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It's that OTB time of year

11/19/2002

The morning rain fell from a sky the color of slate, and two words
came to mind: "Stay home." Three weeks after my last visit to a racetrack,
to Arlington Park for the Breeders' Cup, I had every intention of going to
the Big A. I hadn't been to funky old Aqueduct since the middle of April,
and I figured it was time to make another pilgrimage. Then I looked out the
window.

Ed Comerford, a former colleague, once said that whenever you think
about going to Aqueduct at this time of the year, always ask yourself why.
With a Nor'easter heading up the East Coast, that advice seemed wiser than
ever. I would wait for another day to see gulls the size of vultures in the
world's windiest parking lot. I'd pass up the chance to once again hear a
multicultural crowd of horseplayers cheering and cursing, a sound bite
straight from the Old Testament's Tower of Babel. I would skip the 110-mile
round trip from my home on Long Island and get my Saturday fix at my local
OTB.

The need to score never takes a vacation, and OTB has its own
perverse charms. Usually, I'll make my bets and leave immediately to watch
the races on TVG, but on occasion I'll spend a few hours there to soak up
the seedy atmosphere and listen to the absurd comments. Terminal losers
accuse jockeys of being "stinking little bandits playing games out there."
The hooked and the hopeless remind each other of the many intricately woven
conspiracies against them, as in "that damn [fill in jockey's name] never
wins when I bet him and always beats me when I don't."

It's tough to get fired up about the thoroughbred game after the
Breeders' Cup. The top horses are retired or disappear for the winter, and
you're left with thousands of uninspiring brown animals running in circles.
There are so many meaningless races to ignore before spring and the Derby
preps revive the spirit. Calder's slogan should be "Where Nothing Important
Ever Happens." Turfway Park's winter meet is deadly, and Aqueduct's inner
track does nothing for me.

I'm a turf specialist, and in late autumn and winter only the grass
races keep me interested. Simulcasts from Fair Grounds, Hollywood Park and
Santa Anita keep me going when the Northeast's weather is bleakest, and in
November I enjoy playing the turfers at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct.

On this day, despite the rain, the Big A kept the 1 1/2-mile, Grade
II Long Island Handicap for fillies and mares on a soft course. I cashed
when German shipper Uriah got up in the final strides at odds of 8-1. How
she rallied from last behind ridiculously slow fractions (6 furlongs in 1:20
and change, a mile in a crawling 1:48 plus), I'll never know.

The other race that intrigued me was Churchill's Mrs. Revere
Stakes, another wide-open Grade II for fillies and mares on the grass. These
end-of-season turf stakes often go to longshots, and I thought I'd found
another Uriah in the Canadian shipper First Quarter. I wasn't excited about
any of the horses that were getting significant action, and this 3-year-old
was being ignored at 15-1 despite three straight wins on turf and a 3-for-4
grass record. She hadn't beaten much up north but she's by Sky Classic, one
of my favorite turf sires, and I thought she had some improvement left in
her. Incorrect, son. First Quarter never got into the race and finished
nowhere.

I was right that a longshot would win; I just didn't smoke out the
right one. In deep stretch, a 32-1 shot came flying to edge Glia, the Bobby
Frankel-trained favorite. The winner did have a few things going for her.
She was 2-for-2 on turf (her last two races) and trained by Philadelphia
Park-based Guadalupe Preciado, a wily guy who rarely ships to Kentucky.
Although she seemed outclassed, in her previous race she ran her final
furlong in a sharp 12 seconds. I considered her briefly, then tossed her
out. Her name? Caught In The Rain, a hunch bet so obvious that no one in the
place had played it.

All the way home, the windshield wipers wouldn't let me forget. At
least it wasn't a long ride. I wish I could say the same about the coming
winter.