Why We Love This Game
Written by Stephen Lasker
I have been a horse racing fan formost of my life. Racing was never in my family, but I took a liking to it at a young age. Growing up in the 70’s in Nassau County, Long Island, there always seemed to be a buzz in early June – three Triple Crown winners in one decade will do that. I seemed to catch the bug but it wasn’t until my late teens and early 20’s (late 80’s – early 90’s) that I first was introduced to the handicapping side of the sport. I was in the Mid-Atlantic at the time and in close proximity to Delaware Park.
For those of you that have been to Delaware, you know how intimate of a race track it is. Daily interactions with horsemen and jockeys are very common at this small track. It was there that I learned to handicap horses from guys much older than I was. It wasn’t the information age we are in today. There was no Twitter or Facebook, let alone workout reports. Simulcasting was in its infancy, so studying the form was essential. I was taught pedigree and class. I learned at a very early age that the public was right only about 33% of the time. There was an old saying I was taught right away: “you’ll go broke really fast betting favorites every race.” That saying has stuck with me to this day.
My mentor was a very patient handicapper who only played one or two races a day. He would bet $100 to win and never took under 3-1. It was always difficult for me to stay patient but I do my best to follow that lead. There were so many characters at the race track, everyone has seen them. The names may change but the personalities are the same – the noise, laughter, and loud opinions attracted me to it, but it was the excitement and thrill of the actual races that kept me coming back. Every time I would see those Thoroughbreds come thundering down the lane my blood would start pumping. For those of you who know me or have been to the track with me, you know that I can get a little loud during the final stages of a race. Especially, when my horse is coming down the lane. The excitement it brings me is second to none. I’m pumped right now, thinking of past victories and the stories that come with it.
Through summers in the 90’s I would visit Belmont Park on the occasional weekend and for the Belmont Stakes. I was also a guy in his 20’s who just started working full time, so chasing girls at the beach on the weekends was just as appealing as the horses. It was about 20 years ago when I first visited Saratoga as a horse player. That was it for me, I would never miss another summer there (In reality, I did miss the summer of 2010, but that is a long story). Racing became a bigger part of my life every year thereafter.
You could find me on the rail every weekend at Delaware Park. My favorite horses of that era weren’t Holy Bull or Silver Charm. They were horses with names like Buying Rain and Lady of the Future. These were the local horses that made me money, gave me confidence, and kept me coming back. Of course, the big races always caught my attention and watching horses like Cigar, Point Given, Banks Hill, and Tiznow, to name a few, was just as awesome.
I was never multi-race bettor at that time. I would bet to win and place on a horse I liked. The amount fluctuated based on my confidence and, of course, my financial situation at the time. The summer of 2001 was a particular good year for me and it happened to be the time I hit my biggest long shot to date. It was July 22, 2001, at Delaware Park and the race was the Delaware Handicap. I was with my handicapper mentor, my girlfriend, and a bunch of friends. Delaware Park’s leading rider, who had just burst on the scene, was riding for a relatively new big trainer from New York. It was a paceless race and the horse I loved, I believe was coming off a front running score in the local prep. Today, it is the Obeah, although I can’t recall if it was that name at the time. I looked up at the board and she was in the vicinity of 20-1. It was the first time I actually thought I was stealing money and confident in betting a long shot.
The public was so enamored with the big names in the race, Jerry Bailey and Pat Day were there to ride. Bailey was the overwhelming favorite on Jostle. So, I proceeded to place a $25 win and place bet on Irving’s Baby. The local jock was Ramon Dominguez and the trainer was Todd Pletcher. Ramon lulled them to sleep on the front end and came home in an uninspiring time of 2:04, or something like that, but I didn’t care. The final odds were 18-1 and I just collected a little over $630.00! There were easily 30,000 people there that day and I can assure you, I was one of the loudest. I don’t know how many times after that race those connections paid $40, but I’m sure it wasn’t many.
The money was sweet but more importantly my handicapping friend and mentor turned to me and said the coolest thing to me. He said, “there is no better feeling than predicting the future and being right, especially when everyone else is wrong.” That’s another thing that has stuck with me as well. Being right on a horse not many people think have a chance is as gratifying as the score you land sometimes. The funny thing is, I had a moment this past weekend at Keeneland where the same sentiment was said to me from a different person. I will get to that later…
As I became more successful in my career, I was able to travel to more racetracks around the country and have met some fantastic people. During the 2000’s, I went to all the tracks from NY to the Mid-Atlantic (as far south as Colonial Downs). I also went to Hollywood Park for a Cash Call Mile day, Santa Anita for a Derby day, Gulfstream for a Sunshine Millions day, and watched the 2003 Breeders’ Cup from Canterbury Park. My annual Saratoga trip in August was always my favorite. There is nothing like it and if you are into horses, it is a must visit.
One of the things I discovered through the years about horse racing is that it isn’t followed on a regular basis by many people. I have lots of friends and family outside the racing community that don’t have nearly the passion as I do. At times, that has been a source of contention in some of my relationships. My hidden desire was always to make racing a part of my life both socially and professionally. In what capacity? Through the avenue of ownership? I never quite knew for sure, and still don’t to an extent. I did know there weren’t a lot of people in my immediate life that were thrilled with the idea. I have to admit it became pretty frustrating. The explosion of social media in the past five years has done a lot to change all of that.
