NPR logo The Agony of Defeat

The Agony of Defeat

Big Brown finishes the Belmont, last. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The first lesson every horse player learns, is that there are a thousand ways to lose a race. Nevertheless, on Saturday a very special breed of bettor handcuffed Halliburton cases to their wrists, and headed out to Belmont Park to bet on a sure thing. The laws that established parimutuel betting require that the New York Racing Association return no less than a nickel on every dollar bet — a two dollar wager, for example, can pay no less than $2.10, even if NYRA takes a loss on the transaction. So every time a Superhorse appears, these very big bettors bring, say, a hundred grand to the betting window, and place it all on the Superhorse, not to win, but to show... and finish no worse than third, in the expectation that their investment will return five percent in two and a half minutes - a nice, clean five thousand dollar profit.

See Lesson One, Above.
You will remember that Big Brown was the prohibitive favorite to win this year's Belmont Stakes and complete the first Triple Crown in thirty years. The horse dominated a lackluster field in the Kentucky Derby, and showed an explosive, extra gear to romp home in the Preakness. His trainer said that victory in New York was a forgone conclusion. His major rival was scratched early Saturday morning, and 94,000 gathered to witness history. Big Brown was blocked at the gate, but Belmont's main track is so long and so wide that jockey Kent Desormeaux was able to maneuver him outside the leaders by the first turn, in position to stalk the pace all the way down the back stretch and into the clubhouse turn. But then, when he asked for that burst, there was no response. At this writing, nobody knows why, beyond, "The big fella just didn't have it today." In a move widely praised, Desormeaux decided not to press the issue, and eased Big Brown into a jog. He finished last.

Widely praised, except by the men with the now empty Halliburtons, a class of bettor named for this exact circumstance. They're known as "Bridge Jumpers."