Jeff Smith noon, March 8
- Community Blog
- Beyond The Big Metal Fence
It was nineteen hundred and ninety four, when dinosaurs apparently still roamed the planet Earth and my Spanish wasn't all that stellar, and I wandered into the Caliente Race and Sports book at well before eight in the morning. Slaking the appropriate scratch sheets from plastic bins hanging on the wall near the entrance, I then went upstairs and Robert was already there, barely, adjusting his markers and pens and other accessories in that same persnickety way he always did; I was just a slob. Cesar, our waiter, simply brought up the coffee, he didn't even bother to ask us. Gringos and their habits. We always tipped Cesar out very nicely.
"It's raining over there," I said, unpacking a notebook and a record book and spreading the West, Central, and East issues of the Daily Racing Form across my half of the table.
"I know," Robert said. He seemed delighted by it.
The television monitors in front of us flickered to life, tracks at New York and Florida would come first. The coffee, as it usually was in the race book, tasted weak. Both of us had bought our Racing Forms the day prior, and both of us had studied them for hours, well into the evening, me here in Tijuana and Robert from his rented room in downtown San Diego. It could have been any Saturday back then, but it wasn't. It was the first Saturday in May, and in the late afternoon, the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby would take place at Churchill Downs. One of the monitors switched to a shot of that track. It was a swamp.
Where I worked at the time I first became interested in horse racing - at a then-famous old foundry in South Gate, California - a man who I refer to as my first mentor in handicapping worked as the purchasing agent at that foundry, and he donned other hats as well. His name was John Billings, and everyone called him "Big John", because he was big, really big. Big John taught me about speed and class, two important aspects when trying to pin down a winner in a race. It wasn't long before I was spending Friday evenings with Big John at Los Alamitos, they had this room down a short flight of stairs that led up to track level, and for around three and a half dollars you could get a prime rib dinner. Good times, good times.
Before that, I would go to Santa Anita with a friend, John Folsom, and we shared a love of the track and a love of drinks containing gin. We didn't go often, but we certainly went often enough. Even back then I knew better than to bet every race. I would read the newspapers daily and watch for one specific race and save my money and bet on one horse in that race. It was a strategy that worked very well. I saved three hundred dollars to bet on Desert Wine when he ran against John Henry on dirt. It didn't bother me at all to bet on a horse that went off at five to two odds back then. I collected my winnings and bought more gin drinks. I didn't know any better.
I would never bet a horse like that now. Robert Marotta, my second and perhaps my last mentor, taught me a lot about value. He taught me that there is absolutely no sense in betting a horse that heavily when there were so many races to choose from and so much value to be found. He was right. I found that I could do more damage with a hundred dollar bankroll on any given Saturday than I could do with three hundred dollars bet once every few months on a single horse. I have Robert to thank for that.
I lost track of Big John decades ago. He would be approaching seventy if he's still around. Big John had started as an illustrator on Madison Avenue, and the pressure drove him out of there. How he wound up at that foundry is anyone's guess. While I was preparing documentation packages at the company copy machine, he would tell me stories about the track. "Andy's Winston," he gushed, "was about the crookedest pacer I ever got a tip on."
He taught me how badly fixed the harness races were.
John Folsom moved up north, and one Friday evening after work he decided to drive to Reno. John was a careful driver, in that even before there was a law concerning seat belts, he would make all of his passengers fasten theirs or he would tell them to get out. I found it ironic, coming from someone who shot rapids in a kayak regularly. Another irony was that John Folsom died on that trip to Reno, apparently falling asleep and driving off of a high bridge, hitting a trestle, and never feeling a thing. I remember attending his service, where the family priest talked John up good. I wanted to throw up. John Folsom was an atheist.
"Such services are for the living," my parents reminded me.
Gin never tasted the same after that.
By ten that morning, people were coming into the race book, and Robert and me sat chilly, taking trip notes from the New York and Florida races. He knew who I liked in that Derby. I had been talking up Tabasco Cat for weeks. As with every first Saturday in May, there was always one monitor showing the current odds for that race, because even though it was many hours away, there is so much money bet on that single event that people want to see where they stand. We both took a firm stand against the favorite that year, Holy Bull, but Tabasco Cat was a distant yet firm third choice. I reasoned that I'd never get those odds on that colt again, but it was early in my relationship with my mentor and he'd only had a few months to get through my thick skull.
"What's with the rolling around in the sand?" Robert remarked. He was teasing me. Tabasco Cat's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had set up a sand pit in the two weeks leading up to the Derby and the colt took to playing in it. Robert disapproved of taking a horse on such short odds, if you can call six-to-one short. I was stuck on the colt, stuck on his breeding, and stuck with him on that muddy track.
"Time for you to spit out your pick," I said.
Robert balked. It was the oddest thing about him, that he was actually quite superstitious. He loathed giving up his race selections, "Kiss of death," he would say. I argued the point with him at great length many times, that whatever we said in Tijuana couldn't possibly affect the outcome of a race anywhere else. Robert was unmoved.
"Actually, I like two horses," Robert finally confessed.
"Powis Castle, he just always tries. And Go For Gin."
I looked at the screen, Powis Castle was twenty-to-one and Go For Gin was half of that. Even in the short time that I had known Robert, I knew him enough to where I wasn't surprised. Go For Gin scared me. He was bred to love the slop, and there was plenty of slop as Churchill Downs began to run their early races, the horses might have well been swimming. I knew for sure that Go For Gin was not the best horse at that track but Nick Zito, his trainer, was scary good with young horses. It wasn't enough to get me off of Tabasco Cat.
"Powis Castle? Seriously?" I said.
