Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hot Dog Millionaires and Scoot's Herb


This morning, I read with pleasure this charming Vic Ziegel column about horse racing, hands down the most enjoyable 2-minute span of my 40-minute, Brooklyn-to-Manhattan, shoulder-to-shoulder commute. Writing about Derby hopeful, Noble's Promise, Ziegel starts off with an apocryphal anecdote about two "hot dog millionaires," just a wonderful term, who see their fortunes dashed when their horse, a sure thing, takes off in the wrong direction.   
My friends Paddy and Al got a trainer's tip on a cheap horse, a longer than longshot, in the last race at Monmouth. So they were packing enough cash to artichoke a horse and managed to be $1.75 ahead before even reaching the track. How they did it: At every 25-cent toll booth, instead of flipping a quarter into the basket, they gave the basket a hard slap. The green light flashed on and we went sailing through.

They managed to hold on to most of their stake until the race that would make them hotdog millionaires. The horse broke nicely from the gate and, a few steps later, was passing the entire field. How he did it: he was running in the wrong direction.

He beat nothing. And it wasn't long before Al and Paddy - you could say they were disappointed by the horse's lack of interest - caught up to the trainer to hear his explanation. The trainer claimed to be as stunned as the people he had been kind enough to call.

He had, he said, asked the jockey what happened and was told, "the other horses ran too fast."
I don't know what it is about horse racing, but something about the sport of kings almost always inspires great writing. More Ziegel, this time about Noble's Promise's sinus problem:
McPeek, in fact, didn't know where the horse would be this Saturday at 6:34 p.m., Derby time. Noble's Promise had to win the game called Stop the Mucus. "Were we concerned that we wouldn't be right for the race? Yes, we were," the trainer admits.

A four-furlong workout on Monday became the horse's SAT. The track came up muddy, and Noble's Promise ran a golden 48.4. Better yet, the congested lungs that gave him trouble in the Arkansas Derby three weeks ago scoped clean after the workout.
[...]
Last Friday, still singing the mucus blues, the trainer said Noble's Promise was only 60-40 to make the Derby. Horses will cough, to let people know there's a problem, but they can't spit. The problem was mucus. Around the corner from McPeek's office, Noble's Promise was in his stall, breathing into a transpirator, a vacuum cleaner-looking device first used by Darth Vader. "It speeds up the drying-up process, helps break up the mucus," McPeek says.
Just fantastic. Speaking of which, over at his site, my friend John, a lifelong racing fan, devotes a chunk of his blog to the ponies. One of my favorite pony-related posts begins thus: 
Saturday morning, I went to Aqueduct Racetrack to conduct an interview .... At the Borough Hall subway stop in Brooklyn, I asked the conductor of an A train if he was stopping at Aqueduct. He said, "No, you need the next A. The one to Far Rockaway." As he was closing the train's doors, he asked, "You got a sure winner?"

"Yeah," I said, chuckling, and thanked him for the transportation advice.

As the train started to pull out of the station, he leaned out of his booth and said, impatiently gesturing with his hand, "Gimme that sure thing." Since I wasn't going to the track to play the races, I knew nothing about the day's card. But I didn't want to disappoint him, or look unprepared, or something, so I just made it up -- "Number four in the first race," I said, holding up four fingers.

Then I started to feel bad. It was almost two hours to post time. He had plenty of time to call in a bet if he wanted, and he did seem eager to hear the pick. Granted, I don't look like the most trustworthy source for a "sure thing," and there are no sure things, anyway, so if this guy was going to believe the word of someone on an A platform at 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning, that's his problem. But I have an overdeveloped sense of guilt. So I started hoping that the 4 horse would be scratched when I got to the track.
That's basically John-- and New York-- summed up in one great story. Read how the story ends here

As for me, the horse's name was Scoot's Herb, a 7-1 shot, if I remember correctly. I was probably 11, maybe 12. A family friend took me and a classmate to a Devils game (corporate seats), when they still had green in their jerseys and still played in the Meadowlands, back when Continental Airlines Arena was still called the Brendan Byrne Arena. They beat the Penguins 7-0. 

After the game, before heading home for the night, the family friend took us to the Meadowlands Race Track, The Big M, a one-mile track located on the other side of the arena's massive parking complex, for the last three races. In the first race, we picked the seven horse, Phil's Scooter, because of the score of the game. Five dollars each, I think. He won. We lost in the second race, betting a nominal amount on, I think, a horse named Phillies Phun, or something vaguely similar to Phil's Scooter. 

For the last race of the night, we pooled our remaining resources, probably $20, at most, and decided to pick the favorite. Almost at once, though, our eyes caught sight of Scoot's Herb, also the number seven horse. My friend and I, in an embarrassing attempt at fitting in to our new, unfamiliar surroundings, exclaimed that it was a sign, a sure thing. The family friend rolled his eyes and said, "Why not?" By the first turn, Scoot's Herb was so far ahead of the field, the three of us started jumping up and down, screaming louder than we did at the hockey game. After the race, we divided our winnings--150 bucks, (the family friend threw in an extra $10 to even out the pot)-- a king's fortune for a young kid, before finally calling it a night. 

To this day, I still haven't been privy to such luck in any subsequent trips back to the track.  

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