I saw the horses

Yesterday I went to the Kentucky Derby. It was, as former Playboy photographer and father of gonzo journalism Hunter S. Thompson put it, decadent and depraved. We (Nick, Mike, and myself) left Chicago at 7 a.m. Central Time for the four-hour drive to Louisville, stopping only for a huge breakfast at Cracker Barrel, and for gas. In the car, I read the aforementioned Thompson essay, and a few articles about betting on horses from the Internet.

After parking the car in Louisville, we took the bus to Churchill Downs (kudos to the city of Louisville for so efficiently managing the influx of 140,000 people for Derby Day). The track was unlike most major sporting events because the crowd moved around so much. People are constantly going from their seats to the paddock, to the pari-mutuels, to buy drinks, and back to their seats.

There are 11 races on Derby day, and we arrived just before the horses were shown in the paddock for the 5th race. Roughly 15 minutes before each race, the horses and their jockeys are paraded through the paddock, where bettors can view how healthy they look before placing last-minute bets. The horse we were planning to bet on was kicked by the horse in front of him in the paddock. So, we picked different horses, and went over to the pari-mutuels to place our bets. Since we were all amateur gamblers, we based our bets the odds, the horses0ˆ9 past record, track position (which is decided randomly before the race0ˆ5being on the inside is a big advantage), and mostly on our intuition.

In case you were wondering, here are some different bets you can place on horses:
The Straight Bet: Pick one horse. If you bet to win, you win if the horse comes in first. If you bet to place, you win if the horse comes in first or second. Bet to show, and you win if the horse comes in first, second, or third. Straight bets usually have a $2 minimum.
The Double Bet: If you pick the winner of two consecutive races, you win.
Exotic Bets: Exacta bets involve picking multiple horses to finish in an exact order. Exacta bets include the Quinella (two horses), Trifecta (three horses), and Perfecta (four horses). For example, if you place a Trifecta on horses 2, 5, and 14, you only win if 2 wins, 5 places, and 14 shows. The chances of winning are slim, but the payoff is huge. The minimum Exacta bet is usually $1.
To increase your chances on an Exacta bet, you can box or key your bet. If you box a bet, the horses can finish in any order. If you boxed the Trifecta example above, you0ˆ9d win if horses 2, 5, and 14 all showed. Since there are 6 combinations that the three horses may finish, you0ˆ9re essentially placing 6 Trifecta bets. So, a $1 Trifecta box will cost $6. If you key your bet, you pick one horse to win, and the other horses can come in any order (you can0ˆ9t key a Quinella, since that doesn0ˆ9t make sense). So a $1 Trifecta key will cost $4, since there are four combinations.

Anyway, on 11 races, I lost all but one bet. But I had a great time. I spent an afternoon sipping Mint Juleps and smoking cigars, chatting it up with the southern gentry at the paddock. Everybody was friendly, and would strike up conversations while waiting in line for the ATM, getting a drink, or at the mutuels. They would say they just lost 5 grand, and in the next sentence comment on how beautiful the weather was.

There was a sharp contrast between the infield crowd and the crowd in the stands. The infield was like a carnival, mostly young people walking around with their shirts off, drinking beer, eating cotton candy and funnel cakes. In the stands, it was well-to-do Southerners in suits and dresses and big hats drinking cocktails. The coolest crowd phenomenon happened in the 100 foot tunnel going from the infield to the stands. In the middle, a man was playing a saxophone. He played the first few notes of the Star Spangled Banner, and the packed tunnel started cheering. The echo was deafening, but the idea of a few hundred people, a mixture of white trash and aristocrats, drunk and hoping to make easy money, celebrating America together, was very appropriate.

After the races, we went to the Brown Hotel, supposed to the best hotel in Louisville, drank glasses of their finest bourbon and dined on their famous Hot Brown sandwich, before driving home.

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