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So my wife and I spent an afternoon at Churchill Downs last Friday. Nice, breezy fall day, small crowd, lots of elbow space, and it was my wife’s first visit to the cathedral of horse racing.
And the first persons we saw when we sauntered over to the track about 45 minutes before the first race was Shelbyville City Attorney Frank Chuppe and his wife, Donna. I didn’t immediately recognize Chuppe standing that far from Tom Hardesty, but we chatted for a few minutes about the world of Shelbyville before the Chuppes told us that they had a horse running in the first race, which, of course, sparked a predictable series of questions about the horse.
She was a chestnut filly of nearly 3 years old, named Middlemarch, and she was one of handful of Thoroughbreds owned by the Chuppes, who have Moonlight Ridge Farm near Waddy.
Middlemarch would be running against other fillies and mares in a 1-mile maiden claiming race. The Chuppes, who have three horses that race Kentucky’s tracks, weren’t expecting Middlemarch to do so well.
And then came the key piece of advice from Donna Chuppe: “I wouldn’t spend my hard-earned money on her.”
If the owner tells you that, you keep your dollar bills in your money clip. Or so I thought. I mean, is there better insight than that?
But one thing the Chuppes didn’t tell us was this: Calvin Borel was riding Middlemarch.
Yes, that C. Borel, as the program listed him, who guided 50-to-1 shot Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby last May.
What I didn’t know then and do now is that Borel saw the horse, liked its looks and asked to ride it in the first race. If only I had known that, well I would have run to the betting window, as any sane person should have.
But let us pause here for a moment of enlightenment.
I am no gambler, have no great insight into horses and am very poor at guessing about such. I’m the guy who went to the 1977 Kentucky Derby and only bet Seattle Slew to show against a field of budding gluepots. I chose an offspring of Northern Dancer who’s DNA must have been switched at birth.
I’m a guy who visits Vegas and drops only a dollar into one slot machine, this learned after a night there when all my 19s and 20s came up losers at the $2 blackjack table.
When I played golf, my buddies drew lots to see who wouldn’t have to be my partner, because they knew their $5 Nassau was lost even before I three-putted from 3 feet on three holes.
I have eschewed fantasy sports and can claim mild successes in Derby and NCAA Tournament pools, but those are mostly just guessing games or luck of the draw.
Simply put, I don’t have the intellect, the spine or the temerity to be good at this recreational activity.
So on this day at Churchill Downs, I stood there studying my handy $3 tipsheet, the tote board and the fetlocks of the fillies being paraded around the paddock.
I kept noticing that Middlemarch had opened at 8 to 1 and had dropped as low as 5 to 1, indicating someone’s hard-earned dollars were being placed on that horse’s nose.
I read the handicapper’s analysis that said the horse had a “chance.”
I noted its nice form and impressive spirit, and I liked the No. 7 and Borel’s silks. Heck I even had hometown loyalty as a motivator.
Anyone who knows anything about chance betting realizes this was worth at least $2 to show, but this was the first race, and the remarks of Donna Chuppe echoed in my head. I never went near the window.
You know how this ends. Borel took Middlemarch out fast, and when the last 16th of a mile had to be run, there she was, six or eight lengths clear of the field, doing her best impression of Zenyatta or Rachel Alexander. The field didn’t get any closer.
Borel raised his arm akin to what we saw on Derby Day, and I raised mine as well, in a moment of hilarious frustration.
A few minutes later, the beaming Chuppes were standing in the winner’s circle being photographed with horse and rider, and those who were smarter and quicker than I dashed to the windows and collected $20 on a $2 win ticket.
My first/last best chance at cashing at Churchill that day came and went before my lunch had digested.
Of course, for the next several races, my wife and I tried our best to make up for that lapse. We chose horses of various heritages, colors, numbers and jockeys – including Borel once more. One of my picks was still running, last I saw, two races later, and a couple of more showed less heart than the Cowardly Lion, quitting in the final yards and being photo’d out of a payoff.
The only horse that paid anything worthwhile for us was an astute selection by my wife based on the fact that he shared her middle name, which is sort of like making a long putt for birdie on the 18th hole after all the bets were closed.
No surprise there. Our day at the races was the stuff of that infamous Marx brothers’ comedy of the same name – lots of laughs and silly ineptitude.