Canterbury Park: Picking ponies behind the scenes

Despite the small mountain of ill-fated betting tickets I've created in Shakopee, the folks at Canterbury recently let me lay my handicap whip to the betting public. Being in the company of people who get paid to pick ponies was both a lesson and a challenge.

"When I open up the form I can get a pretty good idea what the pace is going to be like, how the race will unfold, and then play percentages," explains Canterbury handicapper Kevin Gorg. "I'm trying to find three, four, maybe five winners on a card—and that's not easy to do. People think you can pick all the favorites and at least get five winners, but that's not true. Favorites probably win three or four races a day at the most, and you don't want to take all the favorites."

Gorg has been picking races at Canterbury since 2000. This summer, he's picking winners at a solid .373 percent, giving himself a "B" grade. At Canterbury, Gorg admits that he holds himself to a slightly higher standard.

"The first thing I do when I open up a race at Canterbury is eliminate part of the field," Gorg continues. "Without stepping on anyone's toes: There are barns out here that win and barns that don't. Canterbury is a place that's more the 'have-nots and the haves' than most bigger tracks. At the bigger tracks, even the 9 or 10 percent trainers are still pretty good trainers. And they're all good trainers here, but there are different degrees. At Canterbury, when you open up the racing form and see a 10-horse field, I guarantee you can eliminate half the field."

My system was to allow a modest $100 bankroll and wager a $1 trifecta box ($6 to bet the top three finishers in any order) along with a $3 across-the-board wager ($9 on win/place/show). At $15 per race, this would cover the first seven races.

Gorg doesn't wager much out here, although it's not due to a lack of confidence in his selections.

"Because of how much emotion I have tied into these picks, I really take it seriously," Gorg explained. "Talk to any of my co-workers: If my picks aren't good I'm miserable. I feel like I've let people down."

The small pressure of losing my own cash is one thing, but the weight of helping other people lose money was backbreaking. Suddenly, Gorg's fear of "letting people down" hit my gut. In the second race, I offered my "Spicer Special," rolling with Cajun Tiger to win, despite his 0-for-13 lifetime record. The horse offered a sound morning line value at 6-to-1, coming off a solid second-place finish in the race prior.

When wagering opened, Cajun Tiger was the 6/5 favorite, and I nearly fell off my chair. Gorg noticed it too—his look to me across the press box was all that was required. I glanced back in something of an Apocalypse Now Colonel Kurtz/Captain Willard moment. Did I suddenly have this power? Canterbury's average live handle is about $150,000 per day, meaning there was nearly $20,000 wagered on this race—some unknown portion of it riding on my prognostication. When Cajun Tiger's odds eventually hit 6-to-1 at post, I was reaching for the cigs in my breast pocket.

Paul Allen's call from the adjoining room began and Cajun Tiger leapt out to a fine start, with jockey Adolfo Morales aggressively taking him near the lead at the first pole. With half a mile to go, Cajun Tiger pushed on in third while the race favorite, Cagey, dueled with a 35-to-1 shot, Luvin' George. At the top of the stretch, Cagey found separation while Luvin' George showed continued pluck. Cajun Tiger had drifted to the outside on the race for home while another horse grabbed the rail and a duel for third ensued in the last hundred yards.

Cajun Tiger found show money, and I unclenched my fist. Recalling every word Gorg said about the emotional investment of his picks, I looked out as my picks for race three popped up on the monitors. Like Captain Willard, I stood above those huddled masses, wondering if, upon my descent, my throng of followers would love me or lynch me.

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