Memories & Memorabilia – Written by Ryan Dickey

“No Idea What I Was Witnessing”

Growing up near Toledo, Ohio, I was fortunate enough to have a harness track within ten miles of my house.  As soon as I turned eighteen, I would take my “huge bankroll” ($20-$30) to Raceway Park, and bet $2.00 W-P-S bets on the favorites, and revel in my “winnings” that I then squandered on hot dogs and Cokes.

Then, one day, my good friend and now lifetime racing buddy hit a trifecta, winning nearly $200.  That was the end of the “across the board on the chalk” bets for me.  I was going to corner the exotics market.  Needless to say, that didn’t happen.  Then I turned 21, and my even smaller “winnings” were even more quickly squandered on $2.00 beers.

I never really bet anything other than live harness racing but one day I thought I’d give thoroughbred racing a try.  I must have won early because I loved it.  Too bad there were no suitable tracks close enough for me to try my luck.  Then, in 1994, I moved to Vegas.

I worked in the “sports gaming industry,” and became a permanent fixture in various race and sports books in Sin City.  I played everything from greyhounds to NASCAR races.  But I had never been to the “real” races.  In 1997, I decided to hit Santa Anita.

On Saturday, April 5, I flew from Vegas to LAX, and took a 30+ mile cab ride to Santa Anita and of course, missed the first race of the card.  I remember hearing the stretch call of Race 1 as I paid my admission.  With the cab fare, I was already way behind.

Having read the Daily Racing Form on the plane, I was glad to see that the horse I liked in the first missed the board.  In the second race, I had circled the #5 horse and he was quickly the chalk.  I played a trifecta box with the #5, the third-favorite #3 and a long shot (22-1) #1.  My $1 tri box cost me $6 and I played another $2 W-P on the chalk (old habits die hard).

So here I am, watching my first-ever live thoroughbred race, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t come in 1-3-5, with my 22-1 shot on top with a 6.5-1 shot behind it.  My $1 tri payed $251.  I thought that would be the highlight of my day. Years later, I realized it wasn’t.

I never won any more money that day.  In fact, I gave much of it back.  But the sixth race of the day was the Santa Anita Derby.  I had studied this race more than all of the rest.  I was SURE I had the winner.  My first stakes race.  Money to burn.  I KNEW I had the winner.  I liked an Irish-bred horse by the name of Hello.

By post-time, he was the 3-1 third-favorite to 2-1 Sharp Cat.  Two others in the race, the #1 Free House and #4 Silver Charm, had faced each other twice before at this same track, with each winning one race (Silver Charm won the San Vicente and Free House had won the San Felipe).

As they broke from the gate, I watched Hello most of the way but he was mid-pack shortly after the race began.  I gave up on him and watched the front-runners.  Sharp Cat, the favorite, led most of the way, but I remember just “knowing” that this was a race between two rivals.  Free House went on to beat Silver Charm by a head.  My horse, Hello, came in third because I can really pick a closer (that’s sarcasm).  All three would race in the Kentucky Derby that year.

Silver Charm would go on to win the Kentucky Derby.  Free House came in third and Hello came in 8th (I bet Hello in the Derby again).  In the Preakness, Silver Charm and Free House would tangle again and Silver Charm won by a head.  These horses seemed to truly understand their rivalry.  All you need to do is look at the picture at the wire of the Preakness.  Look at Free House’s eyes in the photo.  In the Belmont, with a chance to be a Triple Crown winner, Silver Charm led at the top of the stretch but was eked out a shot at immortality by Touch Gold, who came out of the clouds to nose him at the wire.  Free House finished third.

The rivalry between those horses is not as celebrated as Alydar and Affirmed, or even Secretariat and Sham.  But in 1997 (and again in ‘98 and ‘99), Silver Charm and Free House were two of the greatest horses in the land and I got to see them race.  The money that I won on a $24,000 Claiming race takes a backseat to the piece of history I got to witness that glorious day at Santa Anita.  If Silver Charm could have held on to win the Belmont, I would have seen a Triple Crown winner race as a three year old.

The tight Preakness finish described above. Photo Courtesy: Gallery of Champions
The tight Preakness finish described above.
Photo Courtesy: Gallery of Champions

We thank Ryan for sharing his story! You can follow him on Twitter at @rdickey249

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