Thank you Butter Head

Posted by in Not Poker

“Oh Good Lord. I should’ve known it had something to do with gambling.”

I spend at least two Saturdays a month with my friend Joel. Our typical routine is that whoever wakes up first calls the other (never before noon, mind you) and we meet up for lunch, then spend the rest of the day shopping, then seeing a movie or going out for drinks. While a lot of fun, such days are quite pricey. I decided recently that we needed to find other things to do besides shopping. I had visions of museum trips and the like; with each of us taking turns on making plans for the day. Since this was my idea, I would go first. And since I haven’t played poker in a while…

I of course got my first taste of betting on horse races back in June, hanging out at the Plaza with BG. I enjoyed it so much that I scheduled a day in the MGM sportsbook during my last trip to Vegas. Since then I’ve learned a bit more, thanks to his posts at Oddjack and some private tips as well. Austin doesn’t have a casino sportsbook to wile away the day in, but it does have a race track, offering live races in the Spring and simulcast betting the rest of the year. Decision made. Knowing that the likely response to my suggestion would be somewhat…unenthusiastic, I told Joel my plans were a surprise.

Normally when I have a surprise for someone, I don’t last. Christmas presents are opened weeks in advance, and the one time I tried to have a surprise party for my best friend, I let it slip the day off as we were out running errands. I did good this time. With Joel, at least. His roommate Jay on the other hand? He cornered me early in the week with the “I don’t like surprises” line and demanded I tell him. For some reason, I always feel the need to keep Jay happy, so I gave in. His reaction was…ok. It’s hard to explain to someone how watching races on TV can actually be fun, so I was expecting some resistence there. But Jay seemed to like the idea…a little. I breathed an internal sigh of relief and went on with my week.

Saturday morning we set out for lunch, joined by Jay’s cousin Summer as well. In the course of conversation, it came up that she was a horse-lover. Good, I thought. She’ll have no problem with this either. Lunch over, we headed out for destination unknown (to one of us). I gave directions and when I indicated to Joel to turn left at the Manor Downs sign…the above quote was his reaction.

“Screw this. Let’s go to San Antonio.”

Yesterday marked my first trip to a horse racing track. When I was a kid, I clearly recall going to greyhound races with my parents during a trip to El Paso (the more I recall of my childhood, the less surprised I am about the whole poker obsession). Arriving at Manor Downs…well, I think that dog track in El Paso was put together better. The grandstand is old and wooden, reminding me of bleachers at a small-town high school football field. The simulcast watching/betting area is underneath the bleachers, with a few TVs hanging down from the ceiling, and a window for buying programs, concessions, and then the all-important betting. A few fans rotate overhead to cool off the mostly grizzled and run-down crowd. Impressed my friends were not. Me? Could I bet there? Yes. I was happy.

I bought a racing forum and then began the process of explaining to the gang how to bet, what races were coming up, etc. While standing there, Joel asked “Isn’t there a track in San Antonio? Why didn’t we just go there?”. While the thought had occured to me, given that San Antonio is an hour drive from Austin, I didn’t think anyone would be up for that. Faced with an outdoor venue and what was perceived as a less-than ideal crowd, the decision to pay Retama Park in San Antonio a visit was easily made. But I was driving. I gave them all the printed copies of BG’s advice I had brought with me and told them to read up.

“You know, it’s really not that bad a drive.”
“What? It’s an hour away!”
“Yea, but I grew up in Houston. Everything was an hour away.”
“Really, the way April drove, we got here in 40 minutes.”

Everything was better at Retama. For one thing, the parking lot was actually paved – a big step up from Manor Downs. The grandstand was huge, featuring a restaurant, multiple levels of box seats, and plenty of simulcast screens. Plus, in just a couple of hours, live races would start, as Retama’s thoroughbred season had opened the night before. I paid the $2 per person admission for the gang, since I felt a wee bit guilty for dragging them along on my degenerate gambling excursion.

Once inside, we headed to the 2nd level where the simulcast action was going on. I went to procure the PM version of the racing forum, which would have all the information for the Retama races. Jay joined me in line, picking up programs for Del Mar, the days scratch list, and, as he had loved the picture accompying BG’s latest post at Oddjack, a program for one of the simulcast greyhound races scheduled for later that day.

Programs bought, we headed up to the 3rd level to check it out. Huge windows look out onto the track, offering you a perfectly nice air-conditioned view of the action. A nearby sports bar ($1 admission) had a nice crowd, and offered simulcast screens, but the betting windows were on the 2nd level, meaning you’d be making a few trips on the escalators.

