Triple Crown races are a lot like the Super Bowl, bringing out casual bettors who want to have a little piece of the action, just to make the big event more interesting.
And, unlike the football pool, everybody could go home a winner after a horse race – although they might not win much.
Steve Hetey calls it his “rite of spring,” coming to the OTB parlor for only three or four horse races each year, and Friday was one of those days.
“I bet on California Chrome the first two races, so I’m going with him again,” Hetey said, “and 2 is my lucky number, so there’s that, too.”
He’s referring to Chrome’s No. 2 post position for the Belmont Stakes and the fact that the copper-colored horse with the flashing white feet has already won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. If Chrome wins this evening, he will become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win all three jewels of racing’s Triple Crown.
Tim Mingarelli also is sticking with the winner, having cashed in twice on Chrome.
“I won on him in the Derby, when he paid the best, and I won on the Preakness, where you just won a little. (The odds were 2-5 for that race). I figure California Chrome is going to do it,” Mingarelli said. “I like him, he’s a storybook horse – how his owners got him, how his mother was sickly when he was born. I just feel that story.”
Like many others who will be lining up today to place their bets, Mingarelli also only comes out for the Triple Crown races.
“I’ll probably drop in Saturday to bet a trifecta (the horses that come in first, second and third), and then I’ll watch it with my girl and my father,” he said. “We do that every race. It’s good.”
Not everyone stopping by the OTB parlor on McKinley Parkway in South Buffalo on Friday was hoping for Triple Crown history. One woman dropped in to place three quick Belmont bets: Commissioner (20-1 on Friday) to win, Wicked Strong (6-1) to place and Matterhorn (30-1) to show – all more likely to return actual money than the favorite, if they are in the front of the pack.
“I don’t know anything about horse races, it’s just a family tradition,” the woman said. Because she was stopping in during work hours, she didn’t want to give her name.
Bill Franklin, on the other hand, does know something about horses, although he mostly is a fan of harness racing. He and his buddies come to the OTB more than three times a year to compare notes and talk about racing and everything else. Even when considering everything that can happen in a horse race, the guys still like California Chrome’s chances.
“I don’t think that Chrome can lose,” Franklin said matter-of-factly. “He’s won easy. He’s got a good post position. He’s got a good rider. I think he’s going to win.”
“And I like Cinderella stories,” he added.
Franklin is right that the circumstances this year seem to favor California Chrome’s chances, but the longer odds of history are less certain. He will be the 13th horse since Affirmed to even have a shot at the Triple Crown after winning the first two races, and of the other 12, few came even close to winning it.
In 2012, the contender I’ll Have Another was scratched the day before the Belmont with a sore tendon and never raced again.
In 2008, Big Brown was a huge favorite, but he ran into trouble early on, and his rider pulled him up. Brown became the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish last in the Belmont. Da’Tara was the winner, at 38-1. Smarty Jones in 2004 came closer to Triple Crown glory, losing by a length to 36-1 Bird Stone.
Even Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, pushed his luck, beating Alydar by a head in 1978.
That’s why fellows like Mike McGavis and Andy Sciandra are taking a close look at the rest of the 11-horse field. But on Friday, they still liked Chrome.
“It’s a test of endurance,” McGavis said of the 1.5-mile race. “None of these horses have run this far. You’ve got to go on breeding (and) the riders. But all the reports I’ve read say this horse can go a mile and a half and not even break a sweat.
“They said he looks better now than he did before the Derby. I really hope he wins,” he added. “It would be good for the sport.”
He and Sciandra both said California Chrome should watch out for Tonalist, the horse in the outside position, who didn’t run in the Derby or the Preakness, and they might hedge their bets there.
Sciandra also is interested in the No. 4 horse, Commanding Curve.
“The way that horse closed in the Derby, I like him,” Sciandra said. Even so, he can’t dismiss the favorite. “Chrome – that horse never looks like he’s tired.”
Most people placing bets today won’t have as much insight, but they will have company. Larry Murphy, who works at the McKinley Parkway OTB parlor, said, “On Derby Day, right to post time the lines were to the back wall.”
His co-worker Nicolette Hayden agreed: “We didn’t take any breaks, not for lunch, nothing,” she said.
But at 6:35 this evening, that’s it.
“When the race goes off, the whole place goes quiet. We don’t take any bets either, for any other races. We want to see it, too,” Murphy said with a laugh.