The race started like any other, simultaneous with the bell ringing, the gates sprung open and a tidal wave of horse flesh erupted, each carrying a jockey in different colored silks. It seemed a race like any other, but it wasn’t. The huge roar expelled from the crowd as the announcer yelled “THEY’RE OFF!” told one that! This was the Cornhusker handicap, the culmination of the racing season and the biggest purse that Ak-sar-ben had ever offered. Within the first strides, some horses gained and others lost ground. Horses are unique in their ability to achieve near peak velocity within three strides.
Saturday was like any other hot steaming Nebraska summer day. I welcomed the opportunity to sleep in as I was just beginning my final year of medical school. Upon awakening, I could still smell the faint lingering aroma from the exploded fireworks celebrating the Fourth just 36 hours prior. Looking out my bedroom window, I could see the heat rising off the asphalt driveway: it was going to be a hot one! The week of festivities had started with a visit from the King of Rock and Roll. Had I known the King was going to exit his throne in just over 3 years, I probably would have tried to see him, although being on call would have likely prevented it. Elvis would return to Omaha one final time just before his untimely demise but, by then, I was off to Madison, Wisconsin largely consumed by a surgery residency.
That day, however, I was “free” and my mind was filled by only two thoughts: my date with “Candy” and by how many lengths Tom Tulle would win the Cornhusker Handicap that afternoon. Although, I guess Candy was short for Candice, I never really inquired or cared. After all, I didn’t want to crowd any of my limited brain capacity with trivia like that, when I had all I could do to learn the Krebs cycle and the other intricacies of biochemistry. All I can remember is that she was everything you would expect of a girl named Candy: blond, beautiful and bountiful. When I picked her up on our way to the track, she wore frayed white jean shorts and a robin egg blue halter top which matched perfectly the color of her iris. I’m not sure who it was that invented “halter tops” but I am sure that it had to have been a man, just saying! Even on this warm day, I could see she was excited and happy to see me! I had hoped that her presence didn’t provide too much of a distraction from whatever nominal handicap skills I possessed. Otherwise, it may have proven to be yet another costly day at the track.
The race was a mile and an eighth, called a “two turn race” in race lingo. The first time the horses came past the crowd approaching the first turn, the race was as expected with the lead horse, or pacer, an Ak-sar-ben “regular” named Blazing Gypsey and the field trailing close behind. Nothing surprising there, as there was still over a mile to run. Those with dyslexia or a penchant for Scrabble probably recognized that Ak-sar-ben is the state spelled back-words. I guess what some may call a semi-palindrome?
The race was pretty much billed as a “match race,” but not between two horses, rather between the “East coast invader,” Tom Tulle, and the rest of the field, but few gave the field much chance. The purse, in excess of $100,000, was comparable to a million-dollar purse today. It is often said that the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports and this was the Nebraska equivalent!
Tom Tulle had a pedigree traceable to War Admiral, whom you may remember as the Seabiscuit rival. If that pedigree isn’t enough to convince you, his grandfather was none other than Man o’ War, generally recognized as the second greatest racehorse of the 20th century behind the incomparable Secretariat. Few know that Man o’ War lost JUST one race to a horse by the name of Upset! Only fitting, right? Secretariat however was not just a horse, he was a freak of nature: his heart grew to more than twice the size of a normal heart, so his cardiac output was unsurpassed. And unlike the Grinch, it didn’t even require the spirit of Christmas!
Tom Tulle was considered among the crème de la crème, a horse who was so good, so accomplished, he was felt to be as close to a “sure thing” as there is in horse racing. Among thoroughbreds, there is a spectrum of classes and categories. This horse raced with the elite. In horse racing, everything depends on who you run against. When you run against the best and defeat them consistently, you are recognized as one of the best. Tom Tulle ranked among this highest echelon, and he was nothing short of a great horse. His mission that day, and why he was shipped to Omaha, was to have a good work out and pick up a big fat check to pad his already enormous earnings.
The rest of the horses comprised the “field.” No one gave them much if any shot. There was one that I “liked” primarily because he had run a couple months before and I had won some money by virtue of his win, which I thought had come rather easily. But what did I know about handicapping? I was a struggling medical student with two items competing for my attention and, right then, the horses were losing. One rule of horse racing is that horses compete against their best level of competition, and this horse was not running in the league of Tom Tulle. You could run a $5K claimer (cheap horse) against a group of maiden horses (those who have never won), “also-rans” (horses that finish out of the money) and he may look like Secretariat. He was known to have early speed, but like many “pace horses” often failed to complete the job, hence his name Blazing Gypsey seemed entirely appropriate. The other two running styles for horses are “stalkers” and “closers,” the names applicable ONLY if they win. Tom Tulle was a stalker, waiting for a weakness in the pacer to reel him in for the kill!