As we were heading up the escalator to the 3rd floor, my phone began to ring. Arms full and me in kitten heels, I didn’t even try to dig in my purse for it, as I knew I’d likely drop something or fall over backwards. Fortunately it was still ringing when I reached sturdy ground and I was greeted with the Boy Genius reminding me I had 14 minutes to place a bet on one of his favorite picks, “Butter Head”.

After our brief tour of the 3rd level, we headed back down to the simulcast area, and grabbed a table. I spread out all our papers and programs and forums and (again) began the lesson on how to place a bet. “What’s that race going on right there?”, Jay asked me, pointing to a nearby screen. “That’s Louisana Downs. The next race is the one with the horse BG picked, so I’m going to bet that one.” “OK, I’ll bet that one too”, he replied. Joel and Summer decided to sit back and take everything in – both stated that they would not be betting today. How is that fun? I wondered.

I took Jay with me to the betting window and gave him a little script, much like BG and Pauly had done with me that fateful day in June. Tickets acquired, we headed back to the table to wait for the race. Only, Jay decided to make another bet on another race to occupy him while we waited for the Lousiana Downs race to go off. Well…guess he was a little more into this idea than I thought!

“There’s nothing I like to say more than ‘I told you so'”.

We found ourselves a better table and moved over to it, right in time to see the start of our Lousiana Downs race. It didn’t look like it would happen at the beginning of the race, but Butter Head did indeed cross the finish line in first place. Smiles all around, as my phone rang and it was again the Boy Genius, calling with the above quote. Our $2 win bets paid Jay and I each $8.

After the race, Jay immediately began looking for his next pick. I took a look at what BG had recommended for us, and mentioned it to Jay so he could factor that into his decision. “Maybe you should go with what he says…” was Summer’s comment.

However, I would soon find out that Jay was quite the gambler. And while Joel tried to pin the blame on me, I wasn’t falling for it. Summer told us of days spent at the track when Jay was younger, and Joel himself recounted the wild-eyed look Jay got during their recent Vegas trip. I reminded Jay numerous times thoughout the day – “You don’t have to bet on every race.” My advice was largely ignored.

My next pick was at Del Mar, for the 3rd race. BG’s CT pick was for the #6 horse, Cusack, but mentioned that he would have lots of stiff competition. But, for the first time ever, I actually knew of one of the horses in a race. The #4 horse here was Rush Country, whose last race was at the #6 at Hollywood park on June 17th – where he had beaten my pick. That was good enough for me! Still, heeding Summer’s advice, I decided to go with a quinella and bet both horses. Rush Country came in 2nd, and Cusack crossed the line in 5th. So much for that one.

“Every door you go through in this place, they want a dollar.”

Joel and Summer had gone off exploring while Jay and I watched the races, and came back with news that it now cost $1 per person to gain entry to the 3rd level of the grandstand. We decided to head up now, get our seats and avoid the crowds. “Are there betting windows up there?” was the primary concern for myself and Jay. After being assured that yes, there were, we all paid our dollar and went up.

There we discovered two things – a box cost $20, reserved seats $3.50 a piece. No matter, we’d sit in the free seats, at least until 7:30pm, when we were assured that any unclaimed boxes would be offered up first come first serve. The biggest problem was that the betting windows on this level were for the live races only. There were also precious few simulcast screens available to watch. This wasn’t a big deal to me, as I was looking forward to the live races and saving my money for them. For Jay however this would not do. Back to the 2nd floor we went.

“Your friend likes to gamble.”

We picked a table in front of the big screens and while there, I got a call from the Poker Prof. Summer and Jay had gone off for food, and I wasn’t involved in any races, so I stopped to chat with him for a bit. Summer and Jay came back and ate, then Joel and Summer went off to get drinks for the group, most of them mirroring my order of “Coke with something in it”. That left Jay to look over the programs and make a selection. Also about this time the races were beginning at Retama. Hence, Jay was getting a little bit antsy. Still on the phone and not quite ready to get into the conversation of exactly where we were going to sit, my irritation level with my gambling friend was rising. The Del Mar races were on the screen right in front of us, and race #7 was about to begin. Still on the phone, I paused and ordered Jay to place a bet for me – “Del Mar, race 7, $2 to place on #7”. The PokerProf said, “That was a very authoritive bet”, and I explained to all that I thought I could buy myself some time by giving Jay something gambling-related to do. Jay returned with two tickets – mine and his own, a win ticket on a horse with 47/1 odds. Shock and amazement all around. The criterion for his pick? “He’s pretty.” Even in my very novice betting days I never would have uttered such. (Probably because BG would have hit me for doing so.)

