Legalized Gambling, Triple Crowns, and Sure Things

On Sports Wagers, Sentimental Horses, and Why to Bet on Justify

Justify and jockey Mike Smith
Courtesy Photo

Sports betting might become the national pastime now that the Supreme Court has erased the federal law against wagering on games. It will not turn me into a profligate gambler, for if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a lifelong fan and chronicler of games, there are no sure things. The invention of point spreads has made the most prohibitive favorites less than sure.

I do like to see gambling within a game, like going for it on fourth-and-two, faking a punt, or stealing third or home. As a fan of the original L.A. Rams, I suffered from the conservative tactics of Chuck Knox, who coached them to the brink of the Super Bowl three times in the 1970s but came up short in the NFC championships. The 1976 game at Minnesota went north (rather than south) when the Rams had the ball fourth-and-goal inside the two, and Knox decided to settle for a field goal. The kick was blocked, and Vikings cornerback Bobby Bryant ran it back 90 yards for a touchdown.

Known as “Ground Chuck” because of his preference for the running game, Knox died last week. He brought a lot of pride to L.A. when he coached the Rams and also to Seattle, where he won with the Seahawks. I’m sorry I had that bitter memory from four decades ago. Rest in peace, Chuck.

Of course, I can’t resist throwing a few bucks into an NCAA basketball pool (it’s not illegal, is it?). I won one a year ago, and this year finished dead last with a Final Four of Virginia, Gonzaga, Purdue, and Michigan State — losers all.

The only other time I gamble with money is when I go to the races. I put away a little sum I can afford to lose and spend a day at either of the most beautiful racetracks in the country — Santa Anita or Del Mar — enjoying the sight of horses pounding down the homestretch and the sounds of pleading, triumph, and dismay in the crowd.

I used to make an annual pilgrimage to the races with Bill Connell, the legendary Hot Dog Man of Carpinteria. The New Jersey native was an astute bettor. He would study the Daily Racing Form and pick out some longshots, combining them with top contenders into exotic bets — exactas and trifectas — that would pay off big. He pocketed $3,000 the last time we went to Del Mar, and I hope that happy memory was still with him the night his heart failed.

My journey to Santa Anita on April 7 was my first visit to a racetrack in the two years since Bill passed away. Going solo, I decided to take the train. I thought I might pick up a Daily Racing Form to peruse during the ride, but I could not find the publication at either of the Santa Barbara liquor stores that used to carry it. I was told that sales had been too few and far between.

It was relaxing to sit back with a book and the race program I’d downloaded as the Amtrak Surfliner departed Santa Barbara at 9:30 a.m. The train rolled into L.A. Union Station at 12:10 p.m. It was a short walk to the track, where the Gold Line, one of the city’s newish light rail trains, came by every 20 minutes en route to Pasadena and Arcadia, where the station was a mile from Santa Anita. The weekend fare for a senior was 35 cents (plus $1 to buy a Metro card). The trip took 35 minutes. But there was an almost 30-minute wait on the street outside the station for a free shuttle to the racetrack.

It was the day of the Santa Anita Derby, a race that would show which of the top 3-year-olds on the West Coast had what it takes to run in the Kentucky Derby. A pair of them, Justify and Bolt d’Oro, had become crowd favorites. Attendance at the track that Saturday was 39,000. The previous day, only 4,000 had come for the races. General admission was $5 both days.

I arrived at the track before the fifth race went off (it was a 12-race program), and betting $5-$10 on a couple of horses I liked on each race, I was breaking even. The derby was the ninth race. Twenty minutes before post time, I went to the parade ring, where the crowd stood three deep to get a good look at the horses before they went out to the track. I could not take my eyes off Justify when he came around. He appeared calm and focused, and he exuded power, with mighty muscles above his forelegs and a sleek caboose. His trainer was Bob Baffert and his jockey Mike Smith, two of the best ever.

The rap against Justify was that he had not raced as a 2-year-old, and even though he had won his only two races impressively, that was not considered much preparation for the big races to come. But I figured that he would benefit from not having been beaten up by a heavier workload. Anyway, I surely thought I was smart when I put my money on Justify to win, and he did, brushing off a challenge by Bolt d’Oro on the homestretch. He paid $3.80 for every $2 bet, which put me ahead of the game.

In the 11th race, however, I lost a sentimental wager. I noticed that the filly Spring Lily had in her pedigree the late, great Bertrando, who had sired numerous winners in the Santa Ynez Valley. The initial odds on Spring Lily were 6-1. But as post time approached, they soared to 18-1. That was more than a random fluctuation. Somebody knew something. Still, I bet on her, hoping for a bigger payoff, but she never was a factor in the race, finishing far behind.

My entertaining day at the races wound up costing me about $20, which was far less than I would have spent to attend a Dodger game, and lately the ballclub has not been justifying the support their fans have shown them.

Leaving the racetrack, rather than look for the shuttle, I walked to the Arcadia train terminal. It took me 25 minutes. The Gold Line got me back to Union Station at 6:15 p.m., 30 minutes before the last train north to Santa Barbara.

A month later, Justify began his quest for the Triple Crown with a clean and brilliant ride on a muddy track to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby. Having won the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, he now continues hunting for the Triple Crown. I will venture to say that Justify is a sure thing.


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