Updated: December 13, 2010, 7:55 PM ETBy Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com
Last week, somebody I know left thoroughbred racing for casino action when a horse that couldn't win, won.He collected his things in an orderly fashion, neatly stacking losing tickets in case the IRS requested the pleasure of his facts and figures; and he showed me what had happened. Horses that can't win, win so often that you'd think there would be something more appropriate to call them. Like horses that have little chance. But horses that have little chance pay $50 to win and can upon occasion be found and played. Horses that can't win pay $90 and could never be played by anybody who knows what he or she is doing. Relatives of owners and lucky numbers players put a few dollars on horses that can't win. There is a quiet horror that accompanies a victory by a horse that couldn't win in a hundred years. The man who had had it up to there with thoroughbreds, up to the ceiling and beyond, showed me what had transpired before and during the race that had flushed him to the slot machines and poker tables. He had made an impressive and reasonable mix of sound and daring wagers that took into consideration a speed bias, shippers from higher-dollar tracks, and numerous rider changes. As I read through his notes and wagers, he stood smiling like somebody who had been on the lam a long time before finally stepping from some briars into the righteous light. He seemed at ease, as though he had just hit a big one. He had spent hundreds of dollars on this race, hooking horses to and fro, trying to pick those three, boxing these four. His form looked like something the offensive coordinator of the Eagles might have in front of him as Michael Vick looked up at third and seven, color-coded meticulous notations easy to spot at arm's length. Should there be a late scratch, refer to the purple highlights -- that sort of deeply thought out handicapping. And wouldn't you know it, the worst horse in the field, and possibly the worst horse on the grounds, one that had been beaten a dozen lengths by another in this race, one that hadn't won in ages, one that hadn't been bet in eons, one that was being ridden by somebody you wouldn't let park your used truck, one that hadn't come remotely close in all the past performance space the Form allotted, one that couldn't win, won. I had lost $60-something on the race and had felt lucky doing so. The track announcer picked up the twist of nature as it began to take shape on the turn for home. As jockeys without clocks in their heads raced hell-bent for a pittance -- these guys seemed to have hourglasses full of wet sand in their heads -- the track announcer picked up on somebody slow lumbering along the rail and making up ground as the other drifted predictably wide. It was the horse that couldn't win and the jockey who couldn't ride and the trainer who couldn't believe it. The sickeningly inevitable in horse racing is pure torture. Watching a horse that can't win plod to the front, inch by inch by fraction of an inch, seems to happen in super-duper-slow-motion, like one of Tiger's golf balls exploding from the sand and heading toward a party hostess in a tank top. You never win by an inch one of those repulsively repugnant stretch runs featuring a horse than can't win that is slowly passing everybody. This horse that couldn't win won and paid $75. Watching a horse that can't win, win, makes you feel uneasy about your choice of places to be and things to do. It makes you wonder if something off-color had just happened. Watching in stunned silence as a horse that can't win wins makes you feel simultaneously dumb, stupid and angry. It makes some wish for the obvious lousiness of slot machines. Hidden nastiness is the worst. There is probably nothing that drives good people from a bad bet quicker than when a horse that can't win wins. But we're more about numbers than baseball, horse players are, numbers that point toward possibilities. So I have had some long looks at races won by horses that had absolutely no chance in the world to finish first. And guess what. There's a pattern to the unrest. Most races won by horses that couldn't win were chock full of unpredictable junk. Write to Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org.