Back in the day, the Santa Anita Handicap was one of the first major events that attracted me to the sport, er, gambling outlet of horse racing.
When I was a kid, most of my fellow teenagers played Nintendo. But I sweated whether Alysheba could hold off his nemesis Ferdinand in the Big ‘Cap.
Those days gradually gave way to only caring about the Big ‘Cap as it pertained to betting. Nostalgia be damned. By my late teens and early 20s, I couldn’t care less who won so long as I won my bet.
So, you’ll have to pardon me if I’m feeling more like sharing my fondest gambling memories of the Big ‘Cap and not some artistic remembrance of a past winner storming down the stretch of The Great Race Place while grown men in the crowd wept in disbelief at the beauty of the running thoroughbreds before them.
When I think of the Big ‘Cap, one memory comes to mind. It centers around one of the best yet simple philosophical questions I’ve ever heard asked at the track. And I’ve heard many.
The year was 1996 and the story centers around a character that those who work at TVG will know as “Laz” but back then was dubbed “Flyin’ J. Brian” by me and racetrack crew. Yes, there was also a talented thoroughbred sprinter around that time named Fly’n J. Bryan. The other major player in the story is a local jockey and one-time TV personality who we’ll call “Iggy.”
The combination of the three of us was a hot mess. We were three of a dying breed back then – guys in their late teens and early 20s fully consumed by the track. That breed is now extinct.
Anyway, for weeks leading up to the ’96 Big ‘Cap, Flyin’ J. Brian was touting long shot Mr. Purple. Almost every other thing that came out of his mouth for nearly a month was Mr. Purple-related. But once race day arrived, one of Flyin’ J. Brian’s biggest problems – hanging onto his money for longer than an hour after he came through the turnstile – reared its ugly head.
Back then, the concept of Santa Anita allowing its fans to bet on the races from up north was still new. It was simply too much for guys like Flyin’ J. Brian to bear. And predictably, long before the Big ‘Cap field took to the track for the seventh race of the day, Flyin’ J. Brian was busted out. That made for several hours of him pleading with Iggy to loan him money.
Finally, just minutes before post, Flyin’ J. Brian pushed too far, asking Iggy one too many times for a loan. It prompted Iggy to respond with an utterance that deserves to be put on a plaque, bronzed and placed somewhere next to Seabiscuit’s statue at Santa Anita.
“Are you a fan or a gambler?” Iggy asked.
Translated it means: Sit here and watch the horse you’ve been touting forever win the biggest race of the year at long-shot odds while you’re tapped, you degenerate idiot.
Soon, the starting gate opened. And if any of you have ever been in Flyin’ J. Brian’s shoes, you know what happened next … and it did. Mr. Purple circled the field on the far turn, took the lead at the top of the stretch and rolled home to an easy win at odds of 18-1.
What should have been a victorious procession to the betting window to collect a handsome return turned into an angry exit by Flyin’ J. Brian. Nobody knows for sure, but some accounts had him in the infield later that day kicking over trash cans.
Me? I cashed a nice Pick 3 only because I used Mr.Purple, who I did not like but felt compelled to throw in on my ticket.
You may not know it, but scenes similar to the one I just described will play out all over the track today. It’s part of what makes the racetrack culture so unique. Some of what you see on HBO’s “Luck” isn’t too big of a stretch.
Santa Anita will no doubt attract a lot of fans who make Big ‘Cap Day one of only a few trips to the racetrack per year. If you’re one of them, you probably don’t need to ask yourself whether you’re a fan or gambler.
But if you’re one of us who take it a bit more seriously than that, then embracing who you are, a gambler, may actually help you not follow Flyin’ J. Brian’s lead, and that could mean being in position to leave the track today with an epic Big ‘Cap score based on your handicapping convictions.
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