Horse heaven

Think Seattle is no place for racing fans? The author of My Racing Heart, a new book on the passionate world of Thoroughbreds, reveals how and why to love Emerald Downs.

When people hear I wrote a book about Thoroughbred horse racing, they assume I grew up in Kentucky, or at least hanging with the grift and grit at one of Manhattan's illustrious OTB's. When I tell them I'm from Seattle, they usually come back with a look of total confusion. Who ever heard of horse racing in Seattle? It's true Seattle only has one racetrack. But hey, one is all you need.

I first came to racing through my grandmother, a lifelong horsewoman who was waiting at the gates the day Seattle's first track, Longacres, opened in 1933. Growing up, I spent many Saturday afternoons sowing the seeds of degeneracy at that same Longacres racetrack, a bare-bones mix of family farm and gambler's haven. It was funky and small-time, laden with chipped paint, horse sweat, and stale beer. Most of the time, I was the only kid around. It was heaven.

Since I left Seattle 15 years ago, I've gone upwardly mobile. I've lived adjacent to two of the country's premiere racing circuits, New York and Southern California, and watched a colt who cost $4 million win the Kentucky Derby. Back on the local scene, Longacres shut down in 1992, and in 1996 a fresh track rose up to take its place. Emerald Downs is far swankier and more user-friendly than its predecessor—Longacres would've shut its doors before posting a no-smoking sign—and I admit I had my reservations. But the second I spun through that new turnstile, one thing became perfectly clear: No one's taken the Seattle out of this racetrack girl.

Emerald Downs' season begins April 19, and with opening day comes an energy you won't find in places like New York and Kentucky, where racing happens year-round. For the next five months, nothing but possibility lies ahead. And very little preparation is required. In fact, the track can be incredibly kind to novices. It's the sport's way of luring you in for life. The first time I ever bet was at Longacres. I was 16, too young to legally wager, so I cornered an old lady clutching a pocketbook in one hand and a fistful of betting slips in the other and asked her to put $10 on my horse to win. My filly came through by a nose, and I walked away over a hundred dollars richer. After that, I was a goner—head over heels.

So, how do you go about becoming a Seattle racing fan? Simple. You do what I did 25 years ago; you go to the track. Bring faith, luck, and a little cash—additional companions are purely optional. Below are a few further tips to get you on your way.

TOOLS

The only thing you truly need to get in the Emerald Downs gates is money. Take at least enough to cover the $4 entrance fee. (In case you're not math friendly, that's about 30 trips to the track for the price of one courtside Sonics ticket.) From there, a minimum bet is $2. On the other end, welcome to the stratosphere.

My advice: Come up with a financial game plan before you leave home, especially if you're the type who went glassy-eyed the first time you saw a slot machine. I usually stick with some variation on the two-pocket system. All the money you plan to bet goes into pocket one. All the money you win goes into pocket two. Nothing enters pocket one. Nothing exits pocket two. When that first pocket is empty, it's empty—even if you've spotted the surest possible sure thing. (Warning: Real racetrackers never use the phrase "sure thing." Thoroughbreds are far too fickle.) Best of all, at the end of the day you can reach into pocket two, and even if technically you lost a bundle, for one brief moment you're absolutely convinced you came out ahead.

The only other essential is a program. As soon as you get there, buy one per person—sharing will only create dissension. The program is like a scorecard: It lists all the runners in all the races, including background information you'll need to choose a horse. If you want to go hard-core, you can also buy a Daily Racing Form. Any respectable bettor lives or dies by the sea of stats published here—pedigrees, workouts, expert selections—but if you're just starting out, chances are you'll drown. For now, keep it simple. Or plan to arrive four hours early.

All extras are up to you, so go as crazy as you please. Emerald Downs is seriously low-key, with pony rides, picnic tables, and a bugler who plays everything from Dixieland jazz to "Let's Get Jiggy." Races start at 6 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and l p.m. on weekend afternoons. So bring a crowd, bring a cooler, bring your hot date or your four kids (if they're under 17, they get in free). Anything goes.

BETTING THE PONIES

I learned most of what I know about betting the races from two places: my grandmother and a few decades' worth of mistakes. When it comes to handicapping—that's what it's called when you start basing your decisions on something more than the horse having the same name as your cousin—everyone has a system. I've tried plenty of them. All were mistakes. In the end, I always wind up shedding the fancy embellishments and returning to my grandmother's basic tenet. I concentrate on the horse.

