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Kentucky Confidential

Don’t Listen to Wise Guys (Unless They’re Right)

“I’ve got the horse right here
His name is Paul Revere
Although he hasn’t won a race this year
For Paul Revere I’ll fight
They say his foot’s all right
Of course it all depends if it
Rained last night.”
          – “Fugue for Tinhorns” from “Guys and Dolls”

So how smart are they, these wise-guy improvers of the breed, these worshippers at the Shrine of the Bleeding Fetlock, who would rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log than make a bet based on logic instead of rumor?

And rumor is no stranger to the racetrack at Derby time. We now have reached the point — as we do at each Kentucky Derby — when like the groundhog, the wise guys emerge from hibernation to tout a horse they have chosen as their own.

If you have trouble indentifying them, then you should be aware (for your safety and the safety of your wallet) that in compliance with the rules of the Wise Guy Marching and Chowder Society, they are the ones who talk out of the side of their mouths.

The first time I became aware of their intensity was back in 1973 in the old Churchill Downs press box when one of them whispered in my ear not to get suckered into betting on the big, red horse with all the publicity “because the truth is he’s damned near lame which is why he run so lousy in the Wood.”

I seem to recall that his name was Secretariat.

As a public service to those who may be accosted by such hustlers, I refer you to my chance meeting on Derby day of 1966 with an ancient groom named Shotgun Foley.

On the morning before that race, a far, far younger sports columnist offered some patronizing words to Mr. Foley. They were standing on a small grassy patch just behind a couple of the Derby barns, and Shotgun had his colt on a loose lead so he could nuzzle the grass. Occasionally, he crooned to him.

Shotgun was a backstretch rambler, and any tack room where he could hang his old baseball cap was home. He had a face like an aerial view of the Burma Road and a few teeth to go along with it. His skin was the color of burnished ebony. His age was a bigger mystery than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“Shotgun,” the young wise-guy columnist asked, “You like that horse?”

“I love this horse,” Shotgun said.

“Then I guess you are going to send it in pretty heavy on him tomorrow?”

It was a smart-aleck stereotypical question asked of a very un-stereotypical man.

“Young man,” Shotgun said. “I know a little bit about hosses, which is why I ain’t bettin’ a penny on him. Pay attention to me and you mayber could learn something.

“Hosses is much smarter than peoples. You don’t see no hosses standing in no line to bet on no peoples. You plan on being around this business a while, then you best not disremember that.”

I cannot say I always acted on that advice, but I sure as hell didn’t forget it.

So, again, how smart are the wise guys?

Bob Baffert. You’ve been warned. (Eclipse Sportswire)

As a case in point, I am reminded of the 2002 Kentucky Derby. A colt named War Emblem wouldn’t have been there at all had he not caught Bob Baffert’s eye in winning the Illinois Derby.

War Emblem, the wonder colt that stole the Derby racing gate to wire, caught nobody’s attention but that of Baffert, on whose advice his employer, Prince Ahmed bin Salman of the Saudia Arabian Salmans, bought the colt just after he won in Illinois.

There is truth to the story that the prince told the previous owner: “Don’t wrap him. I’ll take him with me and put him in the Kentucky Derby.”

Despite his stealth entry, he was not a wise-guy horse. In fact, at post time, seven others in the 18-horse field went off at shorter odds. Meanwhile, a fella named D. Wayne Lukas had a horse, too. His name was Proud Citizen. The wise guys paid no attention.

Baffert already had won seven Triple Crown races and Lukas, 13 of them. Now the question of the day:

How could anyone who knew what he was doing with his money let Baffert get away at 20-1 and Lukas at 23-1? Baffert paid $43 to win and Lukas $24.60 to place. Together their $2 exacta was worth $1,300.80.

Nobody — wise guy, hustler or plain $2 bettor touted these horses.

You could almost hear Shot Gun repeating over his own laughter:

“Smarter than peoples … smarter than peoples.”

Baffert is back with the morning-line favorite Bodemeister, but he also has a forgotten horse named Liaison. Lukas is in this year, too, with the unheralded Optimizer. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

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Author PhotoWorking from Churchill Downs undercover, Blinkers Off is a legendary, award-winning sports writer spinning tall tales from Derbies past. More by  ›