Why I love the Preakness

Playing the ponies is a mug's game. But the unglamorous Preakness is the best betting race in the Triple Crown. Here's how a nit like me plans to make a killing.

Published May 19, 2007 1:17PM (EDT)

It's not quite true, as Damon Runyon once wrote, that all horseplayers die broke. We live that way, too.

Consider my friend the Plumber. The Plumber got his nickname because, like a lot of gamblers, he'll bet $200 on a horse, but he won't spend $20 on a pair of pants. He's a 50-ish suburban Jewish man, but his jeans sag like a gangbanger's, his kinky russet hair looks as though it was styled by Beethoven's barber, and he once spent an entire race meet wearing glasses with one stem. When he's low on betting money, the Plumber drives a cab. But he's a happy man, because he's spent his life at the racetrack. "Sure I don't have a lot of money," he says. "But compared to most people around the world, I live like a lord. I've got a roof over my head, I've got heat, I've got indoor plumbing. I always get enough to eat. What more do I need?"

The Preakness is this Saturday, and some of you are planning one of your few-times-a-year trips to the track or the OTB. Here's a word of warning to those expecting to win: Betting on horses is the most unforgiving form of gambling around. The house take is 20 percent, which means that for every dollar the average horseplayer wagers, he gets back three quarters and a nickel. Slot machines, poker, craps, roulette, Pittsburgh 6 1/2 over Seattle -- they all offer a better edge than the ponies. Only around 2 percent of horseplayers turn a profit each year. But since the game is parimutuel -- the gamblers set the odds, and compete against each other, rather than the house -- around 100 percent of horseplayers think they can win.

The Plumber has been refining his system for over 30 years now, and believes he's close to discovering the Rosetta Stone of the racetrack."I'm dividing all my horses into blue horses and red horses," he told me the last time I ran into him, out at Arlington Park, near Chicago. "Blue horses are the best horses, so I'm further dividing them into blue horses with rectangles and blue horses with circles."

I haven't seen the Plumber in awhile, so I can't tell you how his system is working. But I can tell you about some other guys who thought they had an angle. There was Matt, who had to wake his wife at 5 o'clock one morning to confess that he'd charged $170,000 in horse bets on the company credit card. Or Warren, whose losses became so dire that he sought counseling from a professional gambler. The old sharpie taught him to handicap, but Warren, who liked to say, "When I was younger, I wanted to marry every woman I went out with," never learned the patience to wait for a good bet. Finally, there was Snow, a cocaine addict who kicked his habit and became a gambling addict. He funded his new jones by "stooping," combing the track for winning tickets thrown away by mistake.

One year, I tried to beat the races myself. I went to the track every day. For months, I lost and lost, until finally, in July, I decided to devote every fiber of my being to gambling. Each night, I handicapped until bedtime. Each afternoon, I sequestered myself in a remote section of the Arlington Park grandstand, where I could contemplate the odds board without distraction. My discipline paid off. In seven weeks, I won $150.

More often, though, it felt like a mug's game. There was the day I bet a horse at 18-1, and watched him take a huge lead into the stretch. I cheered wildly at my good fortune. A 350-pound gambler at the next table was bellowing like a bull in the breeding shed. Then our long shot pulled up lame, pitching his jockey over the saddle. I didn't make a profit that year, but I did get a book out of the experience. "Horseplayers: Life at the Track" is an account of my attempt to turn pro, and all the colorful characters I met along the way.

My latest misadventure in gambling occurred at this month's Kentucky Derby. I loved Street Sense, but he was the favorite. Only chumps bet the favorite to win. There's no money in it. So I put Street Sense on top of a trifecta, a bet forecasting the top three finishers. Street Sense won, but the second- and third-place horses were an unwelcome surprise.

"You guys at the track think you're so clever," a friend mocked me. "You always outsmart yourselves."

So I lost $100. I'm going to get it back this Saturday. On the Preakness. There are plenty of reasons to scorn the Preakness. It's held at Pimlico Race Course, which is surrounded by the run-down brick flats of northwest Baltimore. Pimlico is, without a doubt, the ugliest venue to host a major American sporting event. (I am including roller derby finals and bull-riding championships in that calculation.) Its most notable feature, the mound of earth that gave it the nickname Old Hilltop, was flattened decades ago. Its wooden grandstand seats look as though they were imported from a leaky-roofed minor league baseball stadium, the kind with tobacco ads on the outfield wall. The legendary match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit was run at Pimlico, but the producers of "Seabiscuit" re-created the contest at Keeneland, in Kentucky. Pimlico was both too modern and too dilapidated for the big-budget Hollywood movie.

The least glamorous Triple Crown race, the Preakness neither introduces contenders to the world, like the Kentucky Derby, nor confirms their greatness, like the Belmont. Even the Preakness' symbols are inferior to those of its peers. The Derby has the mint julep. At the Preakness, you can drink a Black-Eyed Susan, which the Baltimore Sun once described as "a mix of three fruit juices, equal parts vodka, rum, and peach schnapps, and a dollop of something that could only be antifreeze." The race's theme song, "Maryland, My Maryland," performed each year by Naval Academy midshipmen in spotless whites, is a Civil War anthem extolling the martyrs of a secessionist riot. If there were a Bulwer-Lytton prize for bad 19th century American prosody, these lines, sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," would win: "Avenge the patriotic gore/ That flecked the streets of Baltimore." Not exactly "My Old Kentucky Home," or "New York, New York," which is belted out before the Belmont these days.

