by Vin Rogers
Ten or 15 years ago I had a horse with Mitch Friedman named Call Me Anytime. It was Saratoga time, and "Call Me," an honest $35,000 claimer type, was entered in the fifth race on the second Monday of the meet. Come Monday, I made may way to Mitch's barn near the Oklahoma training track. He was relaxing for a moment with a cup of coffee. We chatted for a while, and then I asked, "So, how do you think Call Me will do today?"
"He'll piss all over that bunch," he answered.
At post time Call Me Anytime was the favorite, hovering around even money, 7/5, 8/5...
I headed to the windows and bet $200 to win. The race went off; Jorge Chavez was riding. He made a move on the far turn and demolished the field, winning by an increasing six lengths. I happily cashed my $425 ticket.
Now it's commonly accepted among sophisticated horseplayers, including me, that betting favorites is a reliable and dependable way to go broke. But there are times when rules must be broken. My dad made a habit of breaking them.
It was the 1940s. The place was Jamaica, New York. My dad was a horseplayer who frequented Aqueduct, Belmont, and the now-defunct Jamaica track. He was a pharmacist by trade, but everyone called him "Doc." He wanted to be a physician, but the money for medical school just wasn't there, so pharmacy had to do.
His store - a two-pharmacist operation that was much more drugstore than supermarket - was minutes away from where the action was. He'd make weekly visits to the track in season (racing shut down in November and didn't start up again until April), sometimes taking me along.
I was six or seven at the time, and of course, I fell madly in love with everything I saw at the track: the horses, jocks, the silks, the glamour and excitement of the crowds (yes, there were crowds in the 1940s - even on weekdays).
The country was slowly emerging from the deepest depression ever, but my pharmacist dad was doing okay. People needed what he had to sell, and for many, he was a substitute for the emergency room. He was, among our struggling extended family, a singular success story. When an aunt, uncle, sister, or cousin needed help, they came to Doc, and he usually delivered, much like a non-violent version of Don Corleone in The Godfather. I think he enjoyed that role - reveled in it in fact - except for the occasional challenges from a notorious uncle known only as "Franco."
As I remember it, Uncle Franco had been deported to Italy for crimes short of murder and mayhem but serious enough to warrant deportation. Italy proved to be a fertile ground for his unconventional talents. The rumor, never confirmed, was that he was involved in some aspect of the drug trade. In any case, he prospered, and his wealth and connections enabled him to make periodic visits to the family in the U.S., despite his official deportation.
He would come two or three times a year, stay a week or so, and entertain lavishly: limos, Broadway shows, elegant dining, and dollar bills for me and my cousins. My dad was, for a little while, second banana in the family hierarchy - a role he refused to accept. So, shortly after Franco's inevitable departure back to the Old Country, Doc would respond. He'd rent a Long Island beach house and put up everyone for a week or so, or he might pay for a weekend in Atlantic City, which was far more glamorous then than it is now. He'd simply "out-Franco" Franco. Now, how did he do it? Business was good at the drugstore but not that good. Doc needed a supplementary source of income to support these expenditures.
Enter Hall-of-Fame trainer "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons.
Mr. Fitz trained Gallant Fox, Nashua, and Bold Ruler, among other great Thoroughbreds. He won three Derbys, four Preaknesses, and six Belmonts. Brooklyn-born, he lived in Sheepshead Bay for all of his 91 years. He was a gregarious native son who really made it big - and, of course, he was one of Doc's heroes (along with "old banana nose" Eddie Arcaro).
One September day during Belmont's fall meeting, Doc settled into his box and discovered his neighbor was indeed the legendary Sunny Jim - sitting along with his field glasses at the ready. Doc introduced himself, and the two struck up a conversation. Both Brooklyn-born, they hit it off, and Doc became a welcome visitor to Mr. Fitz's barn.
In fact, Sunny Jim could always count on a visit whenever the infamous Franco had been in town. Within days of Franco's departure, Doc would show up at the barn, and within a month, he'd get a phone call from someone that went, as I remember it, something like this:
"The boss says that Jiminy Cricket is kicking his stall apart - he looks to be in great shape for the fifth at Aqueduct on Friday.
Or: "Pretty Penny did five furlongs in 59 flat yesterday - she should breeze against that bunch on Saturday."
I'll never know for sure who called, but I do know that after these calls, Doc, usually a $5 or $10 bettor, headed for the track with a stuffed wallet at the ready.
The Jiminy Crickets and Pretty Pennys never went off at anything higher than even money; most were 4/5, even 3/5. Nevertheless, Doc would confidently go to the windows and place $1,000 or sometimes $2,000 to win on Sunny Jim's horses. This of course would be comparable to my betting $15,000 today - an amount absolutely unimaginable to me. As a university professor, I'd guess my income (adjusted for inflation) might be similar to what Doc's was seven decades ago, but I'd lack both the courage and confidence to do it - not Doc: he had both in abundance, due in part to his complete and utter trust in his good friend Sunny Jim.
So Doc would place his bets early - there was no way he was getting shut out - then he'd go down to the rail and quietly watch his horses run, and win, two or three times each year.
Did they ever lose?
I suppose so but not often enough to offset the stream of winners that came home - almost certainly - from the Fitzsimmons barn. Within days of a Fitz-inspired win, Doc would throw a bigger and better party than the upstart Franco, and he'd be the head honcho yet again in town - and he did it all by betting favorites.
Horseplayer Monthly readers are much too smart to bet their money on short-priced favorites on a daily basis. Indeed, most of us spend our handicapping time figuring out way to beat the favorite. But if Todd Pletcher were my buddy, and two or three times a year he told me that one of his horses would "piss all over that bunch" (well, Todd probably wouldn't put it exactly that way), I think I'd put some significant money on his horse - favorite or not.
About the author - Vin Rogers is a retired UCONN professor of Education, a jazz trumpeter, an ex-equestrian, and Thoroughbred owner. He finds handicapping endlessly fascinating and hopes someday to learn how to do it.
This article appeared in the June edition of Horseplayer Monthly. To read the rest of the issue, FOR FREE, please click here.