Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reflections on a Thoroughbred

Secretariat wins the Belmont Stakes - June 9, 1973
In 1972 I was still a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. That May, some friends and I decided to take a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Roy and Jan drove their Volvo with Keith and myself in the backseat. We left Pittsburgh early in the morning. It rained off and on, but by the time we arrived at Churchill Downs (perhaps in time for the 6th race) it had more or less stopped. We secured space in the infield and proceeded to enjoy the party atmosphere. I tried my first and last Mint Julep, and waited for the Derby. The Derby itself was anti-climatic -- the infield was so crowded that all I saw of the actual race was Riva Ridge's ears as he flew by to win the race. By the time we got home early the next morning I had pretty much decided that if I ever went to such an event again it would be with real seats. As things would work out, I wouldn't have seats at the next such event either but I had a great view of something quite historic.
Secretariat's Past Performances
In 1973 I had started paying attention to a horse named Secretariat as he demolished competitors. As you can see from the above past performances chart, going into the Kentucky Derby he had won nearly every race he had entered with the exception of the prestigious Wood Memorial. He proceeded to convincingly win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, each by 2 and a half lengths over the second place finisher, Sham (a great horse himself.)

As June approached I decided that I would attend the Belmont Stakes to be held on June 9. I was dating a CMU undergraduate who had left for the summer to be with her parents in the Philadelphia area and I gave her a call and asked if she would want to go with me. She said yes, and her parents invited me to spend the night before and the night after at their house. So on June 8 I drove my red Datsun 240Z from Pittsburgh to her house north of Philadelphia. I recall going to dinner at Bookbinders and then calling it a night.
A page from the original program
June 9 was a sunny day, and we left the house early to be sure to be at Belmont Park in time for the big eighth race, The Belmont Stakes. I had never driven in the New York area, but found getting to Belmont Park via the George Washington bridge to be relatively simple. When we got to the park all we could get was standing room admission, but we soon found a well placed area in the covered grandstands from which to watch the race. I have absolutely no memory of any of the other races that day, but I will never forget the eighth. Looking at the odds on the tote board (Secretariat's were uniformly much lower than those shown in the morning line, the others were mostly much higher) I quickly determined that the best bet was Secretariat to place (there was no show wagering on this race as there were only five horses entered and two of them were coupled.) The reason I thought this was not to improve my chances of winning my bet, but rather to improve the amount I would win if Secretariat won. My reasoning was that there was so much money (relatively) in the win pool for Secretariat and so little money (relatively) in the place pool for Secretariat that the payouts would be higher on a place bet when he won. (In my mind, Secretariat winning was never in doubt.) Watch the actual race here. If you have never seen it, you are in for a real treat.

The Belmont Stakes - June 9, 1973
As you can see from the watching the video above Secretariat won and it wasn't even close. In the process he set a world record for the mile and a half that has not been beaten to this day. I recently read somewhere that this is considered to be the greatest world record in any sport at any time. Virtually every other world record has been broken several times since 1973 - but not this one.
Chart of the 1973 Belmont Stakes
So I happily went to the cashiers window along with thousands of others to collect my winnings, right? Well not exactly. I figured that even if my place bet won as I expected that it wouldn't pay much. As you can see a place bet would have won me $2.40 on my $2 bet (and as a grad student I wasn't in a position to bet much more than that.) I reasoned that it would take forever to cash the ticket and that it wasn't worth it for 40 cents, or 80 cents, or even $4.00 and so I elected to not bet the race for real. This paid off in that we managed to leave the park ahead of a lot of traffic. It wasn't until several years later that I realized that an uncashed winning ticket would have made a terrific souvenir. And it wasn't until the last 10 years or so that I realized that such a ticket would have collectible value. In fact, I just saw one such ticket selling on eBay for more than $1,000. (Or at least that is what was being asked.) Now those are great odds. I suspect my place ticket would not be worth nearly as much!

The return trip to my date's house in Philadelphia was rather interesting. My officemate, Mady, was from Brooklyn and always had talked about how if a car broke down on the Brooklyn Shore Parkway that it was likely to be stripped before you could get a tow truck to show up. It was 90+ degrees at this point and the traffic on the parkway heading for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was bumper-to-bumper. At some point in the stop-and-go traffic I pushed the 240Z's clutch pedal and it went right to the floor with no resistance. I was worried until I remembered that I could get the car started in second gear. It was a pain in the ass while we were in traffic, but we eventually made it back to Philly. By the time we got there the clutch had started working again. It was clearly a problem with the hydraulic system but when I took the car to a dealer in Pittsburgh they could find nothing wrong. I sold the car that September.

As I write this, California Chrome has convincingly won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. I am really looking forward to the Belmont Stakes, though I won't be there this time. I would love to see the Triple Crown won again and will be watching closely to see if a 41 year old world record will be broken.

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