Written by: Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star
ANDERSON, Ind. — I felt like a wide-eyed little kid approaching the bank teller with my first-ever lemonade-stand deposit.
“Ummmm, I think I want an exacta box with the 1, 3, 5 and 7 horses,” I told the nice lady at Hoosier Park.
She smiled, and not just because she was taking my $12 bet.
“This is your first time, isn’t it?” she asked, fully knowing the answer.
What gave me away? The sweating? The fact I had to read the words right off my notebook? Perhaps she could hear my internal conversation:
Pick-4 . . . no, that’s not it. What’s an exacta box? How many horses do I need to finish in the top three? How’s all this different from a superfecta? When will my brain explode, and can’t I just go play blackjack in the casino?
“Maybe you’ll have beginner’s luck,” she said, still smiling.
Yeah, beginner’s luck.
Two of the horses I picked battled it out for last place. The other two finished only a little closer to the winner.
Life as a gambler. And one heck of a wonderful day, and night, at Hoosier Park.
I’ll be honest here: I’ve been to only one horse track in my life — Churchill Downs, which isn’t a bad one if you’re going to attend one track — but had absolutely no idea what was going on at that Kentucky Derby. If memory serves, I wrote that day about hats and my failed attempt to get to the Queen of England’s private box.
You can take everything I know about horse racing (and several other subjects), pour it into a thimble and still have plenty left over for a martini with three olives.
In fact, it wasn’t until I showed up Thursday that I came to understand the difference between thoroughbreds and standardbreds, the difference between pacers and trotters.
Go ahead, quiz me:
What’s the difference between a thoroughbred and standardbred?
To put it in basketball terms, or something I understand, a thoroughbred is Kevin Durant: long, lithe, capable of great speed and power but a little bit brittle.
The standardbred, which ran in the night’s harness races, is like Kendrick Perkins, but without the scowl: tough, muscular, sturdy, capable of going greater distances and running more frequently at less breakneck speeds.
What’s the difference between a pacer and a trotter?
A pacer’s right legs go in one direction while the left legs go in the other direction. It’s an odd gait, not unlike our friend Kendrick Perkins. But that’s how they’re bred to run, just as I’ve been suitably bred to drink beer and lie around the house.
How do you like them horse apples?
Speaking of which, I am happy to report that the horse who took me on my first harness ride, along with driver Trent Stohler, has a very solid, high-fiber diet.
Tearful Reunion, who is now my horse, left a hefty trail of manure on the limestone track. I have no way of proving this, but I think it made him run faster. Horses in competition get up to about 30 to 35 mph. For my ride, Tearful Reunion was going about 20.
Not exactly a two-seater at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but thrilling nonetheless.
“Here, you take the reins,” Stohler told me. “Pull on the left one, he’ll go left. Pull on the right, he’ll go right. Pull on both, he’ll slow down.”
Which seemed simple until I tried to guide Tearful Reunion, who seemed to be interested in running off track and into the giant lake in the middle of Hoosier Park. “I think something spooked him,” Stohler said.
Yeah, like the idiot holding the reins.
I discovered that horses are like teenage kids: The more you try to set them in a certain direction, the harder you pull on the reins, the more likely it is they’ll do whatever the heck they want.
“Here,” Stohler said, “I’ll take them.”
At which point, Tearful Reunion behaved and returned to a safe pace around the seven-eighths mile long track.
By the way, Tearful Reunion is a stud. So we had that in common.
I’ll be honest again here, too: My completely ignorant impression of horse tracks was that they were populated exclusively by degenerate gamblers who don’t appear to have showered since the Carter administration.
I expected a certain cross section of our population, old men with cigs dangling from their lips, ratty clothes, and a far-away look in their eyes.
Maybe that’s true at some places, but at Hoosier Park?
“We’re the best track for families going,” said Hoosier Park’s Tim Konkle, my gracious host for the day.
There were families, and I wouldn’t hesitate to bring my family at some future date. The clientele was decidedly middle class and upper crust (based totally on first impressions). It was almost disappointing; I was expecting whacked-out railbirds with dirty hands and rolled-up racing forms in their back pockets.
No such luck. I hate when my preconceived notions are blown to smithereens.
Hoosier Park isn’t just a horse track and a casino. It has concerts. It has fireworks. It has a pristine-looking clubhouse with white table cloths and menu items like seared ahi tuna, Kobe beef burgers and Chilean sea bass. I was expecting nachos with ersatz cheese.
Nope. Not on the menu.
But I came to win money.
“You have a hundred bucks,” my wife told me. “Remember, we just dropped a bunch of cash on our daughter’s open house. We’re tight this week.”
Now, I’m not in the habit of simply giving away money, so I dutifully scanned the horses’ past performances. Why, I don’t know. There were lots of acronyms and numbers, and it might as well have been written in some obscure Ukrainian dialect. All I understood were the odds, which, in the end, change as the pari-mutuel bets come in from across the country.
So I relied on my two betting studs, Konkle and Hoosier Park publicist Emily Gaskin.
Konkle, I was told, couldn’t miss last Saturday. And Gaskin knows horses so well, she picked out a $900 horse as a graduation gift, and that horse won more than $200,000 in harness racing.
Then we promptly got our brains beat in.
We tried exactas, superfectas and a couple of bets that I couldn’t even begin to describe, and things didn’t go well.
“We just lost to a 39-1 shot,” Gaskin groused.
At one point, I had so many losing tickets, you could have lit them and started a small forest fire.
One time, on a $30 bet, we won. I was totally excited. My first win ever.
Except the horses paid $28.75, so I won and lost $1.25.
Don’t spend more than $100.
“You should do a pick-4,” Gaskin said. “Pick the next four winners in the next four races.”
So I put my handicapping skills to work, skills not unlike those owned by my late mother, who used to pick NFL games based on how well she liked the team’s uniforms. She usually crushed me.
I took Getontheway in the first race, since my driver, Trent Stohler, was on that horse.
I picked Canadian Justice in the second because I’m a huge hockey fan and used to spend lots of time in Canada.
I chose Amy Jo’s Angel next because, well, I was in love with a girl named Amy in high school. Sadly, she was not aware I existed as a life form at the time. Her loss.
Finally, I picked Bluebird Kidsqueen, the rationale being that I spent many idle hours at the Bluebird in Bloomington during my college years. Actually saw a young John Cougar there, but that’s another story.
I didn’t win any of them.
Ultimately, I probably broke even, although over time, I started to impress the nice cashier with my improving knowledge of superfectas and exacta boxes. (And it’s not brain surgery; if you don’t know the game, there is lots of information available to guide you through the various bets. And they’re very nice to newcomers, likely because they enjoy taking and investing your cash.)
“Sorry we couldn’t help you pick more winners,” Konkle said.
You kidding? This was one of the most enjoyable days I had all summer.
I wasn’t done, though.
With most of my original $100 still in hand, I hit the casino and played video blackjack with a dealer so nice, she fist-bumped players every time they beat her hand.
I’m used to Vegas dealers, who chortle every time they turned a 3 into a five-card 21.
I ran my winnings from $50 to $200 but didn’t have the ability to walk away. A half-hour later, I’d lost it all. Which proves that with gambling, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you do or don’t know what you’re doing, you’re probably going to leave your money in Anderson.
The truth, though? It was worth every lost penny.