Always bet to win

Saturday afternoon, Arlington Park

It was the look of the horse and the jockey that did it for me.

Usually, before I bet on a horse race, the track’s daily program is consulted, along with the prevailing odds on all the horses. And sometimes, something as meaningless as the horse’s name is enough to give me something to go on. But when we’re at the track, I feel as though a race without a wager on it may not even be a race at all. And so one of the 8-12 horses running in any given race will get the added benefit of carrying my hopes along with it.

The Arlington Million was being run today, and as a result the crowd at the park was probably the biggest it will be all year. The first few races had met with mixed results, from a wagering perspective. A couple of horses had come in, but nothing worth getting too excited about. No wager on a horse race is ever worth getting excited about, come to think of it.

I go to the track with my kids once a year, and we have fun for a couple of hours while we’re there, but for the other 364 days of the year, horse racing doesn’t exist for me. But all of today’s races seemed important on some level, and the people watching was a sport unto itself. There were certainly many interesting hats to be seen.

But I found the race before the Million, known as the Beverly D, to be the most interesting part of the day. I went down to the paddock area and watched the horses as they were being led onto the track. I decided to look at the horses and their jockeys, to see if I could spot a winner that way. And I thought I saw a winner in Marketing Mix. The program and the odds didn’t matter. I saw a horse, and a jockey, who weren’t going to be beaten. So I got in the ticket line and put $2 on Marketing Mix, the #8 horse, to win. It also happened to be the favorite, but that had nothing to do with my thought process, or apparent lack thereof.

As my daughter and I were waiting for the race to begin, we looked at the tote board to find the amounts in the Win, Place, and Show pools for each horse. My daughter wanted to know what the amounts mean, and I explained that it displays how much money has been wagered on each horse. And the win pool for that race, as in every other horse race, was the largest of the three pools. And that reflects human nature, I suppose.

When I visually inspected all of the horses running in that race, I was looking for the one that stood out. Every handicapper poring over the racing form is doing the same thing, in a different fashion. And when they, and I, have found that one horse, the boldest thing to do is to put a wager on that horse to win the race. That’s why they run these races, after all.

Betting to place is safer than betting to win, and betting to show is the safest bet of all. A show bet is like telling the world that you know a horse is among the three best in the race, and wherever it should happen to come in is OK, just as long as some money is returned in the process. I understand the allure of betting on horses to place or to show. It’s literally hedging your bets, and some would call that a smart thing to do.

But betting to win, even if it’s just the $2 minimum bet, is something else altogether. It’s saying that the horse is either going to win, or it will not win. It’s a binary, up-or-down thing; the biggest payouts go to those who take the biggest risks. And that’s why the win pool always has the largest amount in it. If I’m going to bet, I’m going all in, to the extent that $2 can ever be considered as such.

Marketing Mix came from back in the pack to give an exciting stretch run, but lost the race by a nose. Maybe sight alone isn’t the best way to judge a horse race. A place or show bet on Marketing Mix would have made my ticket worth something, and validated the instinct that I saw a winner in that horse/jockey pairing. In short, my boldness in this instance cost me $2. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but it’s not the outcome I would have chosen if I had my druthers, either.

We watched the next race, the Arlington Million, and lost out on that wager, too. But the next time we go, probably in 2013, it will be time to get back on the horse, metaphorically speaking. There are probably more intelligent ways of picking a winner, but there’s no other way to bet on the race.

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