The last time I went to the race, in 2005, a 12-year-old jumped into the back seat of my car, demanding that I park in his yard. When I refused, he swore at me until I stopped and kicked him out. The scene at the track looked more promising. My brother, my sister and I approached the infield alongside teams of husky fraternity brothers, hauling 40-gallon garbage cans full of beer and ice. It looked like one of those wonderful Altamont-like scenes where all laws below felony are temporarily suspended. Then we realized that our $18 tickets entitled us only to sit in the concrete-floored grandstand. Just before the big race, the yellow-blazered ushers threw open the doors, so we wouldn't have to watch on closed circuit TV. (We did celebrity-spot Bob Costas, the most famous name I'd seen at a track since nearly bumping into Dick Van Patten at Hawthorne race course.)

And yet, I love the Preakness. It's the best betting race in the Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby has expanded to 20 horses. A nit like me, who usually comes to the track with $100, can't cover all the likely outcomes. In the Belmont, some of the horses are running against each other for the third time, so the results can be predictable. The Preakness, the middle race, offers something in-between: an event where a small amount of money and a strong opinion can generate enough cash for a hot night out in Baltimore.

When I take a beating on the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness gets me even. In 2005, I had bet $200 on Afleet Alex to win the Derby. Afleet Alex finished third, losing to a 50-1 shot named Giacomo, in one of the wildest Triple Crown races ever. The only winning gamblers were mooks betting on names and numbers. (One punter who won $864,000 by picking the superfecta -- the top four horses -- bet Giacomo because the horse's name reminded him of Ed Giacomin, who used to play goalie for the Rangers.) At the Preakness, order would be restored. Serious handicappers with pencils and calculators would once again take money from the drunks in the beer tent, not the other way around.

That Preakness Day, I played an exacta, a bet forecasting the top two finishers. Afleet Alex and Scrappy T, in either order. As the field raced up the backstretch, Scrappy T took the lead. He was 9-1, so I nearly shredded my vocal cords shrieking his name. Then, in the stretch, Afleet Alex zoomed forward, collided with Scrappy T, and, for a moment, went as wobbly-kneed as a camel. In a scene rewound on every "Play of the Day" sports highlight show, Afleet Alex nearly pitched nose first into the dirt before regaining his footing, springing to his hooves, and running off to win by four lengths. Scrappy T, his would-be blocker, finished second. The exacta paid $152 for every $2 wagered. I'd wagered $4, so I'd recouped my Derby losses, and experienced one of my great moments of gambling glory.

The Preakness is an underdog of a race, and the secret to winning money on it is to find an underdog of a horse. The important question is not who's going to finish first -- in six of the last 10 runnings, it's been the Kentucky Derby winner -- but who's going to finish second. In 2002, War Emblem completed the Derby-Preakness double. His odds were a skimpy 5-2, but his runner-up was Magic Weisner, an unknown Maryland horse. The exacta paid $327. The next year, Funny Cide won at even lower odds, 9-5. Right behind him, for a $120 exacta, was long-shot Midway Road.

Look for an underhorse who didn't run in the Derby. The other bettors ignore them. Scrappy T had won the Withers, a minor race at Aqueduct Race Course, in Queens. Last year, I neglected to bet on Barbaro in the Derby. So at the Preakness, I played Barbaro in the exacta with Bernardini, the reigning Withers champion. We all remember what happened that fateful afternoon. The gate opened, and I watched, in abject horror, as Bernardini ran away with the race. He was 12-1, but I hadn't even bet $2 on him to win.

In this Saturday's race, I'm going to use the same strategy. Street Sense has the two best Beyer Speed Figures (a rating invented by Washington Post racing columnist Andrew Beyer), has shown he can come from behind, or stick close to the leaders, and had a splendid workout this week. Only a fool would bet against him. Most bettors will be playing Street Sense in exactas with Hard Spun and Curlin, the second- and third-place finishers in the Derby. Those bets will probably pay between $10 and $15. If you want returns like that, join a mutual fund.

I am going to bet Street Sense to beat one of three long shots in the exacta. King of the Roxy ran valiantly in the Santa Anita Derby, losing by half a length. Xchanger won his only race at Pimlico, by sprinting away from the field. He could build a huge lead on Saturday. The longest shot of all is the intriguing Mint Slewlep, who was charging toward the front of the pack in the Withers when another horse blocked his path, forcing his jockey to rein him in. I will also play Street Sense on top of my long shots in the trifecta, and bet a "saver" trifecta using Street Sense for first, Hard Spun, Curlin and Circular Quay for second, and my long shots for third.

If I win, I'll win big. If I lose, if I outsmart myself again, well, there's another race in three weeks, at Belmont Park. My grandmother once told me, "You can't win gambling." But that's no reason not to try.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Here's how to ask for my bets:

Pimlico, 12th race:

$5 exacta part wheel, 8 with 1,2,5

$2 trifecta key, 8 with 1,2,5

$1 trifecta part wheel, 8 with 3,4,7 with 1,2,5

Total investment: $36

Update: Pipped at the post! I didn't think Curlin would make it to the winnerb

My bets didnb

My phone betting account is $36 poorer, but the Preakness wasnb

By Ted McClelland

MORE FROM Ted McClelland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------