Why We Love This Game — Written by Rob Slattery

Why We Love This Game — Written by Rob Slattery

The Argentinian Dream

August 11, 2015 

Like most avid horseplayers, I made sure to be in front of a TV to watch this last week’s dominant performance by American Pharoah in the Haskell.  A simply amazing performance.  AP continues to do it with relative ease.  But while I watch and appreciate this fine colt, you won’t see me wearing American Pharoah t-shirts or dressing as a pseudo-ancient Egyptian at the track.  You see, while I think he’s the best I’ve ever seen, he’s not my favorite horse.  It’s akin to the Chicago bulls in the 90’s.  Michael Jordan was clearly the best player in the league, and he was great to watch.  But he wasn’t my favorite.  No, my favorite horse is a relatively unknown gelding with lifetime earnings of $105,000 in 33 starts, and his name is Hakuchi.

I was a recreational horseplayer until the summer of 2013.  I had grown up in Chicago and had enjoyed hitting up Arlington Park a few times each summer.  I didn’t know how to read “the card” so I would play a few small bets on horses who looked good in the paddock or had a great name.  I wasn’t there to make money.  I went to the track to be outside during the summer and have a few beers.  If I happened to hit a ticket that paid for my day in the sun, so be it.

I did this for few years and eventually I left Chicago and moved to the Twin Cities.  In the summer of 2013, my friend Horseface – an avid horseplayer obviously – convinced me to head to Canterbury Park for some after work beers and a bit of racing.  My handicapping skills had not improved in the 10 years since I first went to Arlington so I was again “reading” the card without much understanding.  Didn’t matter though.  The beer was cold, and I was having fun.  It wasn’t the best night.  Rain had forced the grass races off the turf.  And to call the main track sloppy would be an understatement.  Paul Allen, Canterbury’s announcer, was starting his race calls with “Ready to splash…”

Almost halfway through the card, Horseface and I were in the paddock waiting for the horses to parade around before Race 5.  The 2-1 lukewarm favorite looked great in the paddock.  I looked at the card and saw his name: Hakuchi.  I’ll be honest.  I was “in” on this horse right then and there.  Great name and looking good.  With the (ARG) next to his name signifying his Argentinian roots, I boldly proclaimed that “no one is bringing an Argentinian horse to Minnesota unless they can cash some checks.”

Horseface laughed and showed me on the card how Hakuchi had been running at some good tracks around the country (Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar).  Unfortunately, he had done so without much success.  He was now shipping in from Turf Paradise and at 8 years old, this may be his last meet.  This news only strengthened my resolve.  “They sent him to Canterbury?  He’s here to cash checks,” I kept repeating.  I strutted to the window and placed $10 on Hakuchi to win.  I was supremely confident.  In the slop, he galloped home to an easy wire-to-wire victory.  I was ecstatic.

About a month later, Horseface and I returned to Canterbury for another evening of races and brews.  We were sitting in the paddock waiting for Canterbury’s pregame show when I noticed in the program who was running that day – Hakuchi!  There was no sloppy track this day and he would indeed run on the turf, but to me, none of that mattered.  The Argentinian dream could not be stopped – especially not by these simple, Midwest farm horses.  No way.  And for no logical reason, he was 3-1 in the program.  

I had to wait through almost two hours before Race 5, which in my mind should’ve been re-named the Hakuchi Stakes.  In the paddock, I got another glimpse at the magnificent chestnut gelding.  He strutted through the paddock supremely confident.  Hakuchi was a beast amongst ponies.  He could not lose.  I walked as quickly as possible to the windows weaving in and out of the slow moving crowd and darting in and out of strollers.  Sure, there was still 15 minutes to post, but I couldn’t take any chances.  I needed to get my wager in immediately.  

This time Hakuchi sat just off the pace and in the final turn, he showed explosive speed to jump to the front and win easily at 3-1.  Horseface and I both had winners this time.  “Pay the Dummies,” I began shouting!  I looked over at Horseface who was visibly upset.  Apparently, the machine wouldn’t take his $50 bill so he wasn’t able to get his bet in before post time.  But while he wasn’t able to cash in with me, he was happy to see Hakuchi win.  After our short celebration, I cashed my $20 win bet at the window and promptly excused myself to the lavatory so I could stuff all that excess cash into my shoes for safe keeping.  

Hakuchi1

Looking back, this was the moment that changed me from a recreational gambler at the track to a true horseplayer.  I had the bug.  More so, I truly loved this horse.  I felt he was mine.  Now, I had no ownership claim.  Hell, I never got within 10 feet of him, but I swear he and I were connected.  This sounds like an exaggeration, but I am not lying when I say that every time he walked past me in the paddock we made eye contact.  I would get the head nod or a wink.  He was telling me that he was going to be an easy winner.  I knew that if he raced again, I would be there.  The next day I discovered Equibase.  I created a virtual stable for just one horse – my guy.  

You see, it didn’t matter to me that he was running in $7,500 claiming races.  To me, he was a star.  A few weeks later when the notification email hit my inbox and told me that Hakuchi was running again at Canterbury, we were there.  I had friends visiting from out of town and rather than ask them what they wanted to do that night, I just told them we were going to the track.  They had no say.  My horse was running – The Argentinian Dream would race again at Canterbury!

In the days leading up to the race, I was getting more and more intense.  He would win.  I knew he would.  He was a mortal lock!  It was getting towards the end of the Canterbury meet so I knew he would not have enough of a break to run again this season – if ever.  It was going to be my last chance to watch my horse.  I was all-in.  

