Shackleford, gritty and resolute, battles from gate to wire to win the 2011 Preakness at a big price
Yesterday I was aptly reminded in a timely conversation that we don’t exist. We just think we do. We have a really good idea of who we are and how we fit into the world. We know our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes, and our relative place in the world. And because of that, we feel comfortable making similar assessments about others, and operating based on those assessments. This makes for a well-defined but confined system – the degrees of freedom are limited by the pecking order we impose largely on ourselves. We are who we are.
Well guess what? That’s a lot of horse hockey. We aren’t who we are. That’s because we aren’t anybody. And we don’t need to be anybody. No situation, no requirement, no goal, no aspiration, no obligation, no dream, no belief, no hope or prayer – none of them require that we actually be anybody. We just need to open up and listen, to be present rather than asserting ourselves, to make things happen by letting them happen. To be a portal for what is possible rather than inserting our self image in the escape valve and clogging things up. And that’s not to say we “can be anything we want to be if we just try”… that’s nonsense. But we can be part of anything if we stop caring so much about who does it, where it comes from, and who gets to keep it.
In his now cult-famous commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace reminds the graduates that an unfathomable brand of freedom is available to them if they just let go of this terrible grinding sense of who we are:
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self….
….Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship [conventional pursuits of wealth, power, beauty, etc] is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
The infinite thing we had and lost is the world itself, huge and unfathomable, right in front of our eyes. It is waiting for us patiently, in the endless Now, if we can just clear away the fog of self and once again see.
It’s important to keep in mind that the decision to let go of the self is not the same thing as assuming someone else’s identity, the potential short-run benefits notwithstanding. (Well, maybe just for a few months it would be OK…)
Although I did not bet on him to win in the Preakness, I can honestly say that on Saturday, May 21, for one minute and fifty-six seconds, Shackleford treated me to a sobering lesson on what is possible when a horse refuses to be who the sheets say he is. All of the smart money concluded quickly that, in the wake of Shackleford’s fade in the lane in the Derby, he could not possibly withstand the inevitable speed duel waiting for him at Pimlico. But he did.
It was as if Shackleford knew what was coming. Going into the starting gate, he was completely “washed out” – sweating, antsy, skittish. I was convinced he’d come in last. And then the gates opened. He bobbled, quickly recovered, and surged ahead to the shoulder of Flashpoint, the pumped-up sprinter in the race. The hot early fractions clicked off – 22 and 3, 46 and 4, 1:12 flat – and finally he put away Flashpoint and took the lead with a half-mile to go. Astrology, enjoying a dream trip on the rail, made his bid. Shackleford surged in response, shook off Astrology, and drove clear into the stretch as Animal Kingdom began to rally powerfully on the outside. The outcome seemed set.
But Shackleford wasn’t finished. He switched leads and found one more gear – from where I have no idea – and it was enough to hold off the hard-charging Derby winner by a half-length. I was aghast. It wasn’t possible. I looked back at the sheets. He ran the final eighth at Gulfstream in a crawling 14 seconds. He had an easy lead in the Derby – slowest pace in decades – and he couldn’t hold it. How did he survive that barrage of assaults and get to the wire first? I watched the replay over and over. Shackleford wasn’t just hanging on in the stretch. He was digging down and driving home with resolve. Look at the stretch run – look how low and long he is in that final, glorious eighth of a mile, digging deep for everything left inside, grabbing for ground every desperate stride. Where did it come from?
Not everyone likes these Triple Crown write-ups, but many people do, and usually it’s because they’re splattered with contorted angles and non-Euclidean perspectives – the drawing of strange connections between disparate concepts. It’s how my mind works, as it turns out. But when it’s truly working – when the writing is effortless – I’m not really there. I can go back and read the thing and enjoy it in more or less the same way as anyone else does. When it’s good, it’s as much of a surprise to me as it is to anyone else. I don’t know where the stuff comes from. When it’s good, it’s almost like I’m a bystander to the process.
I’m sure others have had this experience with something they love and they do well – the self dissolves, the portal opens, everything relevant to the task is somehow available, and something happens. And the trick is just that – to realize that we are all portals, and that if we can just get out of our own way, we can make something happen. Something we’ll all appreciate. Something no one, in a real sense, actually owns. Since we didn’t make ourselves, and we most certainly can’t “make ourselves up”, maybe we can just drop all that and focus on something else.
Like winning thousands of dollars on the Belmont Stakes! There’s nothing that shuts down the mind and focuses one on the visceral pleasure of ordinary experience like seeing Ben Franklin’s wry smiles pile up in the counting process. When that big pile of Ben is pushed through the window into your grubby little hands, you’ll think to yourself, “Just for a moment, I let go of that constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
People are rarely surprised when they hear that I had very few friends as a child.