As they entered the first of two turns, Blazing Gypsey was maintaining the lead, and the remainder of the field seemed fully content to allow him to set the pace. There was still a lot of race to run. No checks are given to the horses who ‘set the pace.’
Before anyone bets in horse racing, two considerations are important, other than the horse, of course! One is the odds and the other is the appearance of the horse before the race. Many of you were thinking jockey, and jockeys are important, but it is believed they have only about a 15% influence on the overall outcome. The feeling is a bad ride can make a good horse lose, but a good to great ride can’t make a bad horse win. Looking at the odds provides you an estimate of what you will win provided your pick comes through.
That day, Tom Tulle was alternating between 1:5 and 2:5 which pays $2.40 and $2.80 on a $2 bet. It was said that all of the “Smart Money” was being wagered on Tom Tulle. Another rule is never bet AGAINST the “smart money.” Since then, I have met people who place thousands of dollars on these bets, just to make a 20-40% return in two minutes. This never made much sense to me as the downside risk is considerable if the horse does not win, and they can experience a sizable loss. But it also makes you a “winner,” something not solely important to just Charlie Sheen. Everyone loves a WINNER and everyone likes to cash a ticket!
The odds on Blazing Gypsey varied between 50-80, which would pay in excess of $100 on a $2 bet in the exceedingly unlikely event all the other horses would stumble or fall and he would finish first. Yes, unfortunately, 50+/1 “shots” NEVER win; well, virtually never win. This too is a commonly regarded “rule of horse racing!” He was the longest priced horse in the field having the highest odds, which is another way of saying he had the lowest chance of winning in the opinion of the betting public. Some would estimate his likelihood of winning somewhere hovering between zero and none. Betting on those long shots is a fool’s game. NEVER bet the horse with the longest odds. Generally, when you DO bet on them, you always have a very valid reason, such as yellow is your favorite color and the jockey is wearing yellow silks or he’s in the 6th post position and you have six kids. These are all very reasonable causes to make a donation to the local track, just don’t expect anything from the track other than a “good luck” when you buy the ticket. However, this day there did not appear to be enough urologists or Catholics in the crowd to boost Gypsey’s odds, as he wore #6 on yellow silks!
The next thing to consider in terms of who merits your money is the physical appearance of the horse before the race. You want a horse that looks confident, has his ears perked and is up on his heels. You generally want a horse that is not too lathered; some horses possess a protein that causes them to form a soapy film when they sweat. If they look like they just finished the race, they are probably the horse who will tire before finishing first. Lastly, although I hesitate to resurrect the debate about whether “size matters,” but in horse racing, it seems to make some difference. Although there have been great small race horses, Seabiscuit and Spectacular Bid to name two, most of the superb horses tend to be bigger than their counterparts. To me, it’s similar to the edge a taller tennis player has in serving to clear the net because of a slightly greater angle his height provides. Also, larger horses have longer strides, so all else being equal, cover the distance quicker. Another rule then, when choosing between 2 horses of perceived equal ability, always pick the larger of the two (unless there is an overwhelming difference in ability).
When the horses came out on the track prior to the race, Tom Tulle appeared to be the picture of confidence and grace. He chest was huge and his legs chiseled, especially his hind legs, which are often regarded as their “motor,” and he held his ears high. His gate was very deliberate and there was no lathering. Blazing Gypsey looked, in comparison, to be a rangy teenager, whose body had yet to catch up with his legs. He was lean to the point of appearing skinny. Blazing Gypsey seemed nervous; his hind hoofs seemed to bounce off the dirt as he almost appeared overly anxious to run or the dirt was just too hot on his hoofs. Either way he didn’t inspire confidence. By all physical appearances, everything seemed to indicate that the money wagered on Tulle was money in the bank.
At this point, the field had started down the backstretch and Blazing Gypsey not only held a lead but seemed to be widening it with each stride, however slightly more than half the race still needed to be run and anything could happen. Progressing down the backstretch, Blazing Gypsey continued to widen the lead. As the horses started the second and last turn, he had opened a 12 and 1⁄2 length lead, and clearly it appeared that the jockey had him unchecked and he was running out of control.
