Unlimited ways to pick a winner

Betting: The hard-core crowd sticks to the facts, while the once-a-year fans have fun playing hunches that nicely fit the wild and crazy Preakness scene.

Preakness Stakes

May 16, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Philadelphia horseman Bill Gallagher stood patiently in the $50 betting line, sweat glistening on his forehead, as he moved into the three-walled booth that separated the high-rollers from the Preakness proletariat.

"I feel like I'm going to confession," he said.

He could only hope that Smarty Jones would be good for the soul, because he was getting ready to plunk down $300 on the heavily favored Kentucky Derby winner, who meant more than just short money to the thousands of Pennsylvanians who came to Pimlico for the second jewel of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.

"This is instrumental to Pennsylvania getting slots," Gallagher said. "If we win the second leg, it's going to put pressure on the politicians to make it happen."

This is what passes for irony at the betting window - loading up on a horse from Philadelphia to win a race in Maryland to help gain approval of slot machines in Pennsylvania.

It made sense to Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who won $104 on Smarty Jones in the Derby and let it ride on his state's newest sports hero in the Preakness. He said he would let it all ride again in the Belmont and give any winnings to a racing charity.

"Our racing industry needs slots if we're going to compete with Delaware and Maryland," he said as he arrived at an infield party thrown by the state of Maryland.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. understood completely, but he put his money on the Maryland-bred long shot, Water Cannon, and proved again that all politics is local.

Most of the bettors who lined up at Pimlico's 750 buy-and-cash windows couldn't have cared less about the political implications of a Smarty Jones victory.

Preakness Day brings together the once-a-year casual gamblers with the hard-core high-rollers, all hoping to strike gold in the feature race.

But that was going to be difficult betting on the favorite, because Smarty Jones had become "America's Horse" in the two short weeks since he overtook Lion Heart to win the Derby. Millions of Smarty Jones fans - betting in-house and by simulcast - had pushed the odds down to 2-5 by early afternoon.

Those odds would rise to 3-5 and render just $1.40 profit on a $2 win bet, which encouraged a lot of bettors to package the favorite with other horses to juice the potential payoff.

"We're probably going to wheel some different horses with Smarty Jones," said graphic designer Keith Johnston from Annapolis, who was attending the Preakness for the first time.

Betting the Preakness can be a very simple proposition, or it can be amazingly complex. First-time fans usually bet win, place or show, because that requires the bettor to choose one entry and bet the horse to finish either first, second, third or across the board.

Seasoned horse players also play straight bets - though usually in much higher increments - and look for opportunities to score a larger return with the "exotics," or bets that pay off bigger because the bettor must predict the order of finish of the top two or more horses.

Chris Rindone of Parkton held off on betting Smarty Jones early in the day to wait and see if the weather was going to change by race time. He had to come back this year because he and his wife, Jennifer, won $300 betting win-place-show on last year's Preakness.

Maizie Lund of Towson wasn't greedy. She put Smarty Jones on top of a $2 exacta.

"I think the most I've ever won was $60," she said, "but that's a lot for me."

Ten feet away, big player Jay Moss of Stuttgart, Ark., was counting his bankroll and deciding whether to go large on the favorite.

"When I bet a horse, I usually bet it to win," he said. "I might bet a few exotics, but you can't go crazy on them. It really is a matter of money management."

Moss is no stranger to placing four-figure bets on attractive horses, but he was debating whether to go that heavy on a horse who probably wouldn't even double his money.

"I've bet as much as $2,000 on a horse I really like," he said, "but I'll probably bet about $1,000 on the Preakness. The lower the odds, the less I'll bet. That [2-5 odds] is a bad return on your investment. It's all about risk and reward."

The odds were so low that Moss was considering dispensing with the win bet completely and trying to catch lightning in a bottle with a Superfecta box. The Super requires the bettor to pick the first four horses in order, which is tough to do, but the payoff can be huge.

"There are probably three horses that can run with `Smarty,' " he said before the big race. "I might just take those three horses and `Smarty' and box them."

There is a science to just about any form of horse wagering, but there also is some serendipity. Some bettors pick a horse by its name. Some fall in love with individual jockeys. Some just play numbers.

Sandy Harrington of Laurel likes to bet horses that go off at 8-1. She attended her first Preakness with her husband, who employs a slightly more scientific approach.

"I look at the top three horses and look to see if I recognize the names of any of the jockeys," said Phil Harrington. "If I recognize a jockey, I move that horse up to the top, then I bet it to place."

Smarty Jones didn't make any of them rich yesterday. He paid $3.40 to win and didn't deliver any major exotic payoffs, but he took the next step toward the Triple Crown and gave the gamblers - big and small - a ride to remember.

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