For starters, let's get something straight. I'm not one of these "woulda-shoulda-coulda" whiners who scream at television monitors when the No. 6 horse comes through on the rail and splits my cold exacta. On the other hand, after careful study of videotapes of the Preakness (gr. I), I have decided to petition The Jockey Club for an investigation into the breeding of Smarty Jones. The foal papers declare he is a chestnut colt by Elusive Quality out of I'll Get Along, but I'm convinced there is a dragon in the woodpile somewhere. Surely you saw the same evidence. It happened a few strides past the quarter pole. Rewind and play it in slow motion. There it is in freeze frame--traces of smoke and flame coming out of Smarty's nostrils. Breathtaking acceleration. A horse on fire. Talk about weapons of mass destruction. I have two online betting accounts, and after the Preakness I punished myself by looking at the balances: $8.50 and $1.75. At that moment I raised the white flag. I surrendered to Smarty Jones. But I needed to understand what I missed. I got my answer when I went to work Monday morning. Something strange and different was happening in the break room. The sports page was open on the table. No one was talking about prisoners in Iraq or the rising price of gasoline. Bill sat over a cup of coffee, plotting the cost of a trifecta box. Paulette was asking directions to the nearest OTB parlor. Terrie was giggling that she won 60 cents on a show bet. What's going on here? None of these people had ever been to a racetrack. Broke as the Ten Commandments, I lingered in front of the soft drink machine. I reached in my pocket--nothing but a ball of lint and a bus transfer. Talk subsided to a whisper and then some teasing. Paulette knows that I write about horse racing. Bill and Terrie couldn't resist reminding me that, after much complex analysis I had announced Minister Eric to be the longshot winner of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). The jabs came sharper. Her wave of sarcasm peaking, Terrie points out that Song of the Sword (my "value" selection in the Preakness) was a miserable flop. They have the upper hand. They got the juice and I'm as dry as death on a soda cracker. They giggle about how and why they won. Bill was intrigued by how much Smarty Jones reminded him of the movie Seabiscuit. "Everybody else liked him and I just loved his name," Paulette said. "The owner, trainer, and jockey were just like family," Terrie beamed. "It was so cool." Maybe Gary isn't so smart after all. It's a small sample but Terrie, Paulette, and Bill have become interested in horse racing. They are fans and they don't give a hoot about value, speed figures, bounce theory, dosage, statistical percentages, R.O.I., or post position. For the moment they are just happy winners with a shared and precious hero to talk about. Roll over Buckpasser; tell Dr. Fager the news. Sometimes it takes a thorn to get rid of a splinter. Like a Maryland blue crab dropped out of a basket, I scurried to the safety of my office. There were questions I needed to ask myself. Smarty Jones did not give me what I wanted but maybe he gave me what I needed. I thought about how I approached the Derby and the Preakness, falling into the trap of the "wise guys," the sophisticated, advanced handicappers, probing for flaws in the undefeated Smarty Jones. It looked easy, like taking candy from a baby. How could he handle the wide post and wet surface at Churchill? How could he withstand the pressured pace of top quality graded stakes company? How could he possibly repeat with only two weeks of rest and facing fresh competition?
The general public (those guys eating the cheese fries at Philadelphia Park) play the game in a less complicated fashion. They play with heart. They find something to love about a horse stabled on a treeless backstretch in a barn that resembles a Home Depot shipping and receiving warehouse. They are not embarrassed about their passion. I'm trying to get mine back. I just don't know how to tell Paulette that I love Smarty Jones in the Belmont. Maybe I'll get a T-shirt.
GARY McMILLEN, assistant human resources director at LSU Health Science Center, covers Fair Grounds for The Blood-Horse. E-Mail Editorial Department