Never been to the track? Play the ponies like a pro with some expert advice.
It’s worth going to the Illinois Derby Saturday 4 at Hawthorne Race Course (3501 S Laramie Ave, Cicero; 708-780-3700) just to hear a pre-race baritone rendition of “My Kind of Town”—and to see one fast colt win $300,000 and a spot in next month’s Kentucky Derby. I’ve been attending the race since the mid-’90s, when it was held at next-door Sportsman’s Park, the half-demolished hulk you’ll see on your right as you enter the track. After years of spending way too much time and money at the races while penning Horseplayers: Life at the Track (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), I’ve amassed some tricks for a successful day at Hawthorne—or at least one that’s not totally embarrassing. Here are answers to some frequently asked horse-racing questions:
Hey, what’s that smell? Hawthorne butts up against the oil refineries of Cicero—hence its nickname, Refinery Downs—and is a few blocks from the world’s largest sewage-treatment plant.
How do I pick a winner? Be Poindexter at the track. Buy Daily Racing Form, horse racing’s Wall Street Journal. In every horse’s statistics-crammed record, you’ll see a column of boldface numbers, the Beyer Speed Figures, a calculated guess of each horse’s performance. Bet on horses with high speed figures.
What about betting on the horse who finished second last time? Plenty of gamblers like to bet on horses with “seconditis”—repeated runners-up who seem due for a win. I say, avoid these sucker horses. They’re as due for a win as the Cubs are for a pennant.
What if I’m too lazy to study? Buy the Green Sheet at the program stand, which picks the winners for you.
How do I make a simple bet? Use the horse’s number found in the free programs, not its name. Approach a teller—one of those grumpy-looking guys behind the counter—and say, “Hawthorne, [dollar amount] to win on [horse’s program number].” (The minimum bet is $2.)
How do I root for my horse? Again, use the program number. Don’t shout, “Go, Racing Bran!” Yell, “Come on with the 3!”
How can I win a lot of money? Hawthorne offers a ten-cent superfecta. For a dime, you can try picking the top four winners of the race, in order. Payoffs have reached five figures. For $2.40, you can increase your chances by “boxing” your horses—picking the top four in any order.
Isn’t betting to show safer? No. When you bet to show (that is, bet a horse will finish in at least third place), your payoff depends on the other horses who finish in the top three. If a heavy favorite “hits the board” (finishes first through fourth), you’ll likely take away just ten cents on a $2 bet. You can get that kind of measly return from a money-market account. Didn’t you come to the track to gamble? One good winner makes for a better day than four mediocre show horses.
When and where can I size up the horses in person? Fifteen minutes prior to the race in the paddock, which is under the grandstand. If you see sweaty or unruly ponies, cross them off your list.
What should I wear? Gentlemen, don’t wear a porkpie. This isn’t Guys and Dolls. Ladies, the big floppy hats are for Kentucky Derby Day only. If you want cred, wear jeans, old sneakers and a giveaway T-shirt from the 1995 Illinois Derby at Sportsman’s. A real horseplayer will bet $200 on a race but won’t spend $20 on a pair of pants.
What if I run out of money? Start “stooping”—combing the floor for winning tickets accidentally tossed out by fellow gamblers. One of Hawthorne’s most dedicated stoopers, a guy who goes by the name Snow, claims he found a $420 ticket on Breeders’ Cup Day in 2002.
If someone calls your pony a bomber, it’s not a compliment.
Bomber Long shot
Bridge jumper Bettor who places a five- or six-figure show bet
Bubblegum ass Bettor with the discipline to skip a race
Chalk The favorite
Chalk-eater Bettor who plays favorites
Get a price Get good odds on a horse
Hammer Place a big bet
Lasix Drug used to prevent nosebleeds in horses
Popped Out of money
Schneid Losing streak
Scratched Horse withdrawn from the race