LAS VEGAS — I slipped into the semi-circular blue-vinyl booth at the South Point sportsbook, with friends John Murges and Sean Alvarez, to watch the Army-Navy football game.
The Kentucky Derby was nowhere on my radar.
That changed by halftime.
Murges, the 58-year-old Chicago native and professional bettor, is a longtime Sarasota, Florida, resident who was visiting Alvarez that second weekend of December. We had coordinated this meeting for months.
Alvarez, 38, hails from San Diego, a Del Mar track veteran with a wealth of thoroughbred knowledge and connections. He had moved to Vegas in early 2021 to be closer to action and betting options.
I vet equine rumors by Alvarez and Ron Flatter, a former colleague and longtime pal who edits and writes for Horse Racing Nation.
Murges, Alvarez and I yapped about recent wagering conquests, edges in upcoming college basketball games, in-game shenanigans on the Middies and Black Knights jousting on the big screen.
I’d introduce both to passersby Jimmy Vaccaro, the legendary oddsman, and ace NHL handicapper John “The Barber” Taddio.
Then Alvarez lowered his voice.
It happened on Bus No. 27 en route to school. Fourth grade. A buddy had scrawled the 13 entrants — including Shecky Greene, named after the famous Chicago-born comic — of the 1973 Derby on paper strips, plopping them into a cap.
For a dollar, fish out a balled-up strip. Winner take all. I plucked Secretariat. The powerful bay, steered by jockey Ron Turcotte, became the first horse to finish the famed Churchill Downs race of 1¼ miles in less than two minutes.
Twelve bucks profit. Jackpot. The horses entered my radar. At the San Diego State fraternity, a group of us minored in the ponies, turning Cappers Corner at Del Mar into home base.
Ralph once paid a tout for picks, which included “five-diamond Play of the Year” Jamoke, who won Race 3 on Aug. 16, 1987. To his detriment, Steve forgot to box an exacta. Sean W. cashed frequently on John Henry’s marvelous career.
For me, Deshawn L. Parker has earned favored-jockey status for delivering steady dividends over the years. I’ve written about the races, including Cigar’s first defeat, in 17 trips, at Del Mar in 1994 to Dare And Go.
Director Joe Pytka’s 1989 film, “Let It Ride,” might best encapsulate the Sport of Kings when Trotter, played by Richard Dreyfuss, meets the trainer whose tip leads to a victory, and “a really good day,” for Trotter.
“You never know,” the trainer says. Trotter responds, “I agree. Even when you know, you never know!”
THE BIG UNEASY
Along comes Rocket Dawg.
Alvarez rarely dabbles in such lottery-like long-shot future plays, but this was different. He liked Rocket Dawg because TVG broadcaster Caleb Keller liked him.
Rocket Dawg is trained by Brad Cox, who tutored last year’s Belmont Stakes-winning Essential Quality. The Dawg won his maiden race, at Churchill Downs, on Nov. 19. Jockey Florent Geroux eased the colt home in a 5½-length triumph.
In mid-December, Flatter said Rocket Dawg — a son of Classic Empire, the 2-year-old male horse of the year in 2016 — “checks many boxes.”
On Dec. 1, Circa Sports opened Rocket Dawg’s Derby odds at 100-1. It was 70-1 when Alvarez struck, after Army-Navy, so someone else knew, too. I also got 70-1. A Murges acquaintance risked $200 at 35-1. Murges nabbed 25-1.
Rocket Dawg’s odds sunk to 15-1. He was becoming a household name. He left the gate Sunday as the 4-5 favorite in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
He started miserably. “Rank,” a scribe wrote. Rocket Dawg didn’t even finish in the money. Alvarez saw him pine to sprint with the early leaders.
Geroux, who had passed everyone wide at Churchill in November, wanted to “take back,” or hold back, Alvarez says, to forge a similar route.
“He wanted to replicate the debut effort,” Alvarez says of Geroux. “And if he did, he wins that race, in my opinion. Rocket Dawg wanted to run earlier in the race and exhausted his energy, before he could make a run, by fighting Florent.”
Adds Flatter, “He was spent halfway through. It is a worry and an alibi. If Brad cures him of that, there is reason for optimism.”
Rocket Dawg is now 35-1 at Circa, 45-1 at Caesars Sportsbook at William Hill. Alvarez will invest more if it hits 60-1.
A path to Louisville, where the next Derby is scheduled for May 7, 2022, is certainly more complicated for Rocket Dawg.
“I would assume Cox will work on his traffic [issues], and we will see where he points Rocket Dawg next,” Alvarez says. “Everything makes sense with this horse. I liked that I got the [original] bet in before everyone else.
“I would expect most people to wait at least two to three weeks to see how he works out and comes out of that race, as well as to ensure Brad is still going to point him to the Derby.”
There is time, Alvarez assures, for Cox to fix what went wrong in Louisiana.
Alvarez laughs when I inquire if I jinxed Rocket Dawg.
“No. I do not believe in jinxes, unless you are counting money before you have it.”
I don’t. But if Rocket Dawg spirals, I’ll return to my patented pony-pickin’ method.
Plucking a piece of paper out of a hat.