I am looking for a vision. My dad, who introduced me to the joys and heartaches of racing when I was 8, died this time last year, but he hasn’t appeared to me with any ideas this week about how to bet the Kentucky Derby.
Oh, well. He never had much luck picking the Derby anyway, although he was on Canonero II before anyone else in 1971. I think he might have gotten great odds at the OTB parlor, although Canonero only paid $19.40 as part of the mutuel wagering field, before racetrack computers could handle more than 14 separate entities.
As I’m wandering around the packed Grandstand at Tampa Bay Downs, I see the usual share of women in stunning hats, men in stylish bow ties smoking $20 cigars, and babies in strollers. One friendly 2-year-old tries to give me his selection, but we aren’t quite bridging the language barrier.
Angel of Empire seems to be getting a lot of support. Quite a few regulars mention how great it would be if Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice wins, to boost the profile of the racetrack.
I’ve already bet a few long shots (my closest friends know me as the guy who always wants bragging rights as the only guy who picked the winner, but I did not have Rich Strike last year).
Two people try to fix my tie. One, Blacky, is wearing an outlandish hat with a parrot on top that would be an automatic finalist in any Derby hat contest.
I’m intrigued, from a sociological standpoint, by how many people are clearly here for the first time. They want to try this event, see if racing is something they can make a regular habit out of. I’m as clueless as most how to make that happen.
But I’m glad they don’t seem to be taking it too seriously, as my father often did.
I notice a Japanese man and his teenage daughter watching the races from the Grandstand apron. I ask the man, Mas, who he likes, curious if he bet on either of the Japanese-bred horses in the race, Mandarin Hero or Derma Sotogake.
Mas is way ahead of me, like a few months. He put down a $10 Futures Book wager on Mandarin Hero early this year, getting 99-1 odds.
At the time, Mandarin Hero was 4-for-4, all his 2-year-old races in Japan. He finished second in his first race in Japan as a 3-year-old, then just missed winning the Santa Anita Derby in his main Run for the Roses prep.
Mandarin Hero is trained by Terunobu Fujita and ridden by Kazushi Kimura, both highly respected in their homeland. Sheepishly, I ask Mas if he takes pride in Japan having two horses with decent shots in the Kentucky Derby.
He nods and smiles. “I feel they have developed a pretty good racing program by viewing it as an art form,” he said. I understand, sort of. “Japan has developed a lot of topnotch horses that can compete not just in Japan, but anywhere.”
Daughter Miaka’s attention has just turned to the racetrack. She bet on the winner of the seventh here at Tampa Bay Downs, Cajun Cracker, and the high school golfer can’t overlook her hunch horse in the next, Tee At One.
As the field wheels into the stretch and Tee At One overtakes the fading front-runner, my vision is becoming as clear as the top of Mount Fuji on a cloudless day.
I thank them for their time and get back to work. I’ve made enough bets on the Derby, anyway, but now I’m pulling for Mas and Miaka’s horse.
If King Russell can’t win, that is.