Only a horse like Secretariat could do this and continue to widen it as he did in the Belmont several years before. Few considered BG to be like Secretariat and as soon as the horses started the final turn, that seemingly insurmountable lead began to erode. The pack of horses behind were being led by Tom Tulle to the surprise of no one. The margin seemed to narrow with every stride. Clearly, the fast margins had begun to take their toll on the Gypsey and it appeared only a matter of time before one if not all of the horses would pass him. Another unwritten rule of horse racing is that once a horse starts to falter and gives up a lead, they are “DONE.” Put a fork in them. They often finish last as they have expended all their energy too soon. Just near the top of the stretch, Tom Tulle pulled away from the pack to challenge Gypsey. As they started down the stretch, the crowd exploded with excitement as they knew the inevitable was about to occur. Tulle had moved ahead by the length of his neck at the top of the stretch and both horses were now clear of the field by several lengths. What occurred next NEVER happens in racing lore, Blazing Gypsey was not YET ready to relinquish his lead. The little guy was continuing to battle Goliath. Around mid- stretch, Blazing Gypsey had caught Tulle and the two were literally matching stride for stride the final 120 yards to the finish. The crowd was screaming, believing doing so would somehow help catapult their Tom Tulle to victory so as to allow them to cash their $2.40 win ticket. The dozen or so supporters of Blazing Gypsey were speechless. As I said, no one expects or intends to have a 60:1 shot win; it is merely a donation to the track. As the finish line rapidly approached, both horses crossed at virtual lock step. Those holding tickets on Tom Tulle saw him as the winner, those with Blazing Gypsey were just holding their breath. The official tote board proclaimed: “Photo finish, hold all tickets”!
Although it probably took close to 10 minutes, it seemed like an eternity. Finally the results were posted as well as the photo finish seen below. Time was frozen in history at 5:55! The caption was changed to “RACE IS OFFICIAL: 6-2-5”! What it showed would shock the racing world! The skinny horse on the inside of the track had prevailed. His nose extending about an inch beyond the silhouette of Tom Tulle to the outside of him, the margin of victory being less than an inch after running a mile and an eighth. The time difference a mere 0.0104 second. David had slain Goliath.
At the same time the results were posted, I pulled out my tightly clenched right fist and slowly opened it to reveal two slightly crumpled tickets, one a $2 WIN on #6 Blazing Gypsey and the other a $5 PLACE ticket on #2 Tom Tulle. With a bouncing stride in my step and a big smile, Candy and I began the walk to cash the tickets. This was “The Day I Learned The Rules Of Horse Racing…..DON’T ALWAYS APPLY”! No, I don’t have a dog named “Gypsey.” Sometimes you just have to go with your HUNCH!!! Life is about taking some risks to create memories. Had I bet Tom Tulle, I likely would remember it about as well as I remember the Krebs cycle.
EPILOGUE:. As for the horses, both left everything on the track that day. Tulle had met his match in Gypsey (at least that day) and this proved to be his final race. Tom Tulle went on to a stud farm and sired at least one graded winner. In his 20-race career, he managed to win ten of his starts and had 5 seconds and one third, VERY respectable numbers for a horse competing at the top level. Likewise, Blazing Gypsey never did again enter the winners circle. He ran a total of 13 races over the ensuing 7 years and never finished better than 5th, winning a total of $554 the remainder of his career. However that day, he was the KING OF THE HORSE RACING WORLD!!! He took home a check for $57,565, which comprised over 62.5% of this career earnings. Out of respect, I placed his name in Wikipedia as the winner of the Cornhusker Handicap. It was the least I could do for the David who slayed Goliath and won me $117.00 and (more importantly) provided a memory which lasted a lifetime. As for Candy, we both feasted on a lobster dinner with the new-found winnings.
And ohhh, lest I forget, one rule that remained intact that day was the rule that everyone loves a winner, and Candy proved to be NO exception!
9th running $100,000, Added ***THE CORNHUSKER HANDICAP***
HIGH COUNTRY STABLE, OWNER
CHUCK KARLIN, TR 1 1/8 MILE
2nd TOM TULLE
SALOSTIO BURGOS, UP 1:49.3 JULY 6, 1974
3rd SUPER SAIL
$105,547 PURSE- VALUE TO WIN-$57,465 117.00 30.20 17.60