Cheap Thrills, and not a Mint Julep in Sight

Cheap Thrills, and not a Mint Julep in Sight

While it’s not Churchill Downs (and it’s more PBR than mint juleps) on Derby Day the ponies still run at the Birmingham Race Course.


May 19, 2005 

“Churchill Downs,” I replied to the shabbily dressed gentleman at the automated betting machine next to mine at the Birmingham Race Course when he asked at which track the Kentucky Derby was being run. Attendance was up at the dog track May 7 for the simulcast of the 131st Kentucky Derby. Nevertheless, the greyhound aficionados are easy to spot; they look as though they divide their time between hanging out at the dog track and the Greyhound Bus Station.

When the track was built two decades ago, the targeted demographic for the $80 million racing venue, originally dubbed The Birmingham Turf Club, was not the lower class. White tablecloth dining, valet parking, and luxury suites were designed to lure the country club set to the Turf Club. There was a genuine sense of excitement, tinged with a touch of snobbery, that Birmingham finally had something Atlanta didn’t. There were bold predictions that Georgians would flock weekly to Birmingham for the golden opportunity to bet on horses. Instead, the rich quickly grew bored, smaller betting pools diminished the quality of the horses, and eventually the dogs moved in. Weeds now thrive where the horses once ran at the Birmingham Race Course. A four-tier grandstand remains largely abandoned. Atlanta residents find few reasons, if any, to visit Birmingham. Instead, Alabamians frequently trek to Georgia for the thrill of purchasing lottery tickets—when they’re not heading to Mississippi casinos.

I’m not much of a gambler. I’ve never had a bookie. (I have had friends place bets with their bookies on the few football games I’ve made wagers.) I’ve played poker maybe a dozen times in my 50 years. And I’ve only been to one cockfight (it was an investigative reporting assignment), where the rooster I bet on blinded his opponent before breaking his wing, only to have the dying bird get a second wind and kill my bird after a 45-minute struggle. I lost $100.

Although the action on the field is the same (above), the view of the track from a vantage point at Churchill Downs on Derby Day (below) is vastly different from the view at the Birmingham Race Course. (click for larger version)


For the past five years, a friend and I have upheld the tradition of driving to the Birmingham Race Course to bet on the Kentucky Derby. We have to wait until he takes his girlfriend to work at 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoons, so it’s often close to 4:30 by the time we are on our way to the track. Kentucky Derby post-time is 5:04, which means that betting closes at 5:03. So, from the moment we climb into my automobile, the whole enterprise of getting to the track in time to bet becomes a thrilling gamble: the disturbingly low gas tank has to wait until after the race to be filled, my car darts in and out of traffic at perilous speeds, and the long lines at wagering windows move slower as the start of the Derby approaches, prompting cursing from those forced to wait on the slow betters. My buddy and I formulate our betting strategies on the drive to the track as he reads the picks from that morning’s New York Times to me. Two years ago, he bet $5 on a number 18 longshot. The betting teller inadvertently inverted the numbers, giving my buddy a ticket with $18 on the number 5 horse, which won. My pal picked up a cool $350.




It’s often said that the Kentucky Derby is the greatest two minutes in sports. Even the greyhound aficionados go nuts, their mouths agape as they cheer their chosen horses to the front of the 20-horse pack. Two-thirds of the patrons chain smoke. Budweiser replaces Mint Juleps as the cocktail of choice. Through the haze of smoke, I glance from the television screen to the four betting receipts I clutch in my hand. My picks included an exacta pairing of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s Bellamy Road (the race favorite) and a 50 to 1 longshot named Going Wild. (I liked the name, he was a longshot, and he was trained by renowned Derby legend D. Wayne Lukas.)

My other exacta bet was also a five dollar wager, this time on a horse named Greater Good and another called Greeley’s Galaxy. I chose them because I liked the alliteration of the exacta combination. [An exacta bet means that the horses must finish first and second in the order that you picked them.] Another $10 was placed on Going Wild to win, because at 50 to 1, I’d grab $500. Finally, I bet my last two dollars on Giacomo, simply because he was the horse picked by the New York Times as the least likely to win. Another $5 was stashed in the car for the gasoline to get back home. (I refuse to go to an ATM at a dog track.) At 50 to 1 odds, Giacomo’s victory was the second greatest upset in the Derby’s 131-year history. As I cashed in my winning $102 ticket, the teller asked what made me pick a longshot like Giacomo. I smiled and said, “God bless the New York Times. They were wrong again.” &

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