“Is this a street race or is this on turf?”

As the races at Retama began, we found our way outside and settled in unreserved box seats. I was sitting between Joel and Summer, with Jay in the aisle seat. This trip having been a spur-of-the-moment decision, I hadn’t asked BG for Retama pics. I was tempted to call him and request some, but refrained. I felt with all of his education in front of us, we’d be fine. Those of us who didn’t feel the need to wait for the post parade to make our selections, that is. 🙂

The first race I bet on was the #3. Joel was helping me in my selection, and following BG’s advice that for a maiden race, good odds were there for a reason, we settled on the #11 horse, Looks Risky. (Gotta love the ironic name too). This time, however, Joel decided to place a wager of his own. I knew it was only a matter of time… In addition to the win bet on #11, he placed a $2 bet on the #7 horse, Magic Power, to place.
Looks Risky came in first and our win bets paid out $7. ($7.40 techinally, but I continue to practice the “give the change to the window clerk” tipping method BG taught me in Vegas, so I don’t count it. I think we were probably the only people at the park that tipped, as each time the reciepent looked a little taken aback. I guess not everyone at the park was as lucky as I was to have such a good teacher.) Joel’s “back-up bet” didn’t pay out, as Magic Power came in third. “I should have bet him to show”, Joel lamented. “Don’t be a Nancy” I replied, in reference to a line from one of BG’s educational posts, which had made us laugh all day.

The next race we both took #3, Ebony Post to win, but unfortunately she came in 5th. The #10 horse, which Joel had also liked, came in first, further solidifying his need for “back-up bets”.

At this point, Joel is now hooked, and a competition of sorts develops between us all. Joel and I pour over the racing forum together, watch the odds, flip back to BG’s advice, and then make our decisions on the races. Jay and Summer on the other hand have a much more laid-back approach, looking through the program they have and eventually arriving at a conclusion. Everyone’s having a good time though, so all is well. Snacks and margaritas are gotten, and we dig in for the night of races.

I was torn with race 5, liking both the #2 and #10 horses. I therefore placed an exacta box, thinking that given their records, they were shoo-ins for 1st and 2nd. Joel made effectively the same bet, taking #2 to win and #10 to place. Therefore it worked out well for him when #10, Czech Mate, came in 2nd, and #2, Lovely Secret, came in 7th. My record with exotic bets? 0-6.

The 6th race was the first turf race, but we didn’t catch on to that fact, so we didn’t factor that in our evaluation of the contenders. I didn’t like anyone but the #10 horse, Tack Attack. Joel picked him as well, and made another “back-up” bet too. Tack Attack came in first and paid us $5 on our win tickets. Noted Joel, “Probably if I quit making back-up bets I’d have more money, huh?”

The 8 race was the Margarita Breeder’s Cup Handicap race. This was the race Summer had been waiting for – it would be her first bet of the night. It featured the #6 horse, Pad the Wallet, an admittely great name for a racing horse. This race was also turf, and, aware of it this time, Joel and I heeded BG’s advice and looked for horses that could handle the 1 1/16 mile distance and had a history of late-race speed. I liked Pad the Wallet as well and took him to win. Joel did too, along with a place bet for the #9 horse, Good Humor Gal. Neither finished in the top 3, so we were all losers on that one.

We ended our track day with the 9th race, another maiden race. I liked two horses here, the #1 and the #10. Since we were basically playing the odds, Joel agreed and we both made $2 exacta box bets on that combination. Jay took the number 11 horse, with 35/1 odds. Winner? #1, Oro Classic. #10? 6th place. No more exotic bets, dammit. The 11 horse came in 9th place.

“This is great! You can bet every race and not spend more than $20.”

All told, I spent $28 in wagers, and won $29. BUT, I never took more than $4 out of my wallet for those bets. The $8 win from “Butter Head” set up a nice cushion for me – all I had to do was pick a winner in the next two races and then those winnings could be spun off into future tickets. Never going more than 3 races without a winner, I managed to buy myself a full day’s entertainment more cheaply than a matinee movie. While I miss the free drink aspect of a Las Vegas sportsbook, a day at the races with friends is a great highlight to a weekend. Talks are already underway for securing a season pass to Retama and making “Track Day” a monthly event.

“Why don’t we just keep feeding Little Sister and then we can ride her?”

Dreams of having our own race horse someday will have to wait a while…