"Hey, he has a chance in here. He tries, you can't ask more of a horse than that," Robert said.
We both made wagers on a couple of races at different tracks leading up to the Derby. Robert missed his, I hit one that paid well. But with fourteen horses going to post after Kandaly scratched out, we knew that the real prize of the day would be had a few minutes after two-thirty in the afternoon. Back in those days, horses beyond ten entered were all considered field bets. Even so, to this day, I can't remember a more contentious Derby, odds-wise, than was that one back in nineteen hundred and ninety four.
Charles Edward Whittingham was a great thoroughbred horse trainer, born in Chula Vista, California in 1913, and he trained all of his life, only interrupted once with a stint in the Marine Corps during the Second World War. Among the many great racehorses that Charlie trained was Ferdinand, the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1986. In a string of odd tragedies, after Ferdinand was retired to stud in 1989, he was later sold to a breeder in Japan in 1994. Sometime in 2002, Ferdinand was then sold to slaughter, becomming pet food or perhaps even people food. In that sacrifice, the Ferdinand Fee was developed some years later once the news went out to a horrified public concerning Ferdinand's unfortunate demise. This fee now ensures that thoroughbreds are protected from such an ending, as well as can be monitored with the money that supports that cause.
Ferdinand paid a large price to insure a comfortable retirement for others.
In the late nineteen hundred and seventies, a young, brash, and cocky runaway named Rodney Rash showed up at Santa Anita and began as a hot walker for Whittingham. In the decade that followed, Charlie showed great patience with Rodney, who got himself into trouble on numerous occasions, having problems with both drugs and alcohol, wandering aimlessly in a self-destructive manner. Charlie bailed him out of jail on more than one occasion and made amends financially at times when Rash became irrational and busted up someone else's property.
By the late eighties, Rodney Rash had turned his life around. He was now Whittingham's head assistant. In 1991, Rash decided to stake his own claim and trained his own stable. In 1994, Rodney Rash trained Powis Castle all of the way into the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby. With jockey Chris Antley on board, that twenty-to-one shot was quite a story, indeed.
It doesn't matter how long you've been handicapping, and it really doesn't matter how much you have down on a horse or two in that race, if you're a player, you'll get butterflies in your stomach when the horses are in the post parade for the running of the Kentucky Derby. Go For Gin looked happy to be there, and Tabasco Cat didn't look as full of himself as he usually was. Powis Castle was an afterthought, just another horse with fifteen minutes until post. Robert showed no emotion at all, a true pro's pro, we didn't talk as they galloped backside while the crowd sang "My Old Kentucky Home".
I had twenty to win on Tabasco Cat and another twelve dollars in exactas to back him up.
The shine from the water was alarming. It was the first time since 1948 that the Derby would be contested on an off-track, and my only thought was that regardless of the outcome, I had already made a profit for the day. Still, even more than the money, in this race there are bragging rights. So what if my colt liked to roll around in a sand pit? What difference would that make if he won?
I remember them loading into the gate, two at a time. All of that water, all of that mud. They turn up the sound in the race book and you hear the gates close behind the loaded horses, "Clank!" And then again, "Clank!" And so on. The gate handlers yelling, jockeys getting settled. And then you hear Tom Durkin say, "They're all in."
Go For Gin wrested the lead away from Ulises early in the backstretch and never looked back. Before that, he ducked into Tabasco Cat at the start, forcing that one into Brocco, but it didn't matter, my horse didn't care for the mud at all. This is what happens. All I could do was to feel good for Robert, who had a nice wager on the winner. Powis Castle? He ran 8th. The favorite, Holy Bull could do no better that 12th.
The aftermath is the entire point sometimes, in that entirely odd circumstances bring out some sort of a question of whether coincidence trumps such circumstances.
Rodney Rash continued to train up until February of 1996. Thinking that he had a simple case of the flu which included headaches and general tiredness, he ignored these symptoms until his condition became dire, and was then transported to a hospital in Los Angeles where he soon died from a rare blood disorder at age 36.
Chris Antley, the jockey that rode Powis Castle, had already won a Kentucky Derby on Strike the Gold in 1991. Later, after temporarily retiring due to weight and drug problems, he rode Charasmatic to victory in that race and repeated it in the Preakness Stakes. Antley died of a drug overdose in 2000 at age 34.
Charles Whittingham passed away at age 86, in 1999. He is enshrined in the San Diego Hall Of Champions, and there is a bust of Whittingham with his dog, Toby, on display in the paddock at Santa Anita Park.
Holy Bull, in spite of that disappointing showing in the Derby, went on to win Horse Of The Year in 1994. He is generally listed among the top 100 racehorses of all time, winning 13 of his 16 races. Holy Bull has been quite successful at stud, siring Derby winner Giacomo among many other winners. He currently stands at Darley in Lexington, Kentucky, for a $10,000 fee.
Tabasco Cat went on to redeem himself by winning both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, finishing his racing career with 8 wins in 18 tries. He was very successful at stud, where his progeny earned over 17 million dollars. Tabasco Cat died in Japan in March of 2004 at the age of thirteen, of a heart attack while covering a mare.
Go For Gin finished 2nd to Tabasco Cat in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and was retired and placed at stud due to an injury a year later. He went on to a very successful career as a stallion with his progeny earning over 22 million dollars to date. He currently stands at Bonita Farm in Maryland for a stud fee of $3,000 dollars.
Powis Castle finished 9th in the Preakness Stakes and had only minor success after that. He wasn't particularly popular at stud, only managing to sire four thoroughbreds and a handful of quarter-horse mixes. He died in a freak accident in a paddock in Texas in 2001, although he outlived his trainer and jockey from the 120th Kentucky Derby.