Valley of All the Pretty Horses

Dog Bites, a track neophyte, learns the secret to betting on the ponies: hunches

It's opening day at Golden Gate Fields, and we're faced with our first gamble: Are we going to pay $7 for valet parking and be a big shot? Or are we going to get back on the freeway and drive to the $4 economy lot at the next exit, as instructed by this ridiculous sign at the entrance? We make a U-turn and merge into jammed traffic. We're here to spend our paycheck on the horses.

We park and file through the gates. There is much tottering and shuffling and pausing for rests as AC Transit-loads of regulars cross the hot concrete, afflicted with what appear to be correctable-but-for-lack-of-insurance ailments. It's just after noon on a Wednesday, and the grandstand is quiet. Today's are all claiming races -- you can bet on a horse or buy it whole -- and people don't make a fuss about the underperforming beasts. During the day we hear no shouting, except in disgust, and no one waves his rolled-up program at the horses rounding the clubhouse bend. Few bother to lean expectantly against the outside rail, as we do. The most iconographic moment occurs when a man tosses his tickets while muttering, "Motherfucker," the tissue-thin slips fluttering to the ground in a Depression-era image drowning in portent, which we ignore.

We're here to make money, not pine for a lost era or search for the soul of America, unless we can find it in a $5 trifecta. (We've recently learned and cannot stop saying cool betting terms like "trifecta," "exacta," "quinella," "superfecta" -- who knew?) Being a track neophyte, we purchase the Daily Racing Form, but we're also armed with Web printouts from Today's Racing Digest. Our plan is to put ourself in the hands of horse pickers such as Steve Fierro, Tim Osterman, and Chuck Dybdal.

This proves to be a bad idea.

We start slow with a $5 box exacta, carefully researched and deliberated from a handful of favorites. We lose. We do the same for the second race, and lose. Race three feels like our race, and we bet with abandon and lose. Race four is practically a gimme with two horses all but fated to finish strong, and we lose. By the fifth race we're ready to kill Tim Osterman.

We've crumpled our newspapers into sweaty wads, which we carry around in our fists as we aimlessly search for a hot dog. Horse racing sucks.We're afraid to calculate how much we've lost, but the clump of losing tickets in our shirt pocket makes us list to port. We get a little crazy at the betting kiosk for race five, punching in a total of eight low-dollar bets in nearly every possible permutation of the favorites, except one that hits. It seems like a good idea to do the same for race six.

We leave shellshocked, our wallet empty. How do people do this?

"Bet on any horse with 'valley' in his name," our companion mutters three days later, while we're stuck in a line of cars waiting to be valet parked for the $150,000 Golden Bear Breeders' Cup. At the nearby Berkeley Marina, heavy winds loft disconcertedly large crab-shaped kites skyward (when did those happen?). Our companion is working out a hunch, and after a quick glance around to confirm the absence of valleys we go back to mentally lining up box exactas based on start times, speed over distance, ground condition, win records, etc.

"Any horse called 'valley,'" she instructs.

Solid plan, we think. How could there not be such a horse?

But first we must pay homage to a Bay Area great. We park and rush to the post parade area for race three, where we adjust ourselves for a moment of racing history. In walks the miracle horse Lost in the Fog, who has never lost a race. Owned by 85-year-old Harry Aleo of San Francisco, the 3-year-old colt is five for five, winning by an average of seven lengths and making Aleo a sudden figure in thoroughbred racing. The horse calmly circles the hay, decidedly at ease. The trainer yanks on the harness and pets a flank. The atmosphere takes on a dim, early-20th-century cinematic hue, which we recognize from Seabiscuit.

In walks Russell Baze, Lost in the Fog's jockey, who's won more than 8,800 races in 29 years, making him the second winningest jockey in history, a record better than Bill Shoemaker's. In 1992, Baze won seven races in one day at this very track. He's 46 years old. He led the nation in wins for nine years. No video game bears his name.

Baze wears a grin. His lined face, sharp and angular, exudes confidence as he watches his horse trot with the only competitors in this race, Wind Water and Olympic Miler, both 3-year-olds with a few wins each. The scene pacifies bettors, and Lost remains the solid favorite at 1-20.

Of course, we bet against him. But we also bet for him. We make all kinds of stupid bets -- exactas, trifectas, a smattering to win, place, and show. We need to taste victory, and since there are only three horses, we can't lose. Literally.

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