I began to pour over the card, looking for ways to maximize my winnings.  I was no longer a guy who showed up at the track and looked at the card for the first time 30 minutes before Race 1.  No.  For Hakuchi’s last race, I was checking every last detail in the days leading up to his race.  I was sketching out wagering strategies: win bets, exacta wheels, daily doubles.  Anything I could think to maximize my chances of a return.  I settled on $80 for this one race – 4x more than I had ever bet on a race before.  But when you’re as certain as I was, it was silly not to.  I had no doubts.  It wasn’t a bet anymore – it was an investment.  

When race day finally arrived, I was jittery all day.  Who could focus on work when my guy would be racing that evening?  By the time I got to Canterbury, I couldn’t sit still.  Hakuchi was running in the 2nd race that night.  In all honesty, I barely remember the first race.  I was in the paddock waiting to see my guy.  With 20 minutes to post in Race 2, he finally got to parade past us.  He looked great, relaxed and confident.  As he walked by, he again looked me right in the eye and gave me the wink (others were there and can confirm this happened).

I couldn’t get to the window fast enough.  At 8-5 he was the overwhelming favorite.  There would be no gifts of 3-1 this time.  Both Paul Allen and trackside expert Angela Hermann had picked Hakuchi as their play during the pregame show so the public was in the know.  Everyone knew The Argentinian Dream was attempting to go 3 for 3 at Canterbury tonight.  I was not surprised.  Who could beat Hakuchi?  Like everyone else, I knew the answer.  No one.

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After the gates had opened, the race unfolded exactly as his last.  Hakuchi pressed the pace, relaxed behind the leader and got ready to fire around the final turn.  As the pack rounded that final turn, I found myself daydreaming a bit.  I began wondering who would finish second.  Would I get a price underneath for my exacta wheel?  Horseface and I had agreed that if Hakuchi won this race we would have t-shirts made in his honor.  What would the shirts look like?  What size should I get?  We need to make sure it’s pre-shrunk cotton so they don’t shrink too much in the dryer.   Then, all of a sudden, I noticed something was wrong.  

Hakuchi had overtaken the pacesetter in the stretch but his explosive speed was nowhere to be found.  He was tiring.  The pack was catching up.  In particular the #1 horse (whose name I forget – but the red #1 is still burned into my brain) began roaring from the back of the pack on the outside.  He was closing quickly.  I did the quick word problem in my head: two horses are traveling at different speeds towards the finish line.  I began gauging their speeds versus the remaining distance.  It didn’t look good.  I could feel the concern welling up inside me.  It was the same feeling you get when you realize you’ve eaten bad seafood and your body is about to take immediate action.  

Suddenly, everything slowed down.  Seconds became minutes.  It was like watching the whole race in slow motion.  The t-shirts disappeared from my mind.  The exacta wheel was a bust.  Oh my God!  I just threw away $80!!!  What was I thinking?  How could I be so stupid?  A photo finish was now a guarantee.  As Hakuchi and his opponent crossed the finish line, Paul Allen called Hakuchi the winner over the loudspeakers, but I knew it was premature.  Horseface looked over at me with panic in his eyes.  He had also gone all-in on Hakuchi and knew we were in trouble.  Just then we heard Paul Allen correct himself on the PA telling the crowd that it was an extremely tight photo and to hold all tickets.  

I was defeated.  Some horseplayers take it all in stride.  Not me.  I was inconsolable.  I was dumbfounded.  My horse was going to lose.  I was shooting dirty looks at anyone around me who wanted to see the #1 horse named the winner.  I can only assume it’s the same feeling a parent at a little league game feels when they overhear someone criticize their kid.  The replays began on the Jumbotron.  I figured I would easily see who won.  Nope.  The #1 had the advantage of the last-second head-bob making it even more difficult to determine the winner.  Still too close to call.  At this point, I’d love to tell you that I began to focus on the positive.  But I was too upset.  My horse might have lost.  My horse!  No, I just kept pacing.  Nervously and violently, rolling and unrolling the program in my hand.  

Paul Allen began asking the crowd to cheer for who they thought was the winner.  I became more upset.  It took everything for me not to start screaming up at the press box demanding to immediately know the outcome.  Finally, it was official.  Paul Allen came on the speakers…“And the winner is… HAKUCHI!!!” I couldn’t believe it.  My fist pumps were so joyous and intense that I immediately became a danger to anyone around me.  Some random teenager walked by and we high-fived with no words exchanged and no eye contact needed.  Just a shared understanding of the mental anguish we had endured before the triumph.  He had done it.  My horse had won three in a row – the Canterbury Triple Crown!  I couldn’t believe it.  I was ecstatic.  I rushed to the winner’s circle to get a photo of him before he headed back to the barn.  I was in heaven.  He had done it.  My horse had won it all.  

hakuchishirt

I reminisce about Hakuchi’s races quite often and find myself going to Canterbury Park’s website to watch his old race replays.  They still give me goose bumps.  Hakuchi’s third win in a row at CBY would turn out to be his last race.  The joy in seeing him win that final race will be a tough memory to top.  Not even American Pharoah’s Triple Crown tops it for me.  While AP’s career has been impressive, he’s not my horse. Truth be told, the night of Hakuchi’s third win was my best night ever as a horseplayer.  I had a winning ticket in every race but one that night.  But that didn’t matter either.  That’s not what I told people about.  I told them that my horse had won.  Hakuchi had done it again.  And I have the t-shirt to prove it.

We thank Rob for sharing his story on DanonymousRacing.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @RobSlats1

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