Race to Triple Crown Glory

Race to Triple Crown Glory

American Pharoah, who thundered to victory at Belmont, is the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years.

Seven Ways to Fake Being an Expert on the Triple Crown

Use this cheat sheet to learn horse racing's lingo and act like a (semi-)pro on Saturday.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    You're not a horse racing expert, but you can act like one for the Belmont Stakes.

    For all the pomp and circumstance at the track at Pimlico, the real focus Saturday will be on the potential for something historic, as a narrowing field of elite young racehorses aims for the first Triple Crown victory in 37 years.

    Don't know the first thing about horse racing? It doesn't matter. These seven tricks will help you get in on the spectacle as though you do.

    1. Learn the lingo, and use it liberally.

    Triple Crown Preview: American Pharoah Races Towards History

    [NATL] Triple Crown Preview: American Pharoah Races Towards History
    American Pharaoh will be the 14th horse in almost 40 years with a chance to win horse racing's Triple Crown. (Published Friday, Jun 5, 2015)

    You'll actually get to know something about racing later. For now, just pepper your comments with some jargon.

    Before the race, check out race handicappers' predictions, check the tote board for the odds and watch the horses head from the paddock to their posts. Once the race begins, listen to the call, or the horses' running positions — but don't expect to have the foggiest idea what the caller is saying. (Don't worry, the race will only take a few minutes.)

    A horse that's a closer runs his best later in a race, a stayer or router is good at running distances and a front-runner runs best at the head of the field. A horse is pinched back if it's held in close quarters, and if it's boxed in it's shut off or pocketed.

    Horses' distances from each other in the stretch, or the last straight section of track, are measured by a head, e.g., the length of a horse's head. At the finish line, a photo finish is so close the finish-line camera has to figure out who won, and a dead heat is an exact tie. A horse finishes on the board if he's one of the first four to finish.

    2. Know what's at stake, and tell everybody else.

    You probably already know that only 11 horses have ever pulled off the feat of winning all three legs of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. The last to manage it was Affirmed, back in 1978.

    You might also know that since 1978, 12 have won the the first two legs only to flame out at Belmont. That was the case last year, when California Chrome fell short in the 1.5-mile, tough-to-handicap race that's often called the "Test of the Champion," with good reason.

    There's plenty that can go wrong for a would-be Triple Crown winner: A great horse can get pocketed or pinched back, especially in the Derby's and the Preakness' crowded fields.

    Or, in the Belmont, it can be overcome by better-rested rivals that ran in Louisville, then skipped the Preakness. Other horses have had their hopes dashed by jockey error at Belmont, where jockeys' tactics play a bigger role and riders may be tempted to accelerate too early in the comparatively long race.

    3. Handicap the race yourself. (Remember that term?)

    You can't feign some authority on horse racing without concocting a fervently held opinion on which horse will win.

    Which horse has home-track advantage? What's its breeding like — geared for speed, or distance, or something else? What sort of races has it been running lately? Has it had any injuries? Who trains it?

    Bob Baffert, the trainer for Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ American Pharoah, insists his colt can win the Belmont too, and clinch the Triple Crown. But he faces a handful of potential spoilers who could beat him at Belmont.

    4. Bet on it.

    Nothing screams "I know what I'm doing!" like advising your friends on how to spend their money, right? Right — well, as long as your friends aren't big gamblers. In that case, pay close attention.

    Use Colin Bertram's primer to get a handle on what horses' odds mean and what they don't. Remember, a horse's odds reflect not how likely it is to win but how heavily other people are betting or expected to bet on it to win.

    Once you've picked your favorites from the field of contenders and decided what kind of bet you want to make, examine the morning-line odds, which predict what people will probably bet on each horse. (The odds will change once betting actually has begun.)

    The first number tells you how much profit your bet will get you should you win, and the second tells you how much you must bet to get it. If the horse you pick has 3-5 odds at the time of writing, that means you have to bet $5 in order to win $3 profit, so if you bet $10 and your horse wins, you'll get back $16.

    5. Trot down Memory Lane.

    Recall those halcyon days of horse racing — you know, when the only other sports worth their salt were baseball and boxing, and when your parents hadn't even met yet.

    The mechanics of horse racing have changed plenty over the decades. Wealthy dynastic families ruled breeding, not commercial breeders, and as a result, horses were bred for stamina. Today, they're bred for speed.

    But most fundamentally, horse racing doesn't have nearly the fan base it did in its heyday, back before pro football, pro basketball, casinos and, well, the internet horned in on its popularity. At racing's zenith, the track was the automatic mecca for gamblers.

    6. Honor the greats.

    Now you get to the really fun part of exercising your newfound authority: Breathlessly regaling your friends with tales of great races of yore as though you were there.

    Bloviate about Secretariat's astounding 1973 Triple Crown, which he won by an unheard-of margin of 31 lengths. As the victor crossed the finish, the runner-up couldn't even fit on the television screen.

    Wonder what would have happened if Man o' War, ranked the 20th century's best by Blood-Horse magazine and The Associated Press, had ever run for the Triple Crown. It wasn't around yet when Man o' War raced in the early 20th century, though he did sire some Triple Crown horses.

    Reminisce about Kelso, who ran in the early '60s until he was 9 years old. Now all the Belmont contenders are 3-year-olds, and most horses are retired soon after that age to stud duty, which is far more lucrative than racing. (That was impossible for Kelso, who was a gelding, or castrated horse.)

    Wax poetic about legendary filly Ruffian — even Secretariat's trainer said she might be better than his most famous horse — whose career was cut tragically short by a broken leg at Belmont in 1975. (You can still pay your respects at her grave at Belmont.)

    7. Get ambitious.

    If you really want to boost your expert cred, do your homework, and stake out a controversial stance or two. Read up, and weigh in, on hot-button topics like horse breeding habits, nasal strips and the sport's undeniable decline in recent decades, and what could reverse it.

    Steve Coburn, the co-owner of last year's Triple Crown contender California Chrome, has grumbled that the growing numbers of Derby contenders that sit out the Preakness before returning for the Belmont have made Triple Crown wins all but impossible. He wants the rules tweaked so that only colts that run the Preakness can compete at Belmont.

    He said last year that if his horse didn't win the Triple Crown — which it didn't — he doubted he'd ever see another winner. "There are people out there trying to upset the apple cart," he said. "They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck."

    Indeed, the decades-long Triple Crown drought, and the sport's waning popularity, have encouraged talk of tinkering with the format and timing of the three key races, and not just among figures who have, quite literally, a horse in the race. Weigh in on what you think should be done, too.

    But don't limit your expressions of your newfound expertise to such existential hand-wringing.

    Try picking an underdog to root for Saturday. When you place your bet, try a superfecta, naming the top four horses in the order you expect them to place.

    And whatever other stories you tell your friends, make sure to leave room for one still in the making: the first time you bluffed your way through the Triple Crown.

    Just wait until the next big race to tell it. By then, you might actually be an expert.

     

    This story has been updated from an earlier version.