A punter’s guide to winning small at the races
Yep, you can have this much fun with five dollars.
Ah, springtime. Jacarandas are in bloom; women are tipsily decked out in their best headwear and heels (a pair of flats magically folded into their handbags); drunk dudes don their one multi-purpose Kelly Country suit (wedding, funerals, job interviews); office interns are given the thankless task of cutting up newspaper sweepstakes and collecting loose change from disinterested deskmates; and the social pages are abuzz with the imminent arrival of important celebrities like Mischa Barton and that blonde guy from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. Regardless of your thoughts on gambling or horse-whipping, Melbourne’s annual Spring Racing Carnival is definitely, uh, annual.
Since I was about 8, I’ve been enamoured with the romance of the races. I guess it first seeped into my brain through my father’s Gardel records, the blaring tales of woe which would wake me up on weekend mornings, dramatic songs about losing by a head and being forced to find solace in a glass of beer. Later readings of Runyon added to the exoticism of the racetrack, revealing a world of lovably nasty characters with names like Nicely-Nicely, Brandy Bottle-Bates and Bookie Bob (“the softest thing about him is his front teeth”).
On Saturdays, while my parents were distractedly hard at work at the family milk bar, I’d spend my time sprawled in front of the radio, a newspaper form and HB pencil in hand, listening to the calls and calculating how much I would’ve won if I was old enough to gamble. On the rare occasions I could convince my mum to escort me down to the local TAB for a two-buck bet, the excitement was overwhelming. One weekend, though, she furiously stamped her foot down with the Spanish equivalent of “I’m your mother, not your bookie!” and refused to lay down $10 of my birthday cash on two long-shot “sure things”. Needless to say, both horses ran in winners and I tearily explained that I would’ve come up $155 for the day if she’d honoured my bets (easily enough for a Game Boy). Surprisingly, she was unimpressed and refused to indulge my strange habit any further.
Far from fuelling a depressing gambling habit, the early start guided my casual approach to punting… small potatoes. When you’ve got nothing to bet with (and I’m not implying I was the Artful Dodger on poverty row; I was just your stock-standard penniless kid, a sock-drawer scattered with birthday money and a few Michael Jordan basketball cards all I had to my name), you become creative. In that spirit, here are some completely non-guaranteed tips on how to best turn that $2-wager into around $4.20 come 3.30 this afternoon…
Find the form
To begin with, you’ll wanna make like a degenerate gambler and grab yourself a racing form. The true beauty of horse-racing lies in studying the endless details (eg: the horse’s recent form, the horse’s recent form on this particular track, at this distance, in this weather, the weight on its back, its barrier, the jockey, the jockey’s form and experience, the trainer, the odds, etc), poring over your decision for hours or even days, and then still being out-picked by someone who just chose their favourite colour.
Black is the new black
The current colour trend in Paris may be towards oxblood (yeah, I had to ask my girlfriend about this), but history suggests following Wesley Snipes’ classic advice and betting on black during the Melbourne Cup: 17 cup-winning jockeys have rocked onyx as their main silks colour.
What’s in a name?
As a child, my favourite horse was named Seaside Attraction; it made me think of Coney Island and the opening sequence to my favourite sitcom at the time (Step By Step). The fact that it netted me 30-something bucks the first three times I backed it obviously added to the admiration. Nowadays, I only bet on horses with water-based monikers (eg: Aquatorial, Sea Galleon, Sea Lord, Ocean Park, Chloe’s River, etc). Try something similar; if no name grabs you, may I suggest keeping tabs on the Gai Waterhouse-trained, 4-year-old gelding, Strawberry Boy? He sounds pretty adorable.
Battle of the sexes
Since the current race distance was made official in 1972, 77% of Melbourne Cup winners have been geldings (that’s industry talk for boy-horses who’ve had their testicles lopped off). I’m not sure what it is about castration that makes horses go faster (when we did this to our childhood cat, he kinda just slept a lot more), but maybe it’ll give our Olympic swimming coaches some ideas for the future.
888, the number of the East
The Chinese are right: 8 is a great number and Race 8, #8 is a classic combination that comes up often. As of last year’s race, #8 had won the Melbourne Cup 8 times so the pattern looks good. Just don’t blame me if the cosmos misunderstands and your horse runs in 8th.
Your clearest indication of which horse is expected to hit the post first is the favourite’s odds. Basically the shorter the odds, the better your chance of taking home some cash. But really, what’s the joy in winning 20 cents on each dollar outlaid? Live a little; don’t accept odds any shorter than, say, 33-1. If you win, you’ll look like some sorta maths genius amongst your friends and/or co-workers. If you lose, well, at least you were prepared for it (you didn’t really expect a 33-1 horse to win, did you?).
Born to lose
Finally, it’s important to figure out just how much you’d be okay with losing, that point where you go from shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Oh well, that was kinda fun anyway…” to “F**k, I could’ve bought four pairs of shoes with all that money! I’ve gotta bet again to win it back. I’ve gotta win my money back!” For me, that point is $20 (actually, $19). And although I’ve just spent the last few hundred words talking up the romance of the races, you must remember that betting on ponies is still gambling (it might take a bit longer to lose your cash than if you dropped it down some pokies, but you will still lose). Bet small, enjoy your day, and avoid leaving the track with a long face (sorry, I couldn’t resist).