I start by consulting the program, looking for runners who've won recently, especially at a similar distance, or for anyone steadily improving. I don't make any hard decisions, just tag two or three who stand out. Then I head over to the paddock where the horses are saddled and paraded before each race.

The paddock is where the truly important work begins, and Emerald Downs comes through perfectly here, providing an unobstructed view of the action. Every ace bettor I've ever known was willing to ditch hours of research for a runner who arrived on the scene looking kissed by Mercury. A horse primed to run is possessed of a potent, almost tangible sort of energy. He's toe-tapping, glossy, and a wee bit frisky. Beware anyone who's sweating heavily, he's expending too much of that energy he should be saving for the track. Beware dull coats, wild eyes, lopsided gaits. Beware rules. For every shouldn't I just handed you, you'll see a foaming, wild-eyed, limping lovely sail first across the wire. Follow your instincts.

When you're ready to go to the window, make a commitment and stick with it. Don't change your mind according to what the guy ahead of you is doing. Chances are he's more lost than you are. You bet like you live-conservatively, impulsively, rationally, foolishly—so there's no need to try to hide it. I don't throw down often, but when I do, it's a chunk of change on a horse I believe in. Ask anyone, they'll tell you that's exactly who I am.

A few guidelines: I always bet to win. To me, urging a horse to come in second or third goes against every governing principle of hope. Besides, place or show wagers under $1,000 are considered seriously wimpy. If you feel like stepping out a little, try the exotics. Such combo bets are trickier, but the payoffs can be sweet. Superfectas have been known to wander into the $10,000 range.

I never bet favorites. Maybe it's the nonconformist in me, or maybe it's just pure greed. Favorites have a strong chance of winning—they do it 33 percent of the time—but you won't win much. Pari-mutuel betting is kind of like participating in a giant office pool. Everyone contributes, and the more people who share your winning opinion, the more ways the payout gets split. At first it might feel nice to walk up to the window and collect your cash, any cash. But after a while, pocketing $2.50 has about the same thrill factor as knitting. Racing's like life (weren't you listening?). No risk, no reward. Besides, part of the glory in becoming a horseplayer is learning to spot something no one else saw.

When you get to the window, speak clearly and don't panic. This is actually the easiest part. If you have issues with performance anxiety, write your picks at the top of the program—just make sure it's turned to the right page when you get there. State the race, the amount, and the number of the horse. (By the way, this is the only time you'll ever refer to a horse by number. Otherwise, call her by her name. It's just more respectful that way. As an old handicapping friend always used to remind me, "Horses are people, too.")

If you have any questions, just ask. Emerald Downs has a Newcomer's Center entirely devoted to those without a clue. It's yet another perk of a hometown track. No one cares if you sound stupid. They're honestly just glad you're here.

THE RACE

Most people like to watch through binoculars. I don't. I prefer the impressionistic version, a body of horses bobbing, weaving, pouring down the backside. It feeds that sense of possibility. Besides, once they clear the far turn, the naked eye has no problem deciphering exactly what's going on.

I always try to take in at least one race from the top of the stretch, walking as far up the track as I'm allowed to go. From there, you're just feet away from the runners as they round the bend and turn for home. You can feel the ground rattle, see the expressions on the jockeys' faces, spot the wobbly legs of one runner growing tired and the fluid lengthening of another just kicking into gear. It's breathtaking—probably the closest any of us will ever come to experiencing the real thing.

For the rest of the races, I either hang near the finish or climb high into the stands for a full overview. You might want to reserve seats for the day—they range from $2 to $6 per person—but remember to stay mobile. Every angle brings fresh discoveries.

THE SCENE

Of course, horse racing is far more than just betting. I've been known to spend full afternoons at the races without laying down a dime. The track is its own universe—wild, quirky, and unconventional. Emerald Downs' casual setup encourages participation, providing the equivalent of courtside action whenever you turn around. Don't miss the chance to cozy up to the key players.

The tiny folks in the snazzy neon-colored outfits are the jockeys. I harbored dreams of becoming one, until I grew about 8 inches too tall. It might seem like jockeys just sit there, but in truth they're quite amazing athletes. Look closely and you'll notice that they actually ride perched on the saddle like butterflies, with only hands, knees, and toes making contact with the animal beneath. From here, they guide willful one-ton creatures moving at 45 miles an hour, making sure their charges don't spend all that speed too early or crunch another runner, get trapped behind other horses, or fall victim to the plethora of traffic problems that arise from traveling so tightly packed. Race riding is arguably the most dangerous sport around. Jockeys suffer broken necks, wrists, and collarbones as well as concussions and bruises to the heart. Craziest of all, the second such injuries heal, they get back on and ride. Seattle's served as training ground for some top jocks, so pay attention; in a few years you might spot one of these minitroopers scoring in the Kentucky Derby.

