366 Days: May 4-5 (RIP MCA/Derby and horse racing lessons)

Saturday, May 5 — The Kentucky Derby is one of those events that most people have on their bucket lists to go to, see that it looks like a lot of fun to walk around Churchill Downs in fancy dress and a big f’n hat.

Yeah, I have the Kentucky Derby on my bucket list as well, but it isn’t as high a priority as other sporting events to cover/attend. Maybe because I know how much of a pain in the ass it is on that day to get through the crowd, to get a good place to watch the races, to even get a decent drink that doesn’t cost a ton of money.

Besides that, it looks like a lot of fun there.

Horse racing has a small part in my sports writing life, mostly coming early on when I was a stringer for the Vallejo Times-Herald in the early 90s. During the summers, I had to write up the daily handicap feature that ran during the Solano County Fair horse races. This involved going down to a small motel near the fairgrounds to meet up with a freelance handicapper — Jack “The Track” Webster.

Jack was a chain-smoking, circuit-hopping handicapper who made his living off the California horse racing days. During the summer, he would travel with the fair racing circuit to make his living. On the side, he offered up his picks and advice in newspapers.

The first time I met Jack, he told me he remembered another reporter who would pick up his picks and that he’d offer me the same offer he gave to him — give him $20 or $50 before the fair racing starts and he’ll bet the money on horses throughout the two-week run; at the end of the run, we split the money. I declined. I thought it was a scam. Who knows how much money I would have won that year, because he made a ton. However, since I was just a freshman in community college, I wasn’t flush with cash that I could part with $20 or $50 like that on something that may not work out.

Every day, I would go to his hotel room, brave the vast cigarette smoke that will bellow out of it when he opens the door and get his picks for the next day’s races. He’ll talk about the horses, the jockeys and the owners as if they are all crooked and mumble about how much money he lost (not gained, actually) because of something he couldn’t control or see in advance.

You see, he made money. Lots of it. Every day. He was pretty damn good at his job, good enough to make a living at it and not have to worry about when his next paycheck will come. He knew his next payday came at post time.

Throughout this run with Jack, I learned a few things about horse racing. For starters, there were too many variables to take into account to accurately handicap how a race will finish. One of the variables — the horse owners. If an owner looks up and sees that his horse is too big of a favorite that he can’t make any money betting on him (and the purse money isn’t enough to cover expenses), he may tell the jockey to “take the horse for a run” and hand the jockey a little money to compensate him.

Another variable — the horse. It is a temperamental animal that, even with all the training it goes through, can do whatever the fuck it wants to do on any given moment. A Derby-bound horse can just suddenly not want to run anymore. A low-grader can suddenly run as if it was equipped on rocket fuel.

A third variable is the track and its setup. A good race track will make middle-of-the-pack horses better, a really good horse great and a great horse look like Secretariat. Nothing really makes a bad horse better, except for buzzers and they are illegal.

The most constant advice I got on better horses from him, which was thrown into into other life lessons he would toss out without prompting or care, was you had to learn how to read the racing form and know the horses. There are huge volumes of books on horse lineage and family trees that you have to take into account. A great horse can sire a pretty good string of winners, while middle horses can get lucky and bad horses should learn how to handle children on their backs in trails and forests.

One more piece of advice that he offered was simple — listen. Listen to the owners. Listen to the track operators. Listen to the jockeys. Take in all the news and tidbits and gossip you can gather, plug them into the variables above and lean on your research to make the right call. He fancied himself a detective just as much as a handicapper, because Jack felt he needed that one piece of information that would make the difference between a torn ticket and a new car payment.

For three summers, I met up with Jack. Every summer, I declined his offer. In hindsight, I wish I’d taken him up on one of those summer deals, but alas… Every summer, I would hang out at the track for a few days to listen and to understand what Jack was trying to tell me. In the end, I learned that the track press room had free beer, the horses do what horses do whatever they felt like it and you are going to lose betting on horses a lot more than you are going to win.

But when you win, you feel like a king. And, you feel like the smartest man at the track.

Thanks Jack. You were a good guy and a pleasure to talk to.

Friday, May 4 — This day is the fabled “May The Fourth (Force) Be With You” Star Wars Day. It was a day when I was going to come on here and talk about Star Wars and poke a little fun at being a nerd and the silliness of this day.

That is until I woke up late on Friday morning and learned the MCA of the Beastie Boys, aka Adam Yauch, died.

And my heart sank. Yauch died of cancer and its complications, He was more than a musician and rapper, but a respected ambassador for New York and humanitarian causes.

The Beastie Boys got me through the final years of high school and were a part of my learning curve into New York rap/hip-hop. “Licensed To Ill” was my first rap album I bought, but it was the third one I owned. The first two — Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” and Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation…” — were pilfered (aka stolen) from other sources. I’m not proud, but I took a few chances and didn’t get burned. (Editor’s Note: Those were cassettes and now he own the CDs/digital versions of those two albums, so karma has been restored.)

I own just about every Beastie Boys tome that has come out, most of them now digital. It is fun music, brilliantly put together and lyrically perfect as a soundtrack to your day/month/life. “Paul’s Boutique” literally played throughout the summer of 1989 and my first year in college. There isn’t a song on that album that doesn’t make me ‘free associate’ what I was doing when that song came on. Also, it is music that I haven’t grown tired of. I have a library full of music that I’ve listened to a lot, but haven’t touched in years. Not so with the Beastie Boys, since I hear something from them every day and it is still good.

I got to see them three times live. Each time was an adventure, musically, and I was never disappointed.

This is one of those times when it is tough to describe what I’m feeling about someone dying, especially someone I never met. In a way, I did know him and the Beastie Boys — through their music. And for that, I’ll miss MCA/Adam. Thanks, Brooklyn brother.

Coldplay did a tribute to Adam during their concert on Friday night. Brilliant… Also, the Seattle Mariners introduced their lineup to the Beastie Boys as a tribute to Adam as well. So cool.

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