My favorite Broadway musical is Guys and Dolls, built around horse racing, gambling and the Damon Runyon characters. In the opening scene, "Nicely, Nicely" Johnson begins the "Fugue for Tinhorns" by announcing "I've got a horse right here; his name is Paul Revere. And here's a guy that says if the weather's clear, can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do." (His two cohorts, however, favor Epitaph and Valentine.) Wouldn't it be great if you could predict that Paul Revere would win, place or show? Those millions of Americans who head out to the racetrack each year are always looking for a sure tout like Nicely -- someone who can give them an inside tip on a race. (He is nicknamed "Nicely, Nicely" because when asked how things are going, he responds: "nicely, nicely.") While "Nicely, Nicely" Johnson is a marvelous stage character, he really doesn't know who is going to win the fifth race at Pimlico.
America has long had a love affair with horse racing. As we approach this year's 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, the first of the Triple Crown races, aficionados will focus on the new crop of 3-year-olds. While the well-dressed women and ubiquitous mint juleps will provide the glitz and glamour at Churchill Downs, it will be the thoroughbreds and the gambling that will attract the crowds and the viewing audience.
In 19th century America, horse racing was a staple of every county fair. It was America's most popular spectator sport. Gambling on the favorites of the region became a matter of neighborhood pride. Then, as now, racing horses were owned by the rich and entitled, but common folk participated in the excitement. For a modest entrance fee, we too can go out to the track and put down two bucks on a horse.
Horse racing was America's first major spectator sport. A few match races even attracted national attention in the years before the Civil War. In 1823, Northern champion Eclipse vanquished the Southern favorite Henry on the Long Island Union course. It was a significant loss for the Southerners, who were confident of their prowess when it came to horse flesh. It took decades for the South to mount a true regional champion, Petona, who defeated Northern favorite Fashion in 1845 on the same course with 100,000 in attendance.
While most of the focus in the "Sport of Kings" is on the horses, the jockeys are truly remarkable athletes. Small in stature, they must be light in order to keep their mounts within weight limits. The risks of injury to these men and women are significant as they guide their charges weighing 1,200 pounds through traffic on the track at more than 40 miles per hour. Their performances provide the edge that will allow a great horse to prevail.
Today at America's racetracks, spectators come out to enjoy the excitement, but most are unequipped to make informed choices among the competing horses. My wife and I were introduced to horse racing at Saratoga Race Course by our son Seth, who is passionate about this sport. Saratoga, sometimes called "the Spa" for the mineral springs nearby, is the oldest race track in America. It has a great charm. The jockeys are summoned to the paddock by a hand-rung bell 17 minutes before post time. You can stand near the path that runs from the stables through the picnic grounds and watch the horses parade. While many in attendance -- and many more betting "off-track" -- know something about the horses they would watch, most know only their names and the bright colors they and their jockeys wear. While it was fun to pick the horses and root for victory, a little bit of knowledge would have gone a long way in improving the odds.
Learning about thoroughbreds, their breeding and their performances can be challenging. Now I can access a website that is quite user friendly. This new site created by Seth -- Alldayracing.com -- provides the information a bettor would need to make a more informed choice without the hassle of pouring through pages of complex data.
Watching and betting the races is often a confusing and frustrating experience. Those who seek some help can access this website on mobile devices at the track or on a visit to an off-track betting parlor. The site simplifies the racing experience, but still leaves the decision making up to the individual. You no longer need to put your money on the horse with the nice name.
"I got the horse right here," the hustler sang, but he did so without data. He liked Paul Revere, but only if the weather was clear. I always thought Epitaph and Valentine had better pedigrees.