By Matt Hess
“And it is still Midnight Aria…”
I got hooked on horse racing the moment I heard those words. They belong to Dan Loiselle, the legendary longtime track announcer at Woodbine Racetrack, and he belted them out just as a 3-year-old colt named Midnight Aria passed the quarter pole on his way to wiring the field in the 2013 Queen’s Plate.
Sports and betting have always been in my blood. I ran fantasy baseball leagues when I was a kid (long before Al Gore invented the Internet), compiling stats by hand with the aid of the Wednesday and Thursday editions of USA Today. Making family bets on the NFL was always a Sunday tradition and the only trouble I ever got myself into during high school was when the dean got wind of the NCAA brackets pool that I ran.
But I never got into horse racing.
Mine wasn’t one of those families that spent summers at the track, even though Chicago is home to one of the most beautiful racetracks in the country (Arlington Park). Don’t get me wrong: we always tuned in for the Kentucky Derby. My grandparents’ anniversary was on Cinco de Mayo, so there was always a family gathering on the first Saturday in May… and the race was always on.
I loved the Kentucky Derby, even back then. It really was the most exciting two minutes in sports for me, and I would always make sure to tune in weeks later to see if the winner could go on to take the Preakness and the Belmont. But horse racing fell off my radar at the conclusion of the Run for the Carnations.
This wasn’t by choice, mind you. Every year, I vowed to study up so that I could make an intelligent Derby pick the following year. I just never knew where to start. Horse racing stories don’t grace the pages of the Chicago Tribune or ESPN.com very often, and between school, work and family demands, I simply lacked the time and energy to learn about how to even go about learning about the sport. So year after year, Derby Day would arrive featuring a slate of horses that I knew absolutely nothing about.
After Palace Malice romped in the 2013 Belmont — and in the midst of a personal crisis from which I yearned for distraction — I decided to get serious and figure out how to become a fan of the Sport of Kings.
It’s not easy to learn about horse racing if you didn’t grow up with it. The sport is complicated and unlike all major team sports on television, the information you need to be able to follow the sport is not widely available. It’s not even free.
I started off reading the book, “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies.” Author Richard Eng did a tremendous job teaching me how to read past performances (“PPs”) and walking me through some basic betting angles throughout that book.
The most important lesson I took away from that book is perhaps the most basic rule in horse racing: always bet on the lone speed.
As I poured through the pages of that bright yellow book, I felt like a world was opening up to me. I had no idea just how complicated a task handicapping a horse race was and I felt intimidated by the amount of information I had to learn. But I was also anxious to get my hands on some PPs and take my newfound knowledge out for a spin. The Queen’s Plate was coming up, so I decided that it would be the first race that I would try to handicap.
I was proud that some of the information on the pages of those PPs started to jump off and make sense to me. It was as if I had learned a new language. It probably took me an hour of studying before I had an epiphany: Midnight Aria was the lone speed.
It felt good to be able to look over the PPs and arrive at an educated pick, but I was also immensely confused. Midnight Aria was 15-1 on the morning line, and he was not being bet down. Surely all of the other, more experienced horseplayers out there were well aware of the importance of lone speed… but Midnight Aria was still being overlooked.
I had to be missing something. I mean, some of the names contained throughout the PPs sounded familiar — Mark Casse, Joel Rosario, John Velazquez. I had never heard of trainer Nick Gonzalez or jockey Jesse Campbell, and thought maybe that was the reason my horse seemed “dead on the board” (a term I had probably only learned the day before). Nonetheless, I decided to follow Eng’s advice, trust my handicapping and put some real money on Midnight Aria.
When the son of Midnight Lute held on to cross the wire a neck ahead of the 8/5 favorite Up With The Birds, my heart filled with a small sense of pride at being able to stumble through the race and land on the winner. But could it really be this easy? Just spot the lone speed and win a bundle of money? I didn’t let myself get cocky, but I did realize why drug dealers always say, “the first one is free.” I felt euphoria when I saw the new balance in my online account — and I was hooked.
Since that race, I’ve read books, articles, watched videos, talked to people I respect, all with the goal of becoming a more advanced handicapper and better fan of the sport. I’ve won my share of bets, but have definitely lost my share as well. I am by no means an expert. In fact, I still consider myself a beginner handicapper. But I’m enjoying the learning process, and in this space as a guest writer I hope to share with you some of the lessons that I learn in my journey to become the best handicapper I can be. If you’re a beginner like me, perhaps you’ll be able to follow along and learn a thing or two. And if you’re more advanced, my hope is that you’ll be reminded of what it’s like in the beginning, and perhaps remember some of the fundamentals that you may have forgotten along the way as you’ve advanced as a horseplayer.
Like the fact that lone speed still remains the best bet in horse racing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Hess, aka “Meathouse,” is an attorney in the Chicagoland area who spends an unhealthy amount of his free time handicapping sports and horse racing in particular. Originally from the South side of Chicago, he is a die-hard White Sox fan whose second-favorite baseball team is whoever is playing the Cubs on a given day.
Matt is a proud alum of the University of Illinois who passionately follows both the Bears and Blackhawks and, in addition to horse racing, specializes in handicapping the NFL and MLB. You can reach him at MeathouseBets@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @MeathouseBets.