Small-time racing can have big-time stories

The 2004 Big Race season has begun with the Kentucky Derby in mind. This appears to be the best way to win a Big Race:

Updated: March 26, 2004, 1:02 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

The 2004 Big Race season has begun with the Kentucky Derby in mind.

This appears to be the best way to win a Big Race: You give a big trainer big bucks and tell him to buy you some big horses.

It's not exactly being there at three in the morning when the colt is born all legs and looking like a preying mantis. Giving a big trainer two big thumbs up when it comes to spending a few mil is not like sitting up all night with a colt and his cough.

Requesting a Derby horse as though it were a new car is not like raising one.

Sometimes in the winner's circle of a Big Race, it's like the first time the owner's spouse has been that close to the speedy rascal. And some big-horse owners themselves seem to look up at their own animals like they had just arrived at a dude ranch and this was what they were supposed to ride.

Big-time owners don't have to cowboy up and ride bareback.

Their only required skill is signing.

Big races on national television are the only races some people see -- fit horses and red-carpet clothing and trainers with PGA tour-type wives.

This would make for some interesting viewing: a small race.

National television coverage of a little claiming race could begin in the paddock where one owner might be standing with his children in his arms.

There were "Slashes" in horse racing long before men began performing two jobs in pro football.

Many owners of inexpensive claiming horses also train their animals; it's a matter of economics.

There are numerous human interest stories connected to the average $10,000 claiming race.

Most involve trying to breaking even.

If I were conducting a national television interview with a friend of mine who owns horses, the first thing I would ask before one of his animals was saddled in an inexpensive claiming race was how many wins it takes a year to balance the books.

He would probably say about five.

The second question would be: How many lower-priced claimers win five races a year?

The answer would probably be: Around one percent.

At a low-dollar claiming race I watched the other day, a jockey appeared to limp toward his mount in the paddock.

Riding hurt would make a fascinating pre-race feature.

Here's another real racing story you're not apt to see on national television between now and the first Saturday in May.

I watched a cheap claiming race at the rail not long ago. It's one of the most scenic spots in all sport. No matter the margin of victory, half the people at the rail by the finish line can't identify the first three finishers. Everybody asks, "Who won?" and then wanders off.

The winner this time came back rowdy with bulging eyes and plenty of lather.

He almost tossed the jockey.

The trainer was a big guy and had to walk the winning horse in a dozen or so circles before moving him toward the circle of victory for the picture.

The photographer gave the horse a wide berth.

It took a minute to get the animal aligned in profile.

"You want to come in and fill up the picture," the trainer said.

I looked around. He was talking to me. The horse, bless his heart, had no connections beyond the trainer on hand. He paid more than $30 for the win. Those who knew the horse must have been at an Indian casino plugging the slots.

So somewhere in the family album or horse racing, there's a color snapshot of a confused guy standing next to a fat trainer and a bug-eyed horse. People viewing this photograph will think: Look at his face. He didn't even bet on that horse.

Bet on him? I didn't even know him.

You won't see this kind of story on the Big Race circuit.

Maybe you should.