This year’s Belmont, despite no Triple Crown in play, is stacking up as a thriller. We have the rubber match between Animal Kingdom (9) and Shackleford (12). We have the return of valiant Nehro (6), runner-up from the Derby who is fresh and ready to do battle. Intriguing closers Master of Hounds (1) and Brilliant Speed (5) also return after reasonable performances in the Derby, as does the grinder Santiva (4). And Mucho Macho Man (10), who looked tired in the Preakness, has not had enough. He will enter the fray one more time, and could surprise as well.
But although the race looks like it will be exciting, it also looks very easy to handicap, which is a danger and an opportunity. There is terrible temptation to assume the horses are who they are, and just pound the low-priced options to make a reasonable profit. Sometimes this works. But what is more often the case is that the outcome is sprinkled with surprising efforts – even if it’s just in the 3rd or 4th place slots. There is value to be found if you drop preconceptions and think about what a horse could do rather than what he’s done. (If I could have maintained that mindset for the Preakness, perhaps I could have seen the Shackleford that the sheets didn’t show.)
So here’s how it stacks up. When you’re handicapping a 12-horse race, your first step must be to narrow down the choices. Not even Bobby Fischer could think 12 moves ahead. To that end, I’m kicking out the following four colts, with apologies to their connections for my failure of imagination:
- Stay Thirsty (2) – He won the Gotham at Aqueduct in early March, but hasn’t been a factor since. He will almost certainly remain parched after Saturday.
- Monzon (7) – There’s nothing like being in the owner’s box for a Triple Crown race. That’s all I’ll say.
- Prime Cut (8) – It’s hard not to like a horse whose mother was Life Happened, but there’s just a little too much gristle on this one to put in an order.
- Isn’t He Perfect (11) – Back for more after a totally predictable 9th in the Preakness. Hopefully his owners can sit next to Monzon’s and they can get drinks for each other.
A good handicapper always considers potential track conditions. If this forecast doesn’t change, I will punch somebody.
Now we’re down to a more manageable group of 8 horses that I’ll break down into three categories (I think I’ve done this before, but as I may have mentioned, I’m trying to cultivate a healthy disdain for The Past):
- Can Win – Only one outsider earns this designation, and that’s Master of Hounds (1). He ran a decent Derby in traffic, when we knew little about him. We still know little about him. He’s got Irish owners and a British mother. It’d be a great story on several levels. It probably won’t happen, though. The two most likely are Animal Kingdom (9) and Nehro (6), followed by Shackleford (12), who could get another easy lead – there is literally no other confirmed front-runner in the race. Let’s do the value homework now…
Name Chance to Win (my opinion) Likely Betting Odds
Animal Kingdom 35% 8 to 5
Shackleford 15% 7 to 2
Nehro 25% 9 to 2
Master of Hounds 10% 8 to 1
As you can see, there is little value at the top. People know who the Derby and Preakness winners are. Nehro will still take a lot of action, but should actually be a modest overlay at post time. Master of Hounds could be an overlay, but isn’t if he’s only 8 to 1. The problem is that the Irish love both horse racing and the Irish. And they (and most of the rest of us) will be at least six beers deep by the time we all go to the betting window for the 12th race at Belmont on Saturday. Let’s just say that the mortgage might not get paid, but there’ll be a LOT of smiling bonnie blue eyes if Master of Hounds likes that sandy Belmont track.
My goal with the intriguing Irish shipper will be to “get live” with him on a Pick 3 or Pick 4 ticket into the Belmont Stakes so I don’t have to agonize about whether to fight my way through all those cups and accents to get my Celtophilic wager down at a stingy price.
- Can invade the exacta (top finish 2nd) – I’d be shocked if none of the top three above made the exacta, but it’s certainly possible that one of them won’t — that Shackleford can’t get the mile and a half on the front end, or that Animal Kingdom needs a break, or that Nehro can’t muster another 2nd (it would be his fourth 2ndin a row). Master of Hounds and these two would then be conceivable candidates to fatten up that payoff:
- Santiva (4) – He reminds me a lot of Astrology from the Preakness. Will likely show up, will be there in the stretch run, but won’t have the necessary punch to beat anyone late. More likely 3rd or 4th.
- Brilliant Speed (5) – Out of prolific turf sire Dynaformer, the distance should be no problem for him. There is still the question whether he likes dirt enough to be a factor. His adequate Kentucky Derby performance makes him worthy of consideration. The price will be right.
