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Tue, June 18

Piacenza: Odds are, you’ll love Arizona Downs

Horses start in the 6-furlong second race at opening day of Arizona Downs on Friday, May 24, in Prescott Valley. The racetrack reopened under new ownership after being closed for 10 years. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Horses start in the 6-furlong second race at opening day of Arizona Downs on Friday, May 24, in Prescott Valley. The racetrack reopened under new ownership after being closed for 10 years. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Opening day at Arizona Downs could not have been more beautiful: a sunny, bright blue sky above rolling hills, balmy temperature and rambunctious breezes that obediently lay down before the action started.

The upbeat crowd milling around the snack bars and betting lines was dotted with wide-brimmed ladies’ hats, replete with ribbons, flowers and feathers à la the Kentucky Derby.

Having only been to watch horse racing once before in my life, I was lucky to be attending with my friend Claire and her husband, Gene.

Claire is a lifelong horsewoman, experienced in evaluating the physique and gait of the animals she has ridden, trained and loved since childhood. The last horse she owned was a great, great, (one more great?) grandson of Secretariat who was, according to Wikipedia, “an American Thoroughbred racehorse who, in 1973, became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. His record-breaking victory in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 31 lengths, is widely regarded as one of the greatest races of all time.”

It was unlikely that we’d see that kind of performance here at one of only three horse racing tracks in Arizona. Regardless, the prospect of watching six to eight horses galloping flank to flank at high speed down the track created a strong sense of anticipation.

From seats close to the finish line, we had a clear view of the track-side odds display board. That’s where Gene’s thorough research and understanding of how odds are set came in. He explained how the racing form gave a baseline assessment of the likelihood each horse might win, based on past performance and the jockey who would be in the saddle. But the odds on the board kept changing; that was the result, he explained, of bets being made in real time — the more bets placed on a horse, the lower the return on each dollar bet at that point.

With a half hour between each race, we were able to go from our seats to the paddock area, a grassy circle surrounded by a dirt track and on one side, concrete stalls. The horses for the next race were led out by their grooms and placed in the stalls in the order they would run on the track. That was another factor in the odds – the No. 1 horse on the inside track would have the advantage of a slightly shorter distance, the No. 8 horse on the outside the reverse.

One by one, the grooms led their horses around the paddock track as an announcer evaluated the likelihood of winning for each. As we watched, Claire noted their anatomical features: Too much sway indicated weak shoulders; a large rear meant strong, well-developed muscles; “excellent stretch” was a gait in which the rear foot came down well ahead of the front. Some of the soon-to-be racers were a bit too skittish; some sauntered around the paddock in a well-syncopated trot resembling dressage. Soon each was mounted by its jockey (very small but very fit young men) and ridden out of the paddock.

After putting together all the input from the racing form and direct observation (my contribution was the horse’s name or the color of the jockey’s silks I liked!) Gene identified the likely top finishers. When the trumpet played the classic 10-minute warning tune, Claire and I returned to our seats while Gene went to the betting windows.

All this before the race had even begun! What a treat to sit in the open air with good friends to watch beautiful animals run. Odds are, I’ll be back!

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