Monday, December 1, 2008

Why I Left Racing: Part V

Hajck files Part V of his very interesting series on racing. To go from a six figure bettor and horse owner to, well, not a six figure bettor and horse owner has been enlightening. To say the least.

...... as Richie says "Listen to your customer, or die. If you don't listen, you SHOULD die! Close up shop and sell flowers."

Why I Left Racing

…and what it will take to get me back.


Doug "Hajck" Hillstrom

Part V

Van Nuys, Van Nuys

The first time I met one of racing's greatest characters was appropriately from across 3 feet of lacquered pine. "I'll take a margarita, kind sir, and don't try and pass off that lemonade you serve to the kids that will be jammin' this place in a couple of hours. I need a drink that will wash away one of the worst DQ's I've ever seen in my life?"

Richard Pratt had stopped at a bar on his way home from Hollywood Park, and my life was about to turn down a different path.

"I can do that for you" I said reaching for the Cointreau bottle.

"… and don't be throwing that in the blender, either. Make it on the rocks" he said as he laid tomorrow's DRF down on the bar.

The bottle of tequila and orange liqueur dropped down to my sides as I stared back at the man in feigned disbelief, "just relax and tell me who you like in the 5th tomorrow, and I'll spoil it for any bartender you ever order another margarita from again."

The year was 1984, and I was a racing neophyte. The next day was to be my first day at Hollywood Park, and the opportunity to query the salty railbird almost appeared as divine intervention.

As it turned out, the man everyone referred to as Richie was, like me, a transplanted Washingtonian, that lived just around the corner from the trendy watering hole I managed in Northridge, CA.

Richie opened the Form to the 5th race and perused the entries for all of 30 seconds before emphatically folding the publication back up and declaring "the only way you can find a winner in that bunch of cheap maidens is to find him on the track, and they'll be loading in the gate before I will be getting my bet down," as I placed his libation in front of him. He was extolling the virtues of confirmation and the body language of the equine when I asked him how his cocktail was.

"As the Hebrew settlers said as they ascended on the San Fernando Valley…. Van Nuys, Van Nuys."

The next day I met Richard Pratt at the track, and probably learned more useful handicapping insight in that single day than I would in the rest of my life combined. The racing world opened up on a visual level that I had thought was primarily confined to pages of data.

I would spend many days together with Richie at the track and ITW facilities after that day, including a memorable trip to Agua Caliente that could have been a chapter out of a William Murray novel.

"I can't stand a man without an opinion" one could hear Richie repeat over the years, and he was never shy in sharing his. His analysis was as astute as anyone I ever met because he always took as much information into consideration as possible before reaching a decision. He has probably been shut out of more wagers than anyone in the history of the horseracing, having to wait for the last feasible second to get to a window and invest in his gathering of intel.

The man shared in the common thread that weaves the fabric of horseracing, and that is Passion. You would be hard pressed to find a more passionate assembly in any cross-section of society, and certainly the most diverse supporters of any sport, than that of thoroughbred horseracing. It is just one of the things that make the sport great.

Another quality that the sport of racing is built on is that of Hope. Andy Dufresne said in the movie The Shawshank Redemption that "Hope is a good thing… maybe the best of things," a quote I often considered to be the cornerstone in the game. Hope is also the basis of the racing adage "no one ever committed suicide with a good 2 year old in their barn."

My passion and hope in the sport of racing have faded in recent times. Perhaps the reason is that I don't get out to the racetrack as much anymore. It is hard to capture the buzz one got from watching the likes of a John Henry thunder down the stretch live in the Big 'Cap with 80,000 fans whipped into a frenzy, or a Winning Colors break her maiden at Saratoga while sitting in solitude in front of a computer monitor or at a sparsely filled ITW facility.

Richard Pratt weaned me to the sport of live thoroughbred horseracing in the day that if you wanted to see a horse race in California, you had to be at the track. It was a different time, a different era, and the sport has had difficulty in its evolvement since that time.

It is my hope that I can someday return to the sport that I was once so passionate about. The game will have to undergo a major transformation though, without question. It will need strong leadership and organization. It will require aggressive marketing to a youthful demographic that has a sense of entitlement. The very maximum take on any form of wagering must be no higher than 15%, and the percentage of 10% seems even more equitable. It will take a heightened awareness of customer service, or as Richie says "Listen to your customer, or die. If you don't listen, you SHOULD die! Close up shop and sell flowers."

My friend and mentor asked me, "so when do you think you'll place a bet again?" to which I answered "I used to love thoroughbred horseracing. I loved the smells, the anticipation, and the analysis. I used to love to take people to the track and share in the excitement of the day. I guess I'll return when the sport loves me back."


Anonymous said...

Passion. So true. Every horseplayer I have met has that. When they lose it, the game loses. We have to get the passion back.

Excellent read Hajck.

Anonymous said...

Hajck,You obviously love the game.So do I and many others.The game has drifted towards a three legged stool,with the fans leg shorter than the States and the people who put on the show.The take must be lowered to allow for more winners going home.More winners going home means a larger fan base, and everything else will take care of itself.
Great series, Thanks

Alan Mann said...

To each his own, but seriously man, aren't you taking this a bit too seriously? And yeah, 80,000 roaring fans is cool, but gimme a four figure triple at a sparsely filled ITW facility any day!

Anonymous said...

Alan, I hear what you are saying, probably because a couple of years ago I would have said the same thing, but truth be told, I've hit more 4 and 5 figure paydays at more tracks through various facilities than I can remember, and to be quite honest with you, I would be lucky to remember the name of a single horse involved in those payouts. I'll never forget my Kentucky Derby though, or the inaugural Breeder's Cup, my only Travers Stakes, and countless memories I have from SoCal racing. Taking this too seriously? Sit down at a Poker game with 9 players sometime with a 20% house take. In two hours there would be one player left with 25% of the chips, and the house would have 75%. You are right though... if you took it seriously, the product that is available in today's market would drive you crazy.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece Hajck,

Alan would play this game If the Takeout was 40%.

100% of my gambling dollars use to go to Horseracing.Now It's about 80% Poker 20% Horses.

I'm sure It will be 100% Poker soon.10% Takeout and bigger fields might get me back....might.

Anonymous said...

Once again the man has spoken. Well done sir!
I do hope that one day again you will grace the stands - how ever remember this...
"Hope is not a strategy!"

But for this one time and for there sake - i hope they can fix the mess that they have put us all in!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to bring these issues to light. The industry as a whole and the NTRA in particular are waking up to the fact that we need to listen and respond to passionate horseplayers like yourself. Please go to and read about the new NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance - where horseplayers already have an influential seat at the table - and if you like what you read then pledge your support for the effort. While you are on the site, join the Horseplayers Coalition and help us eliminate federal tax witholding on winning wagers. Nothing will change this industry faster than horseplayers supporting reform-minded tracks and horsemen with your wagering dollars.

Best regards,

Alex Waldrop

Anonymous said...

I too have been playing this game for 30 years. I love this sport, but I cannot make a buck. On good days when I count my money after hitting many, many winners, I am astonished that there is no profit. The takeout needs to be cut in half, many tracks need to go under and the remaining tracks compete for the 14 billion wagered. Whips, do away with. Drugs, I would rather bet on a drugged horse that is trying to win than some goat shoved in the gate as a favor to the racing secretary. Stewards, make them explain exactly why they ruled the way that they did and please be consistent. Some tracks, I will not play just because of the stewards, it sounds crazy, but true as in Arlington.