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Heading out to the races

Every February, the world of Horse Racing brings it's traveling show to Tucson's Rillito Park. Few people around town seem to be aware of this and that's fine with us. It can be our little secret. But at a time of year when football is over, baseball hasn't started and college basketball is the only thing to keep a goliard's interest gaming wise, what more could you ask for than to have the carnivalesque sights, sounds and smells of the horse races roll right into your own backyard.

Some Background

On the Bookwoman's recommendation, we recently finished Seabiscuit, An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. The book, written in 2001, provides an excellent look into the state of the country in the late thirties and the sport of horse racing itself as well as giving an extremely well written and engaging account of "The Biscuit" and the characters that intermingled in his life. To sum up without giving too much away, the Biscuit was a stud. While most horses exist as jittery prey animals that sleep standing up for mere minutes at a time, the Biscuit would take any opportunity to lie down on his side and snore for up to eight hours, often taking this respite on trains. During a race, the Biscuit was known for slowing down to taunt opponents and then speeding up again just in time to win by a nose, sometimes looking sideways at the camera and flicking his ears as he crossed under the wire. The Biscuit, although a stubby, swollen kneed animal who was often mistaken for a cow pony, was the grandson of Man O' War and for a couple years running could blow doors off of any horse in the world. The Biscuit, along with his loveable, Waldo Emerson quoting jockey Red Pollard, also had some incredibly bad luck. But we'll let you read about it for yourselves. Suffice it to say that if you learn more about the Biscuit, you may want to go out and see the sport that he dominated with your own eyes. Not to mention that if you like to gamble for fun on something with so many variables and intruding factors that your head will spin but that, at the same time, can be as simple as shutting your eyes and picking one lucky number, horse racing is perfect.

Admittedly, we were a little reluctant at first to endorse the sport, thinking that the horses were probably made miserable behind the scenes and being heavily exploited in some way. It seemed plausible at least and actually damned likely that the whole business was just an old excuse to make money and the out of public view stories would turn out to be ugly with the animals doing most of the suffering. There may be some of that and we don't know enough about the situation to be able to say confidently that, under closer inspection, one couldn't uncover an unseemly side of racing. Whether it be performance enhancing drugs and their after effects, misery and slaughter for the horses that don't measure up, or the human malfeasance and nefariousness that always seems to rear it's head when gambling and lots of money is involved, chances are there is something untoward going on. However in our limited exposure, two things seem clear to our untrained eyes. 1) The people who work this game seem to love and care about these animals and 2) These animals simply love to run. At Rillito Park at least, one can get close enough to the goings on to be able to form this opinion and if there is suffering going on somewhere beyond the back stretch, it certainly hasn't been apparent to us.

A Day at the Races

The first time we went out to the Rillito Downs, which is in north central Tucson just off of First Ave where it crosses the Rillito wash, we really just wanted to take a look at the animals and see what the whole thing was about. It wasn't long however that, sure as shootin, we were throwing a little money down to make it interesting. Then, as we got more comfortable and familiar, we began to develop the first of many systems. And like Jack London said of a gambler in the first chapter of Call of the Wild "He had one besetting weakness - faith in a system; and this made his damnation certain."

Starting with the basics, we kicked off our handicapping career by betting on the color blue to win (the horses and jockeys wear colors corresponding with their numbers so you can distinguish them across the track). When that brought less than favorable results we started going with the number two horse to place. Then we slapped down some green on any jockey with an Irish sounding name. For awhile we were partial to only female jockeys. Then we exclusively bet on Anna Barrio (pictured at right, the Ella Caliente of the Southwest racing circuit). Then it was horses that came in under weight. Next it was horses that had been seen taking a recent crap. Soon only appaloosas or pintos. Eventually, it was any horse starting at less then five to one that drew the inside gate. Then it was horses opening between seven and four to one that had won their most recent start in the rain and had traveled less than five hundred miles to get here. Then we thought we had something with any horse trained by Armando Galindo. Then it was any filly with a show in her previous four starts against all males in windy conditions. You get the picture. And that was before we figured out Quinellas, Box Trifectas and how to read the forms. On top of that, if you just like to play numbers, you can walk in and take a dollar 3-8-5 trifecta or a two dollar quinella without even looking at the horses or the board. If your numbers come in, you will collect anywhere from seven dollars to 3000. And it's a hell of a lot more exciting then watching balls pop up in a lottery machine.

The races vary in length from 250 yds to around a mile and a half. The horses are all shapes, sizes and colors ranging from old crusty quarter horses to young sleek thoroughbreds. Sometimes they even race Arabians. Quarter horses are fast for short distances and thoroughbreds are the endurance athletes. They stage races at middle distances that mix both in the field so bettors can try to predict which will prevail between sprint speed and staying power. There are photo finishes, inquiries, dirty tactics, brilliant strategies, nasty spills and incredible upsets. There are horses and jockeys that seem to rise to all occasions and others that crumble under pressure. Mud flies, the loudspeaker cracks, the crowd roars and horses thunder past so fast that you can't even always tell what's going on right before your eyes until you see the replay. The track also has a little bit of history to it as it was the early home of current racing superstar trainer Bob Baffert who had his first Thoroughbred winner Flipper Star come under the wire for the win at Rillito on January 28, 1979.

And if you're a people watcher, you won't find a more eclectic mix of the gentry than you do at the racetrack. There are a good many of the money folk up from Nogales, dressed to the nines and strutting their stuff. You'll find greasy gamblers clinching dead cigars and hoping that the elusive ship will come in in the form of a horse named Green Apple Quick Step or All the Stories. Golf pros and gumshoes. Frat boys and grease monkeys. Street walkers and loud talkers. Perambulators and wheelchairs. Bowlegged dusty pokes and sweet smelling hipster doofuses. You can sit in the club house, sip champagne high above it all and be waited on, or lounge in the grandstand and pound beers. You can hang on the rail waving your two dollar ticket at the glistening muscular animals toting the squirming, whipping little people on their backs as they ramble past. You can go stand by the starting gate and watch the prerace load, with the horses occasionally throwing their mounts to the turf, lashing out at one another and bucking and kicking in wild circles before settling down to run. You can hang underneath in the cool shadows and watch the whole thing on a suspended TV monitor or tear off your shirt and bask in the sun. Lurk at the paddock near the jockeys' quarters and you might pick up a tip as the splendid but ever jittery animals are saddled and tacked just yards away and the gaunt gritty riders banter and snipe nervously waiting for the call. Burgers are grilling, cold beer is flowing and money is being slapped down. Some bray loudly of their hopes and dreams while others keep their bets close to the vest. The cacophony of groans of defeat and screams of jubilation once the race is on never fail to raise the chicken skin as the cry of "Down the stretch they come" rings out and you can almost hear the announcers of yesteryear screaming into the tinny microphone to a national radio audience, "And here comes Seabiscuit!"

And the excitement is contagious. We've got to believe that it would be one of life's unsurpassed feelings to stand and cheer as a filly that you either bought at auction for nothing, or bred, nurtured, trained, schooled and loved until she was ready for the big stage comes blasting down the inside rail taking the wire by a nose. Then she might prance back to the winner's circle to flick her ears at you in recognition while you pose next to her for the winning photo. Most of us will never have the money or knowledge to be able to afford that kind of experience but we can be part of it all just the same. So head out to a track near you and investigate for yourself. And please let us know if there is another side of the story that needs telling.


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