That frazzled and exhausted looking person you see strapping on the saddle is the trainer. They're allowed to look frazzled and exhausted. They keep horse hours, which means rising around 4 a.m. every day to orchestrate morning workouts. By the time you're waking up, they're about ready to kick back with a beer. Trainers are the brains behind the operation, purveyors of all variety of mysterious know-how. They design exercise schedules and feeding regimes, cater to fickle tempers-both human and equine-and generally keep all cogs in the machinery well oiled.

Those people standing in the middle of the paddock, snappily dressed but seeming to serve no purpose whatsoever, are the owners. They shell out the money, collect the rewards when and if their horses come through, and bring loads of friends to the track. The best part about owning racehorses is that anyone can do it. Sure being a zillionaire gives you more options, but plenty of runners are owned by syndicates of 10, 20, 50 people, each of whom pitches in a few thousand a year. Find me another sports franchise at that price, and I'll buy it for you—presuming my sure thing comes through in the ninth race.

The people standing all around you, the ones puffing cigars or rocking their babies, are the fans. It's a wonderfully eccentric crowd, and you're now one of them. Welcome to the world's tightest club. Racing fans have a bond that supersedes anything. I've been to tracks from England to California, podunk to elite—I always belong. Men in shiny pantsuits approach like we've known each other for generations. Grandmothers sidle by dispensing inside information. A portion of them look like mobsters, a few probably are, but most are sweet, geeky, passionate, and harmless. Strike up a conversation. Absorb a tip or two (though bet on them at your own risk . . . ). People who love racehorses are usually possessed of an incredible amount of heart.

Most important of all, at some point during the day—alongside the paddock, seconds before a race, or even seconds after—stop for a moment and watch the horses. Drink in the liquid eyes, the flex and bend of each finely carved muscle. These creatures are beyond beautiful. If you lose every bet on every horse on every race, just spending three or four hours in the company of Thoroughbreds makes it all worthwhile.

THE END

So, that about covers it. All you need now are directions. Get in the car. Put on a little Dixie Chicks to set the mood. From Seattle, take I-5 south to the Southeast 272th exit. Go east. Hang a right on the West Valley Highway, then a left on 37th Street Northwest until you hit Emerald Downs Drive.

Smile. You're going to the races. Life is sweet.

info@seattleweekly.com

Nan Mooney will read from her book at Third Place Books on Wed., April 24 at 7 p.m.; at Madison Park Books on Thurs., April 25 at 7:15 p.m ; and at University Bookstore on Fri., April 26 at 7 p.m.

BETTING LINGO

Win: betting a horse to finish first.

Place: betting a horse to finish first or second.

Show: betting a horse to finish first, second, or third.

Exacta: betting the first two finishers of a race in exact order.

Trifecta: betting the first three finishers of a race in exact order.

Superfecta: betting the first four finishers of a race in exact order.

Daily Double: betting the winners in two designated consecutive races.

Pick Three: betting the winners in three designated consecutive races.

Pick Four: I think you can figure it out.

Exotics: bets, like exactas and pick threes, placed on combinations of horses and/or races.

RACING LINGO

Maiden Races: races for horses who have never won a race.

Claiming Races: races in which all the horses entered are available for sale at a set price.

Allowance Races: races with predetermined restrictions for the entrants, usually to do with races won or money earned. A cut above maiden or claiming races.

Stakes Races: races run for larger purses and more prestige than claiming or allowance races. Emerald Downs' biggest stakes race is the 67-year-old Longacres Mile, run August 25.

Backstretch: the barns and exercise areas that comprise the working section of the track.

Blinkers: horse headgear that limits peripheral vision, usually to prevent distraction.

Furlong: the unit of track measurement. One furlong equals one-eighth of a mile.

Inquiry: a race review conducted by track stewards, usually to check into a possible rule violation. No bets can be cashed until objections are settled and the results declared official.

Morning Line: a morning estimate of the odds expected on horses running that afternoon.

Post Time: the time at which all riders have to be at the gate ready to start the race.

Route: a race run at one mile or longer.

Scratch: when a horse is withdrawn from a race.

Sprint: any race under a mile.

 
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