Betting on the Ponies

I lost $45 on the Kentucky Derby this weekend. In comparison to more seasoned gamblers, this sum was a mere pittance, but to me, that’s some lost dough worth crying over (it’s also an excellent bottle of Cakebread Chardonnay I won’t be indulging in this month.)

My money had been on Upstart (the owners are family friends) and Materiality (I didn’t mind the odds). I played it safe and only waged on them to show. You can see the results… they did at least show up. Never bet in a show of loyalty/camaraderie. That was this weekend’s sports-betting lesson.

I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn't get one, I did ride every weekend.
I always wanted a pony, and though I (thankfully) didn’t get one, I did ride every weekend.

While I partially grew up around horses, I’ve never been good at “picking a horse.” My mother claims she can spot a winner by looking at its hooves. I can look at stats, hooves, tails, stable colors, trainer history, jockey results, and champion names and I still rarely, if ever pick a winner (contrary to your expectations, I’m going to go ahead and refrain from extending this to a personal life metaphor.)

Allow me to pause and quote Truman Capote’s Holly Golighty:

“There are so few things men can talk about. If a man doesn’t like baseball, then he must like horses, and if he don’t like either of them, well, I’m in trouble anyway: he don’t like girls.”

Two summers ago, my mother and I drove up to Elora, Canada, to spend some time with my great Aunt and Uncle Bob. We’d started in Columbus, Ohio, where we had been fencing in the National Championships. We were several hours delayed in leaving for the Great White North because I was stuck in the medic’s tent at the venue. Making a touch to bring a come-from-behind bout to 14-14, I went down. On-strip diagnosis was that I had just torn two ligaments in my knee. I was being numbed with ice, bandaged, and loaded-up with anti-inflammatories.

It was my birthday…

We swung by an area pan-Asian restaurant for road food as we began our beeline out of Ohio. My mother bought me two bottles of sake to drink (“Mom, isn’t it, like, ILLEGAL to be drinking in a car?” “You’re not driving. Happy Birthday!) Immobilized, in pain, and now slightly inebriated, it was hard to know what kind of company I’d be as we made our rounds in rural Ontario.

A snapshot from my day at the races
A snapshot from my day at the races

Aunt Winn and Uncle Bob treated us to a night at Grand River Raceway, a casino and harness-racing track to which they had a membership. In the final years of his life, Uncle Bob had lost most of his vision. He walked with a cane and was in pain most days. But my great uncle was one of the most vibrant, fun-loving sorts you could ever experience. Settled in the restaurant overlooking the track, Uncle Bob had me read aloud the listing of the horses, their records, and the odds. Then he’d hand me a $5 or $20 bill and tell me who to place his bet on.

I’d mull over the listing and announce my picks.

“I’m putting $10 on Curator.”

“What are his odds?”

“I don’t know. But that name — it’s a sign.”

At some point, as the sun was beginning to set, I mustered up enough grit to walk outside and down 2 flights of concrete steps, down to the track. My knee was throbbing. But god, those animals! I leaned against the rails and watched them trot by. Pacing their gates. They all looked like a good bet to me.

Like most little girls, I had a pony and horse obsession, which meant I spent every Saturday in my single-digit years at the stable, and every family vacation usually had to include one ride — whether it was along a beach in Mexico or through the Irish countryside. My parents were wonderfully tolerant. I wanted to have my own dude ranch out west, or own a stable attached to an inn in upstate New York.

It’s an interesting fascination, this “Mummy! Daddy! I want a pony!” instinct that young girls seem to have. Horses are not cute animals. They’re regal companions who can take you anywhere you want to go. At the same time, they have a mind of their own (I’ve been on more than a few runaway steeds in my lifetime…)

At the end of our night at the raceway, Uncle Bob was up by about $80. Me on the other hand, even with his guidance and example to follow, well, I was down by $40 (can you tell I have a loss limit?)

Picking race horses isn’t my thing. That’s clear, as my dude ranch retirement goals have been replaced by an affinity for mint juleps and flamboyant hats. The Derby is one of my favorite sporting events of the summer, but don’t come to me for your betting advice… I will however point you in the direction of some excellent milliners.

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