The bottom floor of the Carousel Restaurant was closed to the $2 bettors who go there to eat, drink and be merry. In their place, the first Saratoga Handicapping Challenge was held for serious horseplayers with $1000 to spend on an entry fee. Six women and 99 men constituted the registered field of 100 participants allowed by the rules of the contest.
Horseplayers from as far away as Las Vegas sat around the circular open-air setting at tables in front of television sets. For the most part, they remained motionless and quiet as each race unfolded. No one leapt to his feet during a stretch run or verbally lambasted a jockey. NYRA put on a spread.
“They don’t tip like they’re big spenders,” said Patty Perrin, an English teacher from Schenectady, NY who works summers as a waitress. The players didn’t look like big spenders either, unless you consider the tie-dyed tee-shirt and matching ball cap worn backwards by player Paul Stath haute couture.
Phil Rosen, the leader in points at the halfway mark, wasn’t typical of the players, or very different. He was a letter carrier from Brooklyn before he retired to Clifton Park, NY, a suburb of Albany. Rosen shot to the lead when he bet $40 on the nose of Prytania, a horse in the second race of Del Mar that was ridden by Joel Rosario, a jockey he loves. Then he followed that with another Del Mar hit.
The rules require you to play a minimum of five Saratoga races and you’re given two other tracks to choose from. Each player must make nine bets for $20 and one for $40. At day’s end, Rosen’s mythical bankroll stood at $533 - slightly ahead of his two nearest pursuers. He thinks he can win the whole she-bang if he adds $400 to his current total on Thursday.
“I don’t use a computer, nothing like that, just the Racing Form,” Rosen said. “I like the Tomlinsons and betting repeaters,” he revealed, at an evening reception which made it apparent that NYRA was glad to have the horseplayers there.
Picking winners at Saratoga was easy. Not one of the nine winners went off at more than 7.30-1. Six winners were either favored or the second choice. The first race produced the most popular winner in Flying Sappho, saddled by Rudy R. Rodriguez. Flying Sappho was also the winner that most caused the horseplayers to scratch heads. The winning trainer, a former jockey, is winning at a 34 percent clip. When he was riding the horses he trains, he couldn’t win with more than three percent of his mounts.
Tom Durkin sang “Minnie the Moocher” to pay homage to the featured New York Stallion Cab Calloway Stakes, not to lend credence to Perrin’s opinion. Robby Albarado broke his collarbone. NYS Racing and Wagering Board Chairman John Sabini reported in with the info that Joe Coffey is the name of the Son of Sam sleuth.
Vic Zast has attended at least one day of racing at Saratoga in each of the last 47 years. He is the author of the award winning book, “The History and Art of 25 Travers.”