- Can make the trifecta/superfecta (top finish 3rd) – This is most likely place you can add value on what could be a chalky Belmont result. If you’ve got the Big Boys in the top slots, consider the first horse below as a value generator. I’d save the second for the bottom of tickets where you’re swinging for the fence up top:
- Ruler on Ice (3) – Somebody has to surprise us Saturday, and why not this guy? He’s never run really fast, but his recent workouts are eye-catching, and his trainer Kelly Breen must be Irish.
- Mucho Macho Man (10) – Always gives 110%, ran a great Derby and an OK Preakness. My guess is that his stupid name is exhausting him. They should give him a rest and rename him Don Draper.
As depicted above, the forecast for Saturday is currently cool and moist – cool is a blessing, and moist can be OK in moderation. A building full of wet drunks is another matter altogether. (I just don’t want another 2003 when just about everything sucked – the weather, the crowd, Funny Cide’s race, and all my bets.)
If the track is impacted by the rain, we’ll have to look for mudders, but I don’t see anyone on the sheets that has shown a special love for the slop. If we get a sealed track, that can be very speed favoring, of course – it’ll be a game-time decision as to whether a horse will need the lead to win. If we see that during the day, we may have to reconnect with our old buddy Shackleford. (I’m sure he’s heard that I dumped him in the Preakness, and that he would love to bankrupt me by spitting the bit after an easy lead in the muck.)
So here we are folks, gearing ourselves up for the Power of Now at 6:35pm this Saturday. Let’s get swept up in the moment! Here is the field for the 143rd running of The Belmont Stakes:
|Belmont Stakes (gr. I)|
|1.||Master of Hounds||Garrett Gomez||Aidan O’Brien||10-1|
|2.||Stay Thirsty||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher||20-1|
|3.||Ruler On Ice||Jose Valdivia Jr.||Kelly Breen||20-1|
|4.||Santiva||Shaun Bridgmohan||Eddie Kenneally||15-1|
|5.||Brilliant Speed||Joel Rosario||Tom Albertrani||15-1|
|6.||Nehro||Corey Nakatani||Steve Asmussen||4-1|
|7.||Monzon||Jose Lezcano||Ignacio Correas IV||30-1|
|8.||Prime Cut||Edgar Prado||Neil Howard||15-1|
|9.||Animal Kingdom||John Velazquez||H. Graham Motion||2-1|
|10.||Mucho Macho Man||Ramon Dominguez||Kathy Ritvo||10-1|
|11.||Isn’t He Perfect||Rajiv Maragh||Doodnauth Shivmangal||30-1|
|12.||Shackleford||Jesus Castanon||Dale Romans||9-2|
Wager-wise, here’s the thing…. Wouldn’t you rather, just once, figure it out for yourself? Don’t you want to put it all together, just to say you did it, one time? No? Fine. $50 down the drain again. Don’t blame me. I don’t even exist!
|Don Draper track
$10 to win on the 6 ($10)
$2 exacta with 6,9 over 1,4,5,6,9,12 ($20)
$1 trifecta with 6,9 over 1,6,9 over 1,4,5,6,9,12 ($16)
10-cent superfecta with 6,9 over 1,6,9 over 1,6,9,12 over 1,3,4,5,6,9,10,12 ($4)
|David Foster Wallace track
$10 to win on the 1 or 6 based on post-time odds ($10)
$2 exacta with 1,6 over 1,4,5,6,9,12 ($20)
$1 trifecta with 1,6 over 1,6,9 over 1,4,5,6,9,12 ($16)
10-cent superfecta with 6,9 over 1,6,9 over 1,6,9,12 over 1,3,4,5,6,9,10,12 ($4)
I implore those of you selecting the David Foster Wallace track not to take a literalist approach should the wagers fail.
I had intended to keep it curt for the Belmont, as I did last year. I’m usually running low on ammo by the third race, and G-d knows you’re probably weary of the hyperbole. But as it turns out, for a brief moment, I once again abdicated the throne of my tiny skull-sized kingdom, and something happened. Thanks for coming along.
And please, if you’re in Elmont, NY this Saturday, stop by and see us (Section 3S). We’re generally a jolly band of revelers, and we’ll have plenty of opinions about the full card of races, and everything else.
Your guide to the Portal of the Possible,
 The full speech is memorable stuff: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122178211966454607.html. David Foster Wallace took his own life in the fall of 2008, after a lifelong struggle with depression. If only he could have found a better way to get away from himself. He believed that good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside”.
 Go ahead. Take a break, lean over to the person next to you, and explain to them that in Chinese, the symbol for “crisis” in a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”. Feel better now?