Preakness superstitions: lucky haircuts, dog's birthday, school buses

Superstitions are always a major part of state's biggest race

May 13, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

Funny Cide's owners swear they were never especially superstitious. At least not until the former high school buddies opted to save on transportation money by renting a school bus to take them from their hotel to Churchill Downs in May 2003.

After their long shot gelding won the Kentucky Derby that day, they rented exactly the same sort of iconic yellow buses to transport them to the Preakness (which they won) and the Belmont (they lost). "We were going to ride those school buses as long as they would take us," co-owner Jack Knowlton said this week.

Funny Cide's investors are hardly the only owners, trainers, jockeys or bettors to try to ride superstition to horse racing glory. The stories of the Preakness — which has its 135th running Saturday — and of Pimlico Race Course are full of quirky attempts to manipulate fortune.

There is the trainer who habitually avoids the color red. There is the longtime Pimlico barber — himself an admittedly poor handicapper — whose customers return to get "lucky" haircuts. There is the bettor who plays horses' numbers coinciding with the birthday of his American Eskimo dog who died 14 years ago.

Experts say horse racing is a magnet for superstition because, like life, it is so uncertain. Like most other races, the Preakness is full of favorites who didn't win. There was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Barbaro in 2006 and Street Sense in 2007. After handily winning the Kentucky Derby, Barbaro shattered a leg in the Preakness, ending his career. The Derby is even more unpredictable than the Preakness because of its larger fields.

Unable to glimpse into the future, bettors latch on to routines and superstitions to create at least the illusion of control.

"It provides certainty," said Richard Lustberg, a sports psychologist in New York. "We have certain ideas of ways we do things in life — routines like brushing your teeth — that make us feel better. It only becomes detrimental if it becomes compulsive and it interferes with your ability to live your life."

With his phone not working in 2004, Pennsylvania-based trainer John Servis dispatched a former racing writer to call in the entry for Smarty Jones to run in the Southwest Stakes, an Arkansas race. After the horse won, Servis asked the writer to call in the entries for each succeeding race. Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing in the Belmont.

Superstitions can be quite personal — so much so that two-time Preakness-winning jockey Jerry Bailey said his fellow riders rarely volunteered them.

"You keep your idiosyncrasies to yourself," the now-retired jockey said. "They are personal. You can't confuse jockeys with teammates."

Bettors regularly select horses based on birthdays or anniversaries. They might observe horses in the paddock, selecting one "that is sweating or not sweating. Some like a horse that is calm, others like a horse on its toes," said Michael Hopkins, the Maryland Racing Commission's executive director.

Pimlico bettor Paul Randall expects that one of his Preakness plays Saturday will be on the horses numbered 11, 2 and 8. His snow-white American Eskimo dog, who died on Preakness day 1996, was born Nov. 28. The beloved dog's name was Skipper.

"Whenever I see an 11-horse field and the '2' and the '8' aren't scratched, I'll play it," said Randall, 56, who is on the Preakness media relations staff.

Maryland-based trainer Howard Wolfendale and his family avoid all things red. "Him, my mom and me don't have red clothing, we don't park next to red cars. No red comes into the barn," said his daughter, Maggie, an assistant trainer and exercise rider. She said her father does not like the connotations (such as red lights and blood) of the color.

Few people know more about superstitions than Ted Ambrose, the Pimlico barber for the past 30 years. He's encountered almost as many superstitions as heads of hair.

Ambrose, 81, operates out of a tiny shop near a concession stand. A red, white and blue barber's pole is mounted near the door.

On a recent quiet afternoon, a bettor — he would identify himself only as "Steve" — dropped down in one of the shop's two swivel chairs. "This is my lucky haircut," the customer said.

That's a typical sentiment, said Ambrose, who seems mystified why he is regarded by customers as a lucky charm.

"I get a steady clientele from Pennsylvania," Ambrose said. "A bunch of them were [Preakness] winners one year, and now they come back every year because they think I bring them luck."

What they might not know is that Ambrose was once notoriously unsuccessful at picking winners. Years ago, Pimlico posted his tips — "Ted the Barber," he is called — on a Pimlico video board.

"I was lousy," he said. "I had 99,000 people that hated me. When you write this story, put this at the end: 'Don't ask me for a tip.'"

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