Horse sense

Chuck Badone sets the morning line at Lone Star Park, but don't take his word for it

From his perch in the seventh-floor press box at Lone Star Park, Chuck Badone watches through binoculars as the fifth race unfolds with disastrous results. The number-eight horse, with the frighteningly prophetic name Bush Won, crosses the finish line well ahead of the rest of the pack, and Badone, for a moment, loses his cool as the 30-1 longshot heads toward the winner's circle, leaving the favorites so far back in the pack, they might as well have stayed in the gate.

"That horse wasn't supposed to win," sneers the Lone Star Park handicapper, the man who is supposed to know such things. "It's only raced on turf once before, and then it finished last. That just wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't 30-1 for no reason."

But it did happen, and someone in the stands below--someone feeling lucky or frisky, someone betting two bucks on a longshot for the get-rich-quick hell of it--came away with a little more scratch than before the race started. And Badone, a man who has made a living telling other people how to bet for more than two decades, lost his few dollars by betting his instincts, his knowledge, by placing his years of experience on the line.

And when he loses, which he does more often than he wins, he will always evoke an old saying around the track: Turn the page. Which means: Move on to the next race and don't look back.

There is no sure thing at the track, no guaranteed winner, despite what the morning line says. Betting on Badone--whose well-considered information fills the pages of Lone Star Today, the track's daily tip-sheet tabloid--will not make you rich. He may well be the most informed man at the track, but he will not put money in your wallet every time you step to the window.

Badone tells you up front, in his friendly Yankee twang, that he is right less than half the time, that his is a profession based more on failure than on success. The 58-year-old former high school baseball coach explains that he's like a major-leaguer who hits .300 at the end of a season and celebrates the fact that he got a hit once every three times at the plate instead of getting out the other two times. Being a good handicapper means you just fail less often than the other guys, that's all.

For the better part of 24 years, Badone has spent every single morning trying to figure out just who in the hell might win every single race being run at his track that day. He pores over the Daily Racing Form and analyzes every last symbol and stat, rendering the vague minutiae--from the jockey riding the horse to the conditions of the track to the distance of the race to fractional times, past performances, class, and so on--into the stuff of easy-to-understand prose.

He has two hours every day to come up with the odds, to provide capsule histories of past successes and failures, and to write a few sentences explaining why he chose one horse over another in any given race. In a matter of minutes, he must evaluate more than 100 horses and put his own ass on the morning line, hoping his self-proclaimed "generalizations" offer more hope than despair.

"It's not easy," he says, laughing at the understatement. "But I can take a quick look and know what I want to say. The first thing you try to do when you make your comment is try to pick out the one most important thing about that horse. He might not have run in six months, so that's the first thing you're going to say; everything else is irrelevant. He may have dropped down in class. Or whatever."

In reading his picks for April 30, one discovers that Badone is opinionated: Of Thats My Lady, which ran in the first race, Badone wrote, "Has no credentials at all for this," and he placed the morning line at 20 to 1. (The horse finished eighth.) He is cautious: "Guessing game," he wrote of Maidenofthedesert, "but will probably pass." (Good thing: It finished eighth in the second race.) He is right: "She deserves consideration," he wrote of Coffee Ridge, which finished first in the fifth. He is also wrong: "It's hard to get excited" about Goshen Connection, which won the ninth.

No matter the results, Badone is the most informed man at the track, and more likely to win than you are.

There is no exact science to handicapping a horse race, no hit-or-miss formula for success. After all, you are betting on a myriad of variables--as in, how well did a horse do in its last race, and why?--but there is one thing that's certain: A horse is a big, dumb animal. It does not care how much money's at stake each time the bell rings and the gate opens; it does not know the odds; it does not know the mathematical formula that predicts which animal is supposed to win or lose. You can lead a horse to the track, but you can't make him win, and Badone may well have his job down to a science, but in the end, luck cashes a ticket more often than skill.

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