Horse people are a hopeful sort. We hope our foals are healthy. We hope our horses win. We hope our jockeys and horses come back safe from races. We hope we cash our tickets. About this time last year, we hoped our track would open. It didn't. Three days of racing during the fair in 2005 wasn't enough to satisfy even the most casual of fans, but those three days did suggest the promise of better things to come from Capitol Racing, Les Bois Park's new management team.
Cinco de Mayo marks the grand re-opening of Les Bois Park. Post time is 5:15 p.m. for a Friday evening full of fun and festivities and maybe a mariachi band or two. The feature race is the Premier Handicap for quarter horses at 350 yards. Oh, but the excitement doesn't end there.
Saturday is Kentucky Derby Day, the one day each year when everybody knows there's a race going on. If you're like me, you know all of the contenders and have your favorites already picked out. And you reserve the right to change your mind. It's almost perfect. Almost perfect.
Gary Stevens, Hall of Fame jockey and every Treasurevalleyite's favorite local-boy-made-good racing story, retired from riding on the final day of Churchill Downs' 2005 meet. He won his very first race at Les Bois Park in 1979 and then went on to ride more than 5,000 winners at race tracks all over the world. He had a significant impact on racing at Longacres in Seattle, on the Southern California circuit and in the Kentucky Derby.
Yet even after he went on to bigger things than Idaho racing, he had a significant impact on Les Bois Park.
Beginning with the 1985 Kentucky Derby, Stevens rode 18 Derby starters. We were able to wager on 16 of them at Les Bois Park. From 1988 to 1998, Les Bois Park bettors raked in the cash when Stevens' mounts won three times (Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997). Even his sixth-place finish aboard Editor's Note in 1996 paid like a win when stablemate Grindstone won the race. He also piloted two place horses and one show over the span.
For those 10 rides, if you wagered $2 to win on each of Stevens' mounts, you spent $20 and collected $83.60. Win/place bettors spent $40 and collected $152.20, and across-the-board bettors spent $60 and collected $198.40. When Thunder Gulch paid $51 for a $2 win ticket, Churchill Downs had to send almost $200,000 to Les Bois Park to cover all of the winning tickets we purchased. Stevens' success was one heckuva reason to come out to the track on Derby Day.
Gary Stevens is out of the jocks' room, but not out of racing. He's all over TV as a racing analyst. He'll be at the Kentucky Derby in 2006 for NBC and we'll get to see if he can pick 'em as well as he rode 'em. He has a Web site (www.garystevens.com) and a Web store (www.garystevens.com/shop.shtml), where you can buy everything from Gary photos to Gary's tack--saddles, whips and boots he used in races.
But who, you might ask, should we bet on now? This 2006 Kentucky Derby is a toughiethe horses who won most of the major prep races did so in smashing order. Brother Derek (Santa Anita Derby), Bob and John (Wood Memorial) and Lawyer Ron (Arkansas Derby) all crushed their respective fields. Sweetnorthernsaint annihilated the Illinois Derby contestants. And Sinister Minister destroyed in the Bluegrass. All are capable. And then there's Barbaro, who won his prep race, the Florida Derby, by less than a length, but you can't count him outin five races lifetime, he's undefeated!
Six proven horses, each with an excellent chance of winning. I can't separate them. I'm just going to have to get myself a new favorite derby jockey.
Jockey assignments for the derby aren't final yet, but here are some worthwhile "probables" in the derby jockey-search:
Victor Espinoza on Sinister Minister. Espinoza has nice numbers in only three derby tries, a win profit of $37, a win/place profit of $43.80, and win/place/show profit of $51.40. Not only that, but Sinister Minister had the fastest race of any derby entrant when he won Keeneland's Bluegrass on April 15.
Cornelio Velasquez on Showing Up. Velasquez hasn't won yet in two attempts, but Velasquez's second-place finish on Closing Argument in 2005 produced a win/place profit of $62 and a win/place/show profit of $82.80. Showing Up is unbeaten in three starts and could be long odds on Derby Day.
Mike Smith on Flashy Bull. Smith has Gary-like numbers for his 12 Derby mounts, a win profit of $78.60, win/place profit of $140.40, and a win/place/show profit of $166 after winning last year aboard huge long shot Giacomo. He's found another huge long shot to ride this year.
Capitol Racing is gunning for success in the opening weekend and for the season. Race days are Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Post time most days is 5:15 p.m., with post time on special race days, like this Saturday's Kentucky Derby Day, at 2 p.m. The new Web site (www.lesboisracing.com) has all the details.
With some projects complete and some still in the works, improvements abound. Turf Club and clubhouse restroom renovations, new handicapped parking, and a new ramp to the grandstands bring facilities into ADA compliance. And there will be remodeled box-seating in the grandstands, better self-directed wagering machines, more machines, concessions and choices, and a newly landscaped infield.
Capitol is working hard to improve the quality of racing, too. The racing surface, overhauled in 2005 and "sealed" over the winter months, has met the challenge of the wet spring. Capitol's new "Claiming Series" races promise to energize the claiming aspect of the game as well as provide full fields for the fans.
Racing fans in the Treasure Valley get to enjoy it first, but the rest of the country will soon be watching ... literally! Perhaps the biggest improvement that Capitol brings to Idaho racing is invisible to the on-track fan. Capitol plans to send Les Bois Park races to simulcast outlets around the world so that racing fans in Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Florida and elsewhere can put their money into our wagering pools and thus, into the state of Idaho. Hey, we've been a simulcast outlet for those other tracks, wagering into their pools, for years. Isn't it about time they returned the favor?
I can hardly wait until Friday. I need a new outfit. Maybe I'll drop by the Web store and buy some of Gary's pants. Do you think he has any in my size?
Robert Cooke, Jr., is an associate member of the National Turf Writers Association.