybe this is the thing I needed to get back to being on a good path. The Virginia Derby was to be held that Saturday, but even with my lack of knowledge of the game at that point I knew it was a horrible idea for a novice to go alone to the track on only his 2nd visit when it was their biggest card, and crowd of the year. So, I decided to forego the Saturday and just go Sunday. I wasn’t sure what to expect because I had never bet thoroughbred racing before. It certainly was a lot harder than trying to figure out a harness race, that’s for sure! What’s a furlong? What does this”L” next this number mean? I didn’t win anything that day, but I could not have had a better time. I liked it so much I went again the next Sunday, hit 1 place bet, lost money, had another killer time.
The thoroughbred meet end a week after, I couldn’t make it to the last weekend which I was bummed about but I promised myself I would make sure to keep an ear out for when their next meet started. As it turned out, I only had to wait a little over a month before the Harness meet started. This time I was there opening weekend and at least one day every weekend for the meet. My brother Richard even started coming and that made it twice as much fun to have someone to talk the races over with. Did we make money? No, the best i ever remember doing was making a modest profit a couple of times, but I really didn’t care. This sport that had intrigued me since I was 7-8 years old had fully hooked me and wasn’t letting go, not that I wanted it to!
Even after that harness meet ended in the Fall of 2002, unlike other times in my life where I quickly forgot about the enjoyment I got of trying to pick a winner and just the beauty of these magnificent creatures, there would be no distractions this time. I spent the large majority of my free time at home reading up on horse racing, who knew there was all these sites devoted to my new favorite passion online all this time!(well almost everyone but me, apparently). Then I discovered something else while channel surfing one evening, I saw a split second of what looked like harness racing, could it be? I went back and sure enough there was horse racing on my TV! What was this I wondered. I look at my channel lineup and all it said was TVG. Instantly I started watching religiously, sometimes even taping it during the day and watch when I got home.
The next year I was preparing to actually bet my first Derby, but even though I had been reading up on the sport for months I never bothered to realize that all of the horses in the Derby had to run in races to get to the Derby, so the term “Prep race” was added to my vocabulary. Empire Maker was the deserving favorite for the race, but my pick, to be ever the contrarian more than anything, was Peace Rules, Empire Maker’s stablemate. Peace Rules didn’t win but I thought I had achieved a moral victory of sorts by selecting the 3rd place finisher.
By this time my brother Richard and I were going just about every weekend to bet on racing, whether it was the nearest OTB in Hampton, Rosecroft Raceway, Laurel or Colonial once live racing started (there was no simulcast from the track when there wasn’t live racing scheduled). My life revolved around work and Horse Racing, and not necessarily in that order. I opened up my first online wagering account, or ADW as the cool kids call it, and while it was certainly convenient to be able to place a bet from your home, there wasn’t the same excitement as going to an OTB or live racing.
My thirst for knowledge really pushed me in understanding a lot of the games angles, and after a couple of years I became a pretty good handicapper. I certainly didn’t do it by myself. So many have influenced and even guided me along the way, some never knowing who I was! As I mentioned earlier, I watched TVG on a regular basis and would take notes often on things the analysts were saying. One in particular was Rich Perloff, who would often mention a “Handicappers Toolbox”, which was a list of angles that he used to help simplify a sometimes nerve wracking process. While Rich was generally stuck in the less desirable timeslots to be on the air, I made sure to always listen to him just to see what nugget of insight he had to offer.
There were plenty of others as well. ‘Derby’ Bill Watson, who was the Colonial Downs On Track Handicapper for many years, would come up pretty much on his own time during the harness meets as he only did the T-bred meet, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t help a bettor when he was obligated to in any way. I remember being a few feet away from him and him turning to me asking me who I liked the next race? I couldn’t believe a guy who gives his opinions out on a tipsheet wanted to know MY opinion. I remember we more or less handicapped the rest of the card bouncing horses and ideas off each other, in between him just cracking me up with his sense of humor. Unfortunately I never got the chance to do that again with him, but I learned so much from him that day, not to mention the years of reading his tip sheets.
I’ve met so many cool people the last 15 years that I’ve become a dedicated fan of the sport. I even got my best friend to go to the track with me, and he’s been hooked pretty much ever since. I met my other best friend at the track several years ago, and now the three of us plan a place to go to watch The Derby every year, where we generally do a round-table discussion of the card the night before.
One of the most influential things that has really changed not just my handicapping but my entire view of the sport (and probably all aspects of life) is Twitter. Let’s face it, if not for Twitter, you probably wouldn’t be reading this column right now. But Twitter has allowed the fan/bettor to interact with owners, trainers, jockeys, Handicappers and each other.
To try to explain why Horse Racing always seemed to draw me in I can’t honestly say. Some of it was the intrigue of figuring out the winner, which after I started learning what I was doing became a huge factor, but it went far beyond betting and handicapping. Everyone has a different story of how they became a racing fan, some were born into it, some were taking there as a kid and stuck with it, and there are some, like me, who were almost middle age before becoming a fan. Now you know a little bit of my story, I appreciate John Piassek for allowing me to do this column, and I appreciate everyone who read it.