With the recent passing of rock legend Prince the year 1999 will always have special meaning to me and other fans of Prince. The Derby that year left little lasting impression but an event in the Belmont would leave a indelible mark.
Bob Baffert had won the 1997 and the 1998 runnings of the Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm and Real Quiet – both of whom went on to capture the Preakness and both of whom near missed winning the Triple Crown in the Belmont.
Baffert had some sort of secret recipe to prepare horses for the Derby as he built on his second place finish with his Cavonnier in 1996. In 1999 Baffert brought three horses to the Derby – Excellent Meeting, Prime Timber and General Challenge with the former being a filly.
Excellent Meeting and General Challenge were tepidly favored at 9/2 and Prime Timber was third choice at 6-1. The filly had beaten nearly every one she had faced and deserved a shot in the Derby. General Challenge had won the Santa Anita Derby after flopping in the Louisiana Derby and Prime Timber had finished second to stable mate General Challenge in the Santa Anita Derby so Baffert was loaded in his attempt to win his third Derby in a row. Many were saying he had the winner’s circle surrounded.
But, it was another client’s horse trained by a rival trainer who would win the Derby. Bob and Beverly Lewis had horses with both Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas. One such horse that Baffert didn’t get to train but was sent to Lukas was entered in a maiden claiming race in November and won the race. When the horse didn’t live up to greater expectations, Lukas again entered him in a claiming race – a race where someone could have bought him – in February.
After he won that race, Lukas ran him unsuccessfully in a few more stakes before winning the Lexington Stakes just two weeks before the Derby. A horse that had obviously gotten better since offered for sale for 62,000 – Lukas took a shot and entered him in the Derby where Charismatic won at a bomber price of 30-1 by a neck over Menifee with Baffert’s charges running no better than 4th.
The public was so unimpressed by Charismatic that in the Preakness he was still an 8-1 proposition while Menifee was favored. Charismatic proved his superiority again by winning the Preakness and creating an unlikely third consecutive try for the Triple Crown in the Belmont and a second try in three years for the Lewis’ who also owned Silver Charm.
Alas, the result would be nearly the same as Charismatic finished a valiant second to Lemon Drop Kid and in the process suffered a broken leg. The image of Chris Antley getting off Charismatic on the track and working to calm him down to save his life was something that will forever be in my picture memory bank. Antley’s actions helped save Charismatic’s life that day.
There are many moments in horse racing that I can never forget and the Charismatic moment is one of those. Another one occurred later in the year with a horse that I had scoped out from some research on workouts. The outcome of the race forever changed the way I would think about horse race handicapping.
I had long ago done some research on workouts as maidens and first time starters fascinated me. I would use the workouts in the Racing Form and try to match up good breezing works and works from the gate against horses that I knew had some quality and were working on the same day. It was extremely primitive but it worked. I was able to find a few horses a week during the Fair Grounds meet that could be bet based on workouts. I concentrated on first time starters but would later – much later – also learn to apply this to better horses. I was like a mad scientist sometimes having spread out all of my old Racing Forms on the big dining room table that we never used – who uses a dining room table by the way, I want to meet those people. I would go in the dining room – again because we never ate dinner there – and study old issues, old workouts and old results charts to match up what type of workouts seemed to produce winners. I had some success.
When the Fair Grounds closed I looked at other tracks one of them being Churchill Downs because horses from Fair Grounds would travel there to run the spring/summer. When a horse showed up on my workout watch list twice I knew from experience that this was a powerful indicator of ability. One such horse was Roll on Chocolate. I waited all summer for him to show up in the entries and he finally showed up at Turfway Park one night. It was a Wednesday night and I had to go bet this horse, which created some home front complications. We had a young baby and were in the process of building a house so money was tight and it was hard to get out of the house on a weeknight to go to the OTB. That was really my only option at the time as I didn’t’ have an online option as of yet, so more than likely I made up a story to get out of the house to meet my brother and friend at the OTB which was across the river in another parish.
Wednesday night at the OTB was not a lively time or a pretty picture. The only people in there were degens who were there everyday betting on any race and we knew them all. There was Lucky Chucky, The Biscuit, Gus the Truck Driver, Fella, Doc who did autopsies all day, and other transient characters. And me. I fit right in.
The three of us met there and proceeded to wait for the race at Turfway. Roll on Chocolate was a five-year-old first time starter running in a maiden special weight. Not the most positive ROI profile.
We bet the exactas; bet the supers; bet the tri and bet to win because Roll on Chocolate was 30-1. Mike Battaglia made the call and I can still hear him make the first call of Roll on Chocolate saying something to the effect of “and Roll on Chocolate is way back”. The race was a mile and for most of the race ROC was 30 lengths in the rear. With a quarter of a mile to go ROC were still last and 16 lengths behind. With a quarter of a mile to go! That’s when he got our attention – but not Battaglia’s. He started well…rolling. Battaglia wouldn’t pick him up until the shadow of the wire and by that time we were screaming at the top of our lungs in that little OTB in Port Allen on a Wednesday night. Battaglia called him “And Roll on Chocolate on the outside”. He got up by a neck and we went wild. I mean wild as in jumping on each other and falling on a table out of control wild. We didn’t know how much we had won but we knew it was going to be a lot. It took us a few minutes to figure out who had run 2nd and 3rd and 4th. We had the exacta and tri but didn’t have the super. When they put the payoffs up we went wild again because the super paid an ALL in the 4th spot. We had crushed the race. All based on a little workout information. Chocolate paid 54.80; the exacta paid nearly 500; the tri paid 1800 for a dollar and the super paid 2000 for a buck. All that research poring over the old dusty moth filled forms had paid off.
When we went to cash our tickets they could not pay us. We had won more cash than they had in the OTB. It was a Wednesday night after all and there were only about 20 people in there but we had won all the cash they had. They had to give us a voucher for the balance but I took a lot of cash money out of there that night.
I went back home and fessed up to my wife that I didn’t actually go to a meeting but went to the OTB. She was mad – until I showed her all the cash which I gave her on the spot for the Viking Stove and refrigerator we had wanted to buy for the new house but couldn’t find the money in the building budget. I kept a little for myself too but most of it went to the new house and whenever I cooked on that stove or went to the fridge I would always think about that horse Roll on Chocolate with fond memories. It was the only race he would ever win but it was a memory I will never forget.
Derby Record 20-3-7-1 = 74.80/34.80 profit for a $ 2 dollar win bet