I am fairly conservative by nature and, to this day, have a restricted Twitter account for professional reasons. But during the early days of being on Twitter it was evident that I was meeting a whole new faction of racing fans. It was new and exciting to converse with people that you never had the chance to in the past. For all of the negatives that happen to surround Twitter and social media, my experience has been fantastic. I have met so many amazing people that I am now proud to call friends. Dan and I met in person at Delaware Park while he was covering a Delaware Handicap and we immediately hit it off. Dan and I have made many trips to the race track together since and will continue to do so.
Through Dan, I was introduced to @Joe_T_OnTheside, who in turn, introduced me to ECS members @Giacomo421, @Cyph718, @Morrellracing, @NYPhillyD, and @jkearns33168. These are guys I now consider to be very good friends of mine. We all now try to plan our Saratoga vacations around each other. Our relationships have surpassed just horse racing, and it’s funny, we get odd looks from our non-Twitter friends and family when we tell them who we are hanging out with. It is a little crazy when you think about it. But I have gone to baseball games with some, football games with others , and I have a partial season ticket plan to the NY Rangers with another.
We have gotten together for other occasions besides horse racing like dinners and personal celebrations when our private lives allow. We look forward to owning horses together some day. That is just the local NY crew. During the past two years we have seen @Barbaro and @MattD1004 travel to join us for the Belmont Stakes. Those two I now converse with off of Twitter almost daily and consider very good friends. We will make a Woddbine trip once a year together for sure. @Tracksidejive has been involved in both of the past two Belmont Stakes with us. @StribLove joined me and the boys last February for a trip to the Big A where we just missed a major P6 score, ugh! There are so many more I can mention but I will run out of space – and I mentioned everyone by Twitter handle out of respect for their privacy.
The past two years has been an amazing horse racing whirlwind that seems to be non-stop for me. It has taken me to Gulfstream, Belmont, Saratoga, Monmouth, Arlington, and Woodbine – not to mention all of my favorite Mid-Atlantic tracks. And I finally ended up at Keeneland, for the first time, to attend this year’s Breeders Cup. Among many people I met through Dan, I was introduced to the folks at Ninety North Racing, which he spoke so highly of. I was able to spend some time earlier this racing season at Pimlico, Belmont, and then Saratoga with Justin, Katie, and Dan. I could see why Dan spoke so highly of them, they are wonderful people who are so good for the sport of horse racing.
I used to wonder about 10 years ago how much of a future this game had. Everyone has heard the stories that the game was dead and it’s only old men that go to the race track. I now don’t believe one word of it. Twitter and meeting all of these people has not only re-energized my love for the game but gives me confidence in the future of the game. There are so many bright young stars that promote the game that I have met first hand. Folks like Dan, Matt Bernier, Gabby Gaudet, Billy Blake, Ramiro Restrepo, and Acacia Courtney to name a few. Not to mention Justin and Katie from Ninety North on the ownership and breeding side. What I have realized is that they all have this incredible passion to take the game to another level. I am certain that they all will and can’t wait to witness it.
So, I was honored to be a guest of Ninety North Racing at the Breeders Cup. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. Keeneland did such a tremendous job with the event and we were treated so nicely by everyone. The racing was fantastic and there were few disappointments both on and off the track. Actually, the only one let down that I can think of was Beholder missing the Classic. American Pharoah’s accomplishment was certainly amazing and I would take nothing away from him. But ma, would I have loved to see Liam’s Map and Beholder in that race… .that’s a story for another day.
I handicapped the cards well prior to entering the track on Friday and although things didn’t go exactly to plan, I survived the day by hitting the late P4 thanks to all the buzz surrounding StopChargingMaria going into the Distaff. The highlight of the day on Friday came during the final race of the day. My hosts, Ninety North Racing, had Desvelo entered in the Marathon. Going into the paddock to watch a horse you’re with get saddled on Breeders Cup day, even though it wasn’t mine personally, is a once in a lifetime experience in this sport. I’m very grateful to Justin and Katie for that experience. It is something I won’t soon forget.
Saturday came and I had some really solid plays but was just missing. That is, until it was Tepin’s turn to run. I decided to head to the paddock area to see her in person myself. I had so many tickets tied to her, my gambling day may have been done if she didn’t fire. I had told anyone that would listen that The First Lady Stakes over the soft Keeneland Turf course was the most visually impressive race I had seen all year. The way Tepin won that race just doesn’t happen on the turf every day. Dan, Joe T, and I were actually at Belmont for Jockey Club Gold Cup that day during the running of that race. I believe @SJHorseReport was on hand as well. He was just as impressed as I was. I am certain he had a large wager on Tepin as well on Saturday.
There was not enough time for me to get back to my seat, so I decided to watch on the big screen. I’d like to say I knew 50 yards out of the gate I was a winner but I’ve been around the game too long to say that. I did, however, know when they turned for home that she was gone. Again, those who know me, know how excited I was getting as she pulled away from the pack. Dan had witnessed this first hand during Hardest Core’s Arlington Million run last year outside the Jim Dandy Bar at Saratoga. I may have startled him and his lovely wife with my enthusiasm (sorry Dan). This occasion was no different, everyone around me knew I had this horse. I didn’t comment on an exact dollar figure but it was clear she made my day. After all the excitement wound down, I turned to see Dale Romans staring at me with a small smile on his face and he made a similar statement to that of my handicapping mentor many years before. He said “more importantly than the money you just won, you were right.” It was so funny and I must have looked at him funny because he repeated it one more time before he walked into the paddock for the Juvenile.
After all these years and all the races, here I was in a coat and tie, cheering my horse home like it was a Thursday on the rail at Delaware Park or Belmont, oblivious to where I was or the moment I was in.
And that, folks, is why I love this game.
We thank Steve for sharing his story on DanonymousRacing.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @NYSteve27.