Voorhee's Ballad

By Michael Nikolic, Gathering the Wind

A guy I know - I'll call him Juan, since that is what reads on his birth certificate - agreed to come with me to Gulfstream today.

Juan and I grew up together. His mother was our boy scout, pack person, thing; my dad was an assistant coach on our little league baseball team. We played varsity soccer and volleyball; we had to carry our Principal out of the jungle, after she sprained her ankle during a class camping trip we took in the Amazon; we have been shot at; we did our first sky dive; and we learned to fly together.

Juan is a people person; he is outgoing and wily. At any moment, he can tell you the spread on the USD/EUR contract as well as who to talk to, in certain South American countries, if you don't want that crate of iPods you're shipping, to draw the attention of the customs officer.

Juan used to work for Smith Barney and was one of those bankers, Congress is all in a huff about now. He made and lost more money than any 20 people I know will ever make in their lifetime. He rode the wave of chance, through swells and into reefs; I have seen him lose tens of thousands of dollars on a trade and make it all back with equanimity.

He gave up trading a few years back, the lifestyle took its toll on his marriage. His wife couldn't handle the violent swings in their fortune. Juan took every blow as a learning experience and is the most humble man I know. He is the one who drove me to jump into the game, when I had every ready made excuse for why I needed to hold off a bit longer.

Juan is my oldest and closest friend. Juan decided to bring his daughter to the track today.

Juan doesn't care about horse racing and what he knows of it, is what I have told him. With that handicap, he cares about it because I care about it. We pulled into the Gulfstream parking lot, two hours before first post, because I like to get there early-hell, I would live there if I could. I bought the Form and the Gulfstream Handicapper, and we sat in the paddock area to go over the card.

I showed his daughter how to read the Form and gave her some Handicapping 101 tips. A better case of the blind leading the blind, I can't imagine.

Race 2, a nondescript $10kClaimer N3L at seven furlongs. Juan's daughter likes the (10) Stirrup Excitement, who goes off at 1-2 (sharp kid). Juan likes the (9) B L's Papa Coo Coo (I am not making that up). I suggest they play an exacta with the 10 on top of 9&7 and a separate win bet on the 9; I am not betting, they don't ask. For whatever reason, they listen to me and even more surprising, the nine wins by an increasing length. Juan's daughter goes to cash the ticket and is jumping up and down. They just collected $12.80 on their $2 bet.

The machine eats the ticket. Gone. Never happened. The teller pays her anyway.


Looking over the race, Juan notices I have crossed out the (6) How's your Halo, my way of eliminating it from consideration. Knowing me as long as he does and aware of my handicapping prowess, Juan saunters over to the window and places a $2 bet to win on the aforementioned (6).

Juan is not a student of the game. Juan is obviously out of his depth and I, in parental tones, try to make him understand the mistake in money management that this is. I try to show him, in terms he understands; percentages and probabilities; why this is a bed bet. After all, this is the man, who, at my Derby party last year, kept referring to Tale of Ekati as Tracki Etaki, because he couldn't remember the name of the horse he bet on.

"You'll never build your bank roll like this." I say, with Socratic wisdom. "Bets like this are what kill a handicapper. The takeout alone will ensure your failure." As if I were one of these mythical beings. When I talk out of my ass, it is a sight to see, I mean a sight to see.

How's Your Halo, after prompting a wicked early pace, edges away in the final 1/16th; and this man, who has won and lost millions in the market with aplomb is yelling like a fool, the entire length of the stretch. His veins are bulging in his neck and he is a nice shade of vermilion from the effort.

How's your Halo pays $94.20. A nice hit. Juan walks away from the window with $13.20. When he bet $2 on the (6) to win and $2 on the (5) to show, the teller must have heard 6&5 to show. Juan never checked his ticket before walking away. He shrugs, that balance wrangled back in, like Desormeaux on Big Brown in the Belmont.

"Easy come, easy go." he smiles. "You hungry? I'm buying; this was fun..."

But it didn't start out that way.

Race one, 1 mile $40kClaiming, ten runners went to post. Juan liked the (3) Mr. Unstoppable and his daughter liked the (9) Voorhee's Ballad, I indicated I liked him a little too. A good break and we had ourselves a race. Down the backstretch, Brother Joey led them to the half mile pole; Alan Garcia looked to be moving on Voorhee's Ballad, five wide on the turn, when everything went wrong.

Voorhee's Ballad took a bad step and Garcia was thrown. Everybody else kept running, including, improbably, Voorhee's Ballad. Soul wrenchingly distanced, the dark bay or brown son of Mecke, out of a Saint Ballado mare, ran on.

His foreleg shattered, this claiming horse stumbled down the lane; at the top speed his broken body could manage; hugging the rail as he had surely been taught; straighter than many GI horses I have seen. His head, bobbing to the grim cadence of what was surely his death march; this poor son-of-a-bitch, ran on for three quarters of a mile; a self-orchestrated funeral procession for public testimony; beyond the mile pole, before a track attendant could collar him and put a merciful end to this tragic paean.

And I, standing at the finish line; watching the most noble thing I think I have ever seen; cursed and loved this damn game in the same, choked breath. I have seen horses break down before but it was always on the turn, or on the backstretch, mercifully removed from the gruesome truth revealed in proximity. The grisly procession of this gallant beast; chasing after his mates; running because that is all he knows how to do when the pain and fear set in; broke me inside, in a way I never conceived.

I don't know the owners. I may have heard of the trainer but I wouldn't sign an affidavit. Voorhee's Ballad was running for a tag, for only the second time in his career and maybe didn't mean much to anybody. He didn't win any black type but he was in the money in 50% of his starts. His career numbers, after today, read 38-4-9-6 and he banked $164,109. His last win, if you don't count the moral one he had today, came on May 3, 2008 at Calder; the same day Big Brown won the Derby.

A month from now, how many will remember this horse?

Ask me in thirty years and I will tell you of Voorhee's